The Diary of Nathan Adler: A Literary Analysis of Bowie’s Clever Criticisms

David Bowie’s nineteenth studio album 1. Outside was released in September 1995. The concept album resulted from the collaborative explorations of Bowie and Brian Eno. The album is branded with a self-portrait and accompanied by a brief segment of fictitious prose titled The Diary of Nathan Adler, both created at Bowie’s hand. The nineteen tracks are comprised of far-out, experimental songs interspersed with monologues from characters of the short story each performed by Bowie. While the music, artwork and writing are undoubtedly meant to serve as participating components of the overall “concept,” I think that Bowie’s “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle” is sufficiently substantive to warrant a literary analysis of its own.


The Diary of Nathan Adler exists in two parts, consisting of several journal entries of the narrator, Detective Professor Nathan Adler, of Art-Crime Inc. The short segments of loose prose begin by detailing a case that Adler is investigating, later trailing off in stream-of-consciousness tangents of memory about the suspects. Notably, the diary entries do not appear in chronological order, and reference a mixture of both real and fictional events.

The foremost element of the Bowie’s writing in The Diary of Nathan Adler is the heavy stylization. The frequent use of vernacular, with phrases like “[r]ound the same time,” and “drinking up the Oxford Town,” and poor grammar—misspellings, fragments, run-ons, misuses—immediately develop an informal voice. By combining these casual elements with the use of diary entries as the structure of the story, Bowie creates a Gonzo-style journalism through which he recounts events of the fictional world he resides in. Because the narrator is an officer of the law, the reader in initially inclined to trust the objectivity of his accounts, but Bowie obscures the division between fact and fiction by referencing a mixture of both real and non-real people and events. For instance, the described self-mutilations of Ron Athey are indeed accurate, while the legend of the “young Korean artist” who had parts of his bodily periodically amputated was manufactured by Bowie. This integrated recollection pushes Orwellian fiction to the extreme, describing a dystopian future in which art motivates gruesome bodily mutilation and murder.

RON ATHEY_Self Obliterations I & II_foto.miha.fras_096
Self-Obliteration, Ron Athey2011

The distinction between the mood and the tone of the writing is confused. The melancholy mood of Nathan Adler’s journal paints the picture of darkness and despair in a deeply troubled future world. But moments of grim and jaded humor, like the posthumous recollection of Mark Rothko—“Deep thinker. Always was”—begin to feel like a slippage between Adler’s opinion and Bowie’s. Too, the timeline of the story begs question as to the significance of the nonconsecutive dates of the journal entries. As Angelan points in her article for Refractory, each of three prominent years of entry are important to Bowie’s personal history (or future.) In 1977, Bowie released the albums Low and Heroes, in both of which Eno was involved. 1994 is presumably the year in which Bowie worked extensively on 1. Outside. And the imminent 1999 marks the cusp of the millennium, which incited uncertainty and anxiety for the world at large. The subtle significance of these periods suggests that these dates are more relevant to Bowie’s real life than to the fictional one of Adler.

Self-Portrait, David Bowie

By way of this confusion between Adler’s and Bowie’s voices, the reader begins to extrapolate from the writing Bowie’s real and biting criticism of the contemporary art world of the 1980s and 1990s. During these decades, Bowie became increasingly involved in the contemporary art world, serving on the board for the British Modern Painters magazine, collecting work by an array of artists from Duchamp to Hirst, and developing his own visual art practice as a painter. Bowie’s paintings evoked elements of Neo- and German Expressionism and Social Realism. All told, he prescribed to the most elevated medium of institutional art and abided, for the most part, by canonical conventions of style. In light of his career as a visual artist and his evident taste in the mainstream art world, the harsh critique of the prominence of body and performance art in the late 1980s and 1990s in the Diary becomes obvious. The contemporary art world is not a far cry from obsessed with banal and abject materials during this time, pushing the boundaries of bodily harm the breaking point of shock-value and discomfort. Much of the work sought to confront issues surrounding the AIDs crisis, and disrupt social fears of homosexuality, with blood serving as a recurring trope. Bowie makes clear his engagement of this discourse with references to “the blood rituals of Nitsch” and the literal coloring of the word “red” within the text. His commentary, through the future voice of a detective of “art crime” offers Bowie’s distaste with the adulteration of “art” during this era, as well as a dystopian warning for the possible escalation of such unacceptable practices.

Evol for the missing
Evol for the Missing, David Bowie, 1996

But the fragmented style of the writing, as well as the album and accompanying monologues, provides evidence of Bowie’s desire for a more nuanced understanding of art and the social issues that it attempts to address. I think that Bowie’s disillusionment with the contemporary art world resides in his distaste for the debased and aggressive techniques employed by artists like Chris Burden or the fictional murderer of Baby Grace and their inability to offer solutions to the problems that they so hostilely confront. The disjointed timeline implies that Bowie’s aspiration for a multifaceted understanding of art and the issues it tackles is relevant to past, present, and future. The creation of the dystopian sci-fi future begs a more optimistic approach to complex issues like sexuality and the AIDs crisis than that offered by grotesque body art. The unresolved nature of the story itself—the unsolved murder case, the closing of the red book, the uncertain fate of Ramona A. Stone—speaks to Bowie’s attitude on the unresolvable nature of life’s inevitable complexities, which he addresses directly in an interview for Musician magazine in 1995: “It’s the realization, to me at least, that I’m most comfortable with a sense of fragmentation…The idea of tidy endings or beginnings seems too absolute. It’s not at all like real life.”

bowie and painting
David Bowie with Portrait of JO, 1976

One thought on “The Diary of Nathan Adler: A Literary Analysis of Bowie’s Clever Criticisms

  1. I agree with you that the Adler Diary text is very intriguing, more so when you begin to untangle not just its references, but also evidence of the knowledge of the real art world that Bowie apparently had. While some artists he mentions were famous and notorious, others were not exactly mainstream figures. I agree that this short text is, on some level satirical, taking on the pretentious of the art world though the device of a noir pulp fiction, but there is more to it. I keep thinking of David Lynch, with whom Bowie would later work on Twin Peaks, and his complex, multilayered metaphors.


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