America the Beautiful

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By Moon Unit Zappa
ISBN 0747264228
Simon & Schuster, 2001
(reviewed by Lisa Hock)


America the Beautiful is the first novel by Moon Unit Zappa, Renaissance woman and daughter of the late music legend Frank Zappa. She was inspired to write the admittedly semiautobiographical book after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response to a first-person piece she wrote for Harpers Bazaar Confessions of a Metalhead (1998). Though it would be easy to criticize Zappa for cashing in on her name and catering to a star-struck, voyeuristic public, it would not be fair.

The novel can be seen on three “levels,” the first being the rites-of-passage story of the quirky, 29-year-old Californian, America Throne, and her struggle to recover from a breakup that sends her reeling into an identity crisis. On her own—and with the help of a therapist, a fortune-teller and a guru—she begins to understand how her past has shaped her present opinion of herself.

America’s recently deceased father was a world-renowned artist and proclaimed genius. Although her mother stayed at home with her and her younger brother, Spoon, family life was extremely unorthodox and antiauthoritarian. Fleeing the nest fairly early, she meets her best friend and partner in eccentricity, Sadie, at art school. Though obviously a creative, visual type, “Mer” doesn’t find a vocation in the arts but instead lives off a scant monthly allowance from her father’s estate and the money she makes from the occasional commercial voice-over for such products as feminine hygiene cream. Eventually, America makes a career out of her relationship with boyfriend Jasper, who, at the beginning of our story, breaks up with her in a most modern way—by fax.

The second level deals with the famous-parent/child relationship. America’s father, Boris, is a brilliant artist, who is incapable of separating his professional from his private life. As a child, just before her father’s star has risen, she, too, becomes part of his professional life. She discovers that nude models are portrayed cradling her stuffed animals on his canvases, and that he has included her likeness in a series of works that may wind up in homes around the world. This seems to be about as personal as their relationship ever gets, especially after his career takes off and he is seldom at home. There are no boundaries in his world. Everything revolves around him; everything is given the same importance. These, of course, are not the kinds of messages that encourage a child’s sense of self-esteem.

For some, this may be the most interesting aspect of the book—a hint of the unresolved anger about the selfish character so obviously and openly based on Frank Zappa. Moon Unit, however, insists that she feels no animosity toward him and that she “was trying to show the difficulty of being an artist and still having a family, and to show people that it can be done.”

The third level is that America the Beautiful is simply an enjoyable piece of “Californiana.” Zappa writes in a flowing, engaging yet extraordinarily inventive American English. Pop culture and musical references as well as the setting and detailed descriptions are a real treat (especially for professed or repressed expat bohemians). America the Beautiful isn’t a great work of literature. It is, however, a humorous, entertaining and, at times, even thought-provoking piece of American zeitgeist.