Tuesday 15 October 2019

#Zero by Neil McCormick: Zinging satire about the grim reality of being a superstar

Fiction: #Zero

Neil McCormick

Unbound, paperback, 432 pages, €12.59

Music critic: Neil McCormick
Music critic: Neil McCormick
#Zero by Neil McCormick

Ed Power

The interior life of the rock star has long proved highly elusive to novelists. Iain M Banks and Jonathan Franzen are among those who have attempted to deconstruct the cult of the mane-shaking, guitar-slinging bad boy. But, presumably because of a lack of first-hand access to actual rock stars, their characters feel like job-lots of clichés rather than real people.

Neil McCormick is a first-time fiction writer but, when it comes to rock 'n' roll and its attendant folklore, he brings a unique perspective. He went to school with Bono (as chronicled in his bestselling memoir I Was Bono's Doppelganger) in Dublin and, as chief music critic for the UK's Daily Telegraph, has sat across from luminaries as varied as Keith Richards and Ellie Goulding. He applies these decades of insight to a zinging novel that functions both as gonzo road trip and dissection of the rock star myth.

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Having peeped behind the curtain, McCormick has a jaundiced perspective on music stardom. He writes of life in the fast lane as glittering but soulless. The record industry, by his telling, is peopled with chancers, flatterers and, at the centre, hollowed-out artists for whom fame serves as an anaesthetic numbing them to the dreary exigencies of everyday life.

Several song-and-dance icons have walk-on parts here, among them Bono, Elton John and Sting. But McCormick has wisely avoided modelling his eponymous hero, Zero, on any real rock stars. He's an Irish-Colombian singer/rapper/producer, Mick Jagger-famous and with a rags-to-Grammys backstory that conceals a childhood forged in pain and denial.

Zero is in New York for a promotional blitzkrieg when the internet is electrified by reports that his Angelina Jolie-esque actress girlfriend is canoodling with her co-star on location in South America. So he flees, hijacking his own limo to drive south across the United States in a quest to reunite with his lover.

McCormick is fantastic on the daily grind of stardom. Surrounded by managers, publicists, bodyguards and sundry fixers, Zero is being slowly asphyxiated by his coddled existence. He has someone to furnish him with drugs, compose his tweets, tell him where to go and what to say.

It's all too much, and off Zero escapes into the real America, leaving behind the rope lines and the lickspittles. Amid his Coen Brothers-adjacent run-ins with rappers, blues musicians, preachers, crazed pilots and car salesmen dressed as Elvis, the novel's core truth is that fame isn't always a prize to be chased.

McCormick's devastating insight is that a person who needs to emote their lungs out in front of 12,000 screaming fans every night is, as often as not, running from some essential truth about themselves.

That's certainly the case with Zero, as we learn in a heartbreaking conclusion when he travels to Colombia and reconnects spiritually with the mother he lost in childhood.

There is a happy - or at least tidy - resolution. But by then McCormick has made his point. Envy not the super-famous. More often than not, they have supersized troubles to match.

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