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I was 15 years old in the summer of 1969, the summer Woodstock happened: Jimi Hendrix’s scorching “Star-Spangled Banner” sliding into “Purple Haze,” and that great clip in the movie, of the three nuns, one flashing a peace sign at the camera. The 60s were fun. We got to say words like “groovy” (one of the most ridiculous words in the English language) and “right on” and see movies like The Endless Summer and A Hard Day’s Night. But of course the 60s were not all fun and roses; there were the dark days of Vietnam and kids dying of other things like overdoses, stupidity, and naiveté. So, when I picked up a copy of Eleanor Lerman’s new novel, Janet Planet (Mayapple Press), I had to ignore the silliness of the title; and the nickname of the character Jorge Castelan, “Georgie,” doesn’t work either.
Lerman’s novel, Janet Planet, is a very good story, moving skillfully between the past and the present, and, closely patterned on the life of Carlos Castaneda, offers a plot that does not disappoint. Janet Planet is a great effort; it gets behind the mass-myth of those wild days of sexual freedom and alternate realities—and attends to women—the women who follow Jorge Castelan.
“In the psychedelic days” Janet Planet and Jorge Castelan cross paths over tuning forks; several tuning forks actually, because the tuning forks that Janet Planet sells Jorge are just not “right.” Jorge Castelan, the primary male protagonist, is modeled after the alternative-reality guru, Carlos Castaneda, who, in the 60s and 70s, was prolific, charismatic, and highly successful. The unpleasant reality of Castaneda’s frauds and rueful demise notwithstanding, Georgie Castelan is no Carlos Castaneda.
Georgie is a particular type of shaman: famous for the books he writes about meeting a Yaqui Indian shaman at a bus station in Mexico and discovering the power of peyote. Georgie writes books that change people’s lives. He is a wealthy man, and as Zella, Georgie’s “most serious companion,” tells a young Janet Planet, “he’s powerful and brilliant and a great teacher, but he’s also a man. And they all think with their peyote buttons.”
Janet Planet “belonged to nobody… she was also free, living in a time when … everyone… was sure there was a revolution coming… and their revolution would change the world,” and she is embraced and brought into Jorge’s inner circle and adopted by him and his three companions, but when Jorge makes the moves on his “daughter” she flees. Now, Janet is older and living in Woodstock; her three mothers, Zella, Namuria, and Lily, are gone; having disappeared after Jorge left them behind. Janet and Georgie cross paths again and the story circles around the mysteries and confusions, sexual desires, and manipulations used (by Jorge) to great personal advantage.
In a restaurant scene in Woodstock, Jorge and Janet begin to reconnect:
“You’re still mad at me,” Georgie says, after they’ve ordered.
“A little, yes,” she agrees.
“But I told you it was just a game.”
“It’s not that. I called you,” Janet says. “I left messages. You didn’t call back.”
Waving his hand dismissively, Jorge Castelan says, “Oh, Janet Planet, you don’t want to be mad at me because of messages. How important are messages? Words on scraps of paper.”
“I was trying to tell you how much I liked your book.”
He does not respond, choosing instead, to concentrate on the food that is now being brought to the table.
“Did you send it?” Janet persists.
“Then who did?”
“I don’t know,” Jorge Castelan says, though Janet suspects that he may be lying. Sorcerers can lie with impunity; he has said as much. But then he makes an unexpected admission. “Do you know who would be angry that you’ve read it? The princess. I finally told her that I’m writing another book, but I haven’t let her see it.”
It’s not that Janet Planet isn’t interesting. It is. But Janet Planet the character lacks emotional dimension. What we learn about her (and everyone else) is exactly what Lerman tells us. And this is the problem: Lerman tells us every detail in great detail. What she wants to portray—a woman full of spirit and courage—falls short. The reader can’t hear Janet’s voice or see her gestures; her behavior isn’t surprising, it’s routine; sad, mundane, at times interesting (she builds and restores clavichords), but always manageable.
I liked the book. It’s a great story about a fascinating time, but the narrative voice—the choice of an omniscient narrator—drags at the novel and diminishes the vitality of the story. The 60s were hopping. The 60s were chaotic and thrilling. In Janet Planet they’re not.
By Eleanor Lerman
Paperback, 9781936419067, 200pp.