Daron's Guitar Chronicles is not a romance novel. It is a 'bildungsroman', which is fancy German for a story in which the process of growing up is gradual. The fact that Daron falls in love in this story is secondary to that process, even if it is the catalyst for much of what he goes through. Of course, there is a particular pleasure to be gained from a clean cut story with a beginning, middle and an end presented with a bow on top, and this does not deliver that. All I can say is that this story fascinates me in a different way.
This story is driven by the development of the main character, not so much by plot. Your enjoyment of it is going to depend on how well you connect to Daron, how real is he is for you. For me, Daron is one of those rare fictional characters that I have a hard time believing does not actually exist on the physical plane. He is just too real. Part of it is that Daron is only a couple of years older than me and the way the 80s are brought to life here reminds me very much of my own coming of age: the musical references, the language, the AIDS scare, the technology, the hair. Part of it is that Daron's personality has strong similarities to my own at that age and I feel a kinship with him. A kinship that makes me want to slap him upside the head as much as I want to hug him, but I feel the same way about my own 20 year old self, really. Most of all, though, it is the fact that Daron is an extremely well written character. He grows and changes and engages. But if you want your main character to make better decisions than you did at that age, you may find him a bit aggravating.
"For some reason the jazz department [in Tower Records] didn't get as shuffled as the pop and rock section, and this annoyed me, and the fact that it annoyed me also annoyed me."
In Volume 1 we meet Daron when he is just 19, a short, scrawny kid, working his way through music school in 1986. He struggles with his sexuality, which he tries to suppress and keep a secret (not even Freddy Mercury was out in the 80s), while on tour with his old mentor. It's not until the very end of Volume 1, when Daron has moved to Boston, that we meet Ziggy, who joins the band, Moondog 3, as a singer and proceeds to make a mess of Daron's intentions to stay (mostly) celibate.
"It was almost as if there were just the three of us, and yet it was nothing like a rehearsal. Ziggy came to life, howling and leaping off the low stage, then climbing back up like a four-legged spider, and never missed a note. I got so caught up in watching him that I almost missed hitting my footpedal before the solo in our third song. I closed my eyes, then, letting the solo carry me through to the other side where I passed the strand of melody back to his voice. I opened my eyes. He was lying on the floor between my legs, making like the microphone was an ice cream cone. Or something else. I felt my breath go ragged as I closed my eyes again, felt him brush my calf as he crawled away."
Volume 2 is when Daron's story sinks its claws in you, as Daron and Ziggy drive each other up the wall, on stage and off. When the inevitable happens, Daron is left reeling. His self imposed isolation, which served him well while growing up, now leaves him unable to cope with what he's feeling, but reaching out seems impossible.
If you've never been so introverted that even though you wanted to say something, needed to say something, yet you couldn't get your mouth to make the words, you may get impatient with Daron's inability to connect with the people around him. If you've never been with someone who made you feel so completely alive that having them put your heart through the meat grinder every couple of months or so seemed like a reasonable price to pay (at least at first), you may not understand Daron's obsession with Ziggy. But Daron's matter-of-fact narration creates just enough emotional distance to make an impact without drowning you in angst. Make sure you don't skim the last paragraph of any chapter, though, that is often where the kicker is.
"I missed my cue. That was when I was supposed to just say: I'm gay. Just drop the bomb and then duck, right? In that moment though, two little words weren't just two little words, they were the tip of a motherfucking iceberg of secrets and lies that there was no way in hell I should have been keeping from him."
Volume 3 sees Moondog 3 on tour with Daron struggling to regain his footing. He needs to figure out a way to work with Ziggy, both on a personal level and within their musical partnership, which seems messed up beyond repair. He needs to start trusting his friends, and being honest about who and what he is. He needs to deal with his father, a two bit con man and a homophobic asshole, who has somehow ended up managing the band. Temporarily, Daron assures himself.
"Me and Chris and Bart did a half-way convincing rendition of Hold The Line, with Bart singing falsetto since Ziggy didn't know the words and in all seriousness it was better that he not know them."
Daron is an unreliable narrator. This is shown in various small ways and it makes you wonder if the way Daron is interpreting Ziggy's behavior is correct. Where Daron sees Ziggy as unaffected and manipulative, making him guard his own heart and his silence all the more strongly, I see two people who are desperately guarding their vulnerable cores, just in different ways. As Daron retreats into himself even more, Ziggy, ever the flamboyant performer, just gets more and more outrageous in his desperation to make Daron open up to him, to win his adoration.
Now if this were a romance novel, the guys would eventually catch on to the fact that they are expressing the same need in different ways and all would be forgiven etc. etc. Cue Happily Ever After theme song. But because this is not, the story continues with all the ups and downs of real life. If you're going to insist on reading this as a romance you're going to 'leave your bleeding heart and gray hairs all over this book', as one of my goodreads friends put it. And in the meantime you will have missed a wonderful, layered story with excellent writing. I loved these books when I first read them, but they were even better on the reread, now that I wasn't too busy with, you know, bleeding my heart and turning my hair gray all over the book.
"Which version of the truth do you want, Ziggy? That I write this fucked up shit because of you, or that I write it for you to sing? Both things are true."
Another thing I love is about these books the music. I know, that should be obvious in a book about a rock star, but I've read so many rock star romances in which the music is nonexistent. Check out this chapter, for instance, to see what I mean. All you need to know there is that Bart is the bass player and Carynne the road manager. Speaking about Carynne: two thumbs up for a well rounded female character who is an actual person, likable, but not perfect.
"I felt like I was short of air even thought my breaths were long and deep. Worse, I felt myself rushing the riff, and could feel Christian pumping the kick drum more emphatically, as if sending me the message, here! the beat is here! Get with the program asshole!"
These first 3 volumes of Daron's Guitar Chronicles that are collected in this paperback were written in the early nineties by Cecilia Tan, but they only saw the light of day as a web serial when she started posting a few chapters a week between 2009 to 2011. The paperback omnibus contains all the 201 chapters of the first 3 ebooks. All the chapters are still available for free online too, and come with youtube clips of the songs that form the title chapters. The sex in these books is pretty much fade to black, but there are a few explicit bonus chapters that you can get by making a donation on the website. Tan will send you the ebooks for any, yes any, amount of donation too.
The story continues after chapter 201 on the website and in a Vol 4 ebook (that goes up to chapter 318). We are currently on chapter 374 (as of April 13 2013), and according to Ms Tan, she does have an end in mind, but can't tell how long it is going to take to get there. It will be a couple of years at least, but in the meantime, there are no big cliffhangers, and you shouldn't wait to start this.
Daron is on firmer footing in Volume 4. He is making peace with his sexuality, he starts to open up more to other people, his boundaries get clearer, he has other, less destructive relationships. All this against the back drop of rehearsing, touring, playing music, hostile opening bands, press meetings, parties, accidents, drug problems, family issues, etc. There is a small saggy bit in the middle when, ironically, everything seems to go well, but soon enough things go fubar and the rest reads like a rollercoaster. And the writing just gets better and better. Some chapters are moving the story along slowly, some are eye opening and then some chapters have paragraphs or sentences that just hit you over the head with a mallet of sheer awesome.
"As I lay in bed that night, though, still slightly buzzed, all I could think about was how his lips would have been cold from touching the edge of the beer bottle if I'd kissed him, and how his tongue would have been hot behind that.
Fine. I jotted it down to use in a song. “Infernal Medicine.” My obsessions had to be good for something."
And throughout the whole thing, there's Ziggy. Can't live with him, can't live without him.