Robert Ashley — Perfect Lives

Perfect Lives
by Robert Ashley
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011 (Reprint)
240 pages / $13.95  Buy from Amazon, Dalkey Archive







Premiering on television in 1984 and first published in book form in 1991, Perfect Lives is several texts at once: a comic opera libretto, a novel about a temporary bank heist, a blurb-billed epic poem ranging through small town Midwestern vernacular and Eastern metaphysics, and a kind of textual final resting place for the titular performance in the form of notes, a preface, a synopsis, some notation from the score, and an edited conversation with writer, composer and director Ashley during which he explains the genesis and outcome of the project. (Ashley: “I had this practice: I’d go into a room, close the door, and start singing.”) It’s a good thing that the book is several texts, because while it’s a success as an engaging epic (experimental) poem, it would be a stretch to call it a novel and as a libretto it leaves you having missed out on the three-hour television program that it became with no idea of what it sounded like unless you’re familiar with Ashley’s work and no idea what it looked like except for a still of the production on the cover of the book and a frontispiece featuring Ashley himself playing narrator. Ultimately the loss of context doesn’t make the text suffer because as a set of eight experimental poems obliquely describing a bank heist and an elopement among more metaphysical things it wins at being an engrossing read and at capturing small town Midwestern vernacular and widescreen philosophy in very crisp but entertainingly malformed ways.

You get all your diegetic heavy lifting done up front with a four page synopsis and then, minus the transcriptions and notes and prefaces, you’re left with the non-chronological text itself, seven sections, each of which are sung by a different narrator—maybe, and I’ll get back to this—with an italicized chorus that either comments upon or completes the narrator’s sung stories and meditations. The way Ashley went about voicing his elusive narratorial figures (it’s hard to call them narrators or characters) varies greatly but is often reductive and repetitive in a flatly reportorial way that kept reminding me of Leslie Scalapino’s early work (or Hannah Weiner if you replace clairvoyance with a Greek chorus) and reads in part like this, from section two, during which an unknown narrator mentally surveys a field while also gazing at elderly lovers in a supermarket:

looking for something interesting
now turn left still on the inside still
looking for something interesting
now turn left the fence is still there keep looking
keep looking for something interesting
now turn left again still looking still
looking we are looking for food
                                    time to go
                                    friendly shoe
                                    friendly sole

The drift and repetition here continues in many styles throughout the book and is the only real textual constant once it becomes clear early on that there’s no intra-book indication of transfer between characters and narrators and becomes clear across the width of the poem there’s no main storyteller, and while some sections have a more clearly defined narrator than others those sections still imbue said narrator with more information than he or she, as a character, could possibly know. So it’s incredibly confusing who’s voicing what but that twists the clipped flatness into a sidelong blur that never really ceases the entire book. The specific lines you’re reading might be clean and simple, but the bewilderment that comes from quick fades between narrators who exist either inside or outside the story is a more entertaining mystery than the oblique bank heist and its lack of consequence.

What’s also disorienting about the narratorial drift is that in a few places video camera movements are inserted seamlessly into that drift, movements that might have literal counterparts, placing the libretto in a weird situation in which song might narrate what you the TV opera viewer are seeing vs. what the character/narrator is seeing. The moves are so seamless though they don’t interrupt but rather just shift the real heft of what gets narrated, which is an assortment of landscapes real and imagined, literal and metaphysical, particular to Ashley when writing the libretto and loosely universal, from the back of a car headed toward Indiana at dawn to a repeatedly referenced fiery evening sky and from a household view of a horizon to rocks that live and create living bruises. These visions of different kinds of plains of existence that culminate in a vision of a backyard picnic in the final section move first through bars and hotels and parks and even a family home (in the opera’s only feint toward characters acknowledging and singing to each other) and in especially oblique form during the marriage of elopers Gwyn and Ed, narrated (we’re told in notes beneath each section heading in the opera-proper contents page) by the Justice of the Peace performing the ceremony. Here the text completely frees itself from the responsibility of narration and instead circles the abstraction of a spread of language itself via defining marriage and across the passage of a few eons:

Language     has sense built in.  It’s easy to

Make sense.     To not make sense is possible,

But hard.     Language does not have truth built in.

It’s hard     to make truth, which is to stop the search.

Such generalities and the unknown source they’re coming from are a constant across the book, but rather than coming off cloying or meaningless they instead have an additive effect, a kind of plain-talk philosophizing voiced by most of the narrators in one form or another and touching on all the regular clichés of metaphysics: truth, language, the self, light, the passage of time, etc. Again, this doesn’t bug but in the nonlinear smear has a reaching quality as if the narrators are pushing toward something beyond them, something epic just beyond the edges of the set of songs as epic poem.

Getting lost in all of this though is exactly how great in particular the language is even as it constructs a flat, loose metaphysics; one of the themes in the work is performance itself, and in minute particulars we get delivered great passages like the following, recalling the attempt of a bartender’s wife to learn to play boogie-woogie piano by watching TV tapes:

                Some got it and some don’t,
She says at night.

                I got it.
Poor Rodney.  Art Widower.

                He lost it to the left hand memories,
The structure.

                He lost it to the right hand
Blue notes.

The book roams as freely from poetic particular to dreamy generality as easily as it drifts between narrators and the cumulative effect is that the drift of voice forms a plural that’s both particular to the midwestern landscape it occupies and given over to what’s far beyond the particulars of a bank heist or backyard. The cumulative effect of reading Perfect Lives is one of being overwhelmed by an outpouring of language, completely adrift in the best way possible.


Nicholas Grider just wants to be liked.

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  1. A D Jameson

      Thanks for writing this, Nicholas!

      PERFECT LIVES is one of my favorite artworks of all time. I’ve seen the video and I listen to the recording regularly, so it’s hard for me to approach the libretto as its own thing, but I still enjoy reading it on its own, about once/year.

      For anyone interested, I recently interviewed Ashley here, along with Jeremy M. Davies (Senior Editor at Dalkey); we spoke a lot about PL and how it was written/made:

      (That same issue also features interviews with Vanessa Place, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Curtis White, FWIW.)

  2. Anonymous

      I loved that interview! For a figure who has been active in contemporary music since the 60s, it’s surprising how little Ashley related material is available. Supposedly there’s a book forthcoming from Kyle Gann (, which is exciting. I’d like to see some literary analysis of the Now Eleanor’s Idea tetralogy of operas, which are maybe my favorite pieces of music and writing ever.

  3. Nicholas Grider

      Thanks.  I was a theatre undergrad and knew of Ashley and his work and maybe read one brief piece but hadn’t seen or listened to his work going into writing the review, and decided to work on just the text before tracking down recordings etc.

  4. Ben Roylance

      Love Perfect Lives

  5. A D Jameson

       I find there’s lots to enjoy & appreciate in every version.

  6. Anonymous