Grant Morrison’s Luda isn’t a beach-read one might enjoy in isolation. Instead, it’s best experienced as an object for discussion. Author Gabino Iglesias, for example, feels Morrison’s handling of identity and gender merit analysis:
Morrison shows just how fluid gender is while obliterating the idea of identity as an established, monolithic thing. Luci and Luda are men, women, men that play women, and women that play men. These leads to a master class in the use of pronouns that delivers lines like this: “She’s a boy playing a girl playing a boy” and “He’d done her research.” Gender, identity, fluidity, and constant transformation — for performance purposes and for life in general — collide in Luda in beautiful ways, and Morrison presents all of it with heart and unwavering clarity.
Elizabeth Sandifer, on the other hand, doesn’t glance so favorably upon Morrison’s thematic efforts, albeit not outrightly negatively:
Perhaps more to the point, it’s difficult, given some of the recent events in trans media criticism, to say that recklessly problematic trans representation from an author who has literally been an anti-nuclear activist since they were a small child is not exactly what we deserve right now. In a career that has never been unduly marked by moderation, Luda is for better and for worse the most Grant Morrison book ever to Grant Morrison. The number of autobiographical readings available are tremendous. In one entirely credible interpretation the book is that it sees Mark Millar getting the weirdest pasting in the entire history of literary feuds. In another, it’s Morrison’s climactic retaliation against their old literary and magical rival Alan Moore. In a third, it’s their definitive statement on what they meant when they declared that they were nonbinary and preferred they/them pronouns. It is all of these things, far more, and, in the final analysis, far less—a work of staggering technical ambition that resolves into a shaggy dog tale.
Morrison’s built their notoriety by inspiring multiple reactions both among and within readers. When it comes to their JLA: Earth 2 I’m an immense fan. Doom Patrol under Morrison’s hand kept me interested in comics, much as did Moore’s Swamp Thing and Gaiman’s Sandman. But what about recent efforts on Green Lantern? I didn’t respond warmly, I’m afraid. Although brilliantly daring, Morrison often flirts dangerously with self-indulgence, becoming too self-referential, perhaps alienating readers who might need to hear what he’s selling. I struggled with Luda, bouncing back and forth from love to hate, for this very reason.
Luda’s set in mythical Gasglow (yes, you get the reference), a world we experience through the eyes of drag queen Luci LaBang – performer, Glamour wizard, and portrayer of Widow Twankey in Morrison’s play within a play, Phantom of the Pantomime, a combining of Aladdin and The Phantom of the Opera. Along comes Luda, a younger drag performer, who gains the play’s central role after the first occupier suffers a mysterious accident. La Bang takes Luda under her wing, promises to teach her Glamour, and what develops calls to mind for many famous cinematographic and literary relationships: (1) Margo Channing and Eve Harrington from All about Eve, (2) Philip Carey and Mildred Rogers from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, and (3) the one to which Morrison admits, Merlin and Nimue from Arthurian legend. All this blends with stream-of-consciousness and unreliable narrator techniques, drawing (as such techniques are meant to do) readers into a very subjective world view based on Luci’s tilted observations and reactions. If like me you’re a straight cis male, this will fuck with your head, but in a good way.
I’m reminded, in fact, of another literary work starring a first-person narrator that winds, deflects, and possesses a very limited attention span – Tristram Shandy from Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759), a work mostly about the acceptance of impotence. Here’s a sample of Shandy’s chatty, rambling style (spoiler alert: “nose” means “penis” no matter what Shandy claims):
I define a nose, as follows,—intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition.—For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs,—I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing; that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.
Now compare these with Luci LaBang’s style:
When it comes to the Glamour, you’re stitching together anything you’ve got lying around that might help to anchor the desired sleight of mind in concrete reality, full moons, new moons, feast days, holidays, superstitions, talismans, and totems. It’s vital to think on your feet, as imperative as it is to know how to put together an award-winning ball gown out of gift wrap, safety pins, and a shower curtain fit for the bin. You’re looking to emphasize ideas of ritual, establish special days and hours for certain operations. Assembling a look, you want the elements to coordinate, to correspond. You want the drag to match the occasion and vice versa.
I realized I’d been split in two. I’d been separated out, curds-and-whey style, then subtracted from myself. In some black and backward act of alchemy. Mercurius, the androgynous spirit of wholeness, had suffered a near-fatal sundering somewhere down the line. One half abandoned, stumbling and flabby, with his neuroses hanging out like guts, the other banished to the Twilight Zone, leaving only traces and spoor: the cobby husks of her dresses, her empty coats and vacant shoes; drained bugs dangling on their hangers in a spider’s web of wire.
No doubt, both narrators take an anti-crow-flies approach when moving from A to B, but with Luci, once I understood, as much as I could, what she’d experienced living within patriarchal society, I felt empathy toward her, even with annoyed with her taking forever to reach her point. Indeed, our minds are built to avoid emotional pain, and Luci exemplifies this devastatingly while exploring aging, gender, even love.
Where do I fall with Luda? While reading the novel, I alternated between being pissed off at Morrison, amazed at their wordplay and irony, and frustrated by lengthy exposition about the play within a play. Once I educated myself about p-zombies, I appreciated what Morrison was after thematically here as well. Luda’s a dense book that’ll keep you looking up concepts, references, all while parsing through Luci’s meanderings. I go back to what I said at the beginning. Luda’s best experienced as a discussion, not in isolation. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know or haven’t experienced. Don’t be afraid to consult others approaching Morrison’s ideas from various personal experiences and lifestyles. Once upon a time, I took a graduate course entitled James Joyce, and the reading list included several guides to help students wade through Joyce’s literary gymnastics. I explored critics’ opinions – Iglesias and Sandifer, for instance — here with similar effect. I cared enough to apply the extra effort, so Morrison’s efforts paid off, at least with me. Currently, with drag queens and other LGBTQ+ community members under fallacious and evil attack from certain quarters, you too shouldn’t be afraid to leave your shell and engage this important interchange.