Simon Jacobs, Saturn, Spork Press, 2014
Reviewed by Alison McCabe
I don't know David Bowie from Adam but, if I had to guess, Bowie would be the snake.
In his debut collection, Saturn (Spork Press, 2014), Simon Jacobs re-creates David Bowie through a mix of history and fiction. During these nineteen flash pieces, it isn't easy to identify where fact ends and invention starts, but that is not the point. In Jacobs's Saturn, every word sings true.
The hand-bound, letter-pressed book is art, and inspired by it. Within these narratives, Bowie marvels at the potency of Renaissance painters, Francisco Goya, Tilda Swinton, and other masters of their craft. In one story, he collaborates with prominent British artist, Damien Hirst, to build a Minotaur from man and bone. Bowie "more than admires Hirst's work, his dead animals floating in tanks of formaldehyde...He sees the beauty in taking something you love and preserving it forever."
Like specimens in jars, twenty-three year old Jacobs preserves Bowie to stunning effect. The joint aesthetics of Jacobs's writing, Bowie's work, and DIY Spork Press are made for each other. At every level, the book has flair. Its cover and interior illustrations are as striking and unabashed as the prose itself. For any Bowie fan, this collection is not to be missed.
I should mention I am not a Bowie fan. It's not like I hate his work, but the fact is I don't really know it, not beyond a few greatest hits, peacock hairstyles, or the middle school buzz of full frontal in The Man Who Fell to Earth. All this is to say, when I first heard what Simon Jacobs was up to with Saturn, I was amused, if apprehensive. I'd give it a try, I thought, but I didn't expect galactic returns.
And yet it delivers them. Saturn is not a book written for David Bowie fans; it's a book written for anyone who has ever banked on words to grasp what is human. Bowie's life, light years away from our own, is not unfamiliar to us. His experiences are rendered with such glittery wisdom, you'll find it difficult to put the book down. Rest assured, it will move you. This is as much a collection about David Bowie as it is about the crux between genius and boredom, adulation and loneliness, love and control, existence and myth. At its core, this book tells the story of a father, a husband, an artist. There's gravity to every page. Bowie aside, each story weighs a heart-wrenching ton.
Throughout the collection, Jacobs explores family and the dark gulf that sometimes grows between us and those we hold close. In "David Bowie Sleeps with 1001 Arabian Nights Next to his Bed", Bowie rests beside his wife, "Somali supermodel Iman (for whom he has written songs)" and asks her to tell him a never-ending story in her native tongue:
As she speaks, he traces the tattoo on her stomach with his finger, a ring of script he cannot read that she promises is his first name—David, a name she tells him cannot be properly articulated in the Arabic alphabet. He whispers, "Open sesame," into her skin, but she covers his mouth with her hand, and he swallows it.
Later, in a story titled "David Bowie Takes a Commercial Space Flight", we're reminded again of clefts in their relationship. In space, "A voice crackles through [Bowie's] headset, ‘I love you, Dave,' but it is a voice he doesn't recognize. He reaches out and touches her shoulder through six layers of Gore-Tex, nylon, and Mylar. The sensation is like pressing into a fossil." She is there and he is there, but not together. As years pass, they detach all the more.
Bowie too fades with his ache to create and control. While attending the premiere of his son's latest film, the paparazzi snap photos as the two embrace. After this tender moment, Jacobs turns us to the imminent future:
When the photos are developed...upon further inspection it will appear as though father and son aren't actually touching, but orbiting each other a hair's breadth apart. Looking even closer, it will start to seem as if David Bowie isn't there at all.
Eventually Bowie's appetite for what's beyond his reach consumes him and, in turn, he consumes. The book's ending only confirms what we, by this point, know to be inevitable; the collection's final story is "David Bowie Devouring His Son."
Simon Jacobs's storytelling, though often abstract, is never elusive. Each short piece hits with enough force to catapult readers into space, but the book doesn't abandon us there. Amid all the phantasmagoria of a world spun from Bowie's documented public truths made private—or private Truths made public—Jacobs writes with a generosity that grounds us. He does not aim to alienate his readers, but instead challenges us to pause, to reconsider. We're welcome travelers on this writer's journey, and we go willingly. Jacobs earns our trust as guide; with each story, each far-out turn the book takes, we beam with the satiable knowledge that we'll be led, ever powerfully, back to Earth.