by Derric Miller
The debut novel from English writer Alissa Ordabai, Biblically titled Grapes from Thornbushes, introduces you to a writer with keen insight into the human condition … at least the condition of wannabe rock stars. Grapes from Thornbushes follows the travails of the somewhat soulless yet naïve Joey Mormile, a 22-year-old guitarist with magazine cover hair and good looks, as he is torn between the love of his muse and the whorish music industry itself.
The narrative is told from Joey’s voice, and when you first meet him, he is naturally at a pub, dissecting with scathing precision one of the local underground writers, who already “elderly” at 35 years of age, is a bit of a laughingstock to Joey. When Joey describes his colleague as someone who should “stop writing exaggerated reviews that no one reads for online music magazines that don’t pay,” you’ll experience Ordabai having fun at her own expense, since Ordabai dabbles in (unpaid) Rock journalism herself, at least for now.
Although various subplots lead you through the maze of Joey’s life — should he join his old band who want him back now that they have a record deal but don’t have Joey’s good looks, should give a whit for his ex-manager who dies suddenly before Joey makes the decision to re-join the band, is writing your own music more important than “making it,” etc. — Grapes from Thornbushes is a love triangle between three people. Joey’s quasi-love for the rich, beautiful American Theodora who treats him like a show pony but can make his Rock Star dreams come true; the love of Claire, his soul mate in both the physical and musical sense; and his love for himself.
Ordabai’s knowledge of Rock is prevalent in everything from describing the guitar solos Joey plays, to the musicians antics as they play live, to what the characters listen to as they simply inebriate their day away. She also has a flare for fashion, and parts of the novel read like Bret Easton Ellis wrote them, as Joey’s grasp on describing Theodora’s physical attributes borders on poetic fanaticism: “Her hair was falling over the low neckline in a cascade of multicoloured curls-black, brown, golden, and white, her face shimmering, dusted with snow-white glittery powder, and her eyelashes suddenly sparkling with overtones of blood-red and purple as she turned her head to the window …”
While Joey knows he has some talent and is overly aware that he could bed nearly every woman he meets, he seems to nurture the physical side of his talent more so than the musical side, at least until he meets Claire. Throughout the novel, Joey enters into hilarious vacuous conversations with himself and others about not eating so he doesn’t gain wait, how to fluff his hair so it doesn’t loose its pounce, wearing expensive jeans, and other Narcissistic behaviors. Only when he meets Claire does the physical world around him become secondary to the music … for a brief, blissful time.
One artistic spin on the title that will make you pay attention is her titling two chapters “Do What Thou Wilt,” a mantra right out of Alistair Crowley’s scribings.
By the time you reach the end of Grapes from Thornbushes, in Ordabai’s world, having your dreams come true are clearly not the same as being happy. While Joey is arguably the winner of the race, putting Theodora in her place while simultaneously caving in to her need for him to move to L.A. and join a rising band on her father’s label, no one seems to be better off for the experience. Just richer, just more alone, just with more regrets.
The interesting part of the novel is that Ordabai somehow writes the dialogue without damning the characters for being inherently shallow. There is nothing critical of the characters, nor is the novel judgmental as it closes. Of the music industry, she is simply saying, “It is what it is.”
Grapes from Thornbushes succeeds because this is how a Rock story should end; it succeeds because Ordabai’s experiences as a Rock journalist and photographer bleed through in every word; and it succeeds because simply put, Ordabai is a damn good writer.