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Zack Ravas

Jonathon Keats and the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene: Pessimism is Not a Scientific Way of Thinking

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater HoloceneUnbeknown to many in San Francisco, we are in the presence of several brave species helping to terra-form the city and stave off a future defined by man’s carbon footprint. These “volunteers,” as experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats calls them, represent the first members of his new organization, The Pioneers for the Greater Holocene, and they’re closer than you might think—they might even be under your feet.

These ambassadors are the plants that sprout from the sidewalk in even the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Though acknowledging that they are commonly dismissed as unsightly, Keats—previously known for creating Alien Instruments and Superego Suits—has taken to documenting these life-forms in a series of intimate black and white portraits. He hopes this approach lends the plants some dignity, and might cause people to view them in terms of the beauty, and not the blight, they bring to an urban environment. While taking the photos, Keats gets down on the ground to be at eye level with his subjects. Speaking of these plants, Keats admits, “I go back and visit them and water them sometimes. Even though they don’t need me to grow, it doesn’t mean there’s no benefit there.”

Keats’ portraits of the plants are currently on display and viewable by appointment at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery. He suggests that, in many ways, this photography is representative of what he is attempting to do with the Pioneers, which includes “creating a model for a world to come, a world we would want to inhabit.” It’s a model in which no species is taken for granted, even if they sprout from cracks in the pavement.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 2Also at Modernism Gallery is a massive map of Northern California, which Keats invites gallery patrons to decorate with pins specifying locations they feel represent the world they’d like to see in the future. During the busy opening night event this month, the crowds took great delight in (quite literally) hammering their pins into the map. Anyone is also welcome to become a member of the Pioneers for as little as a one-dollar donation. Keats stresses that interested parties can also join for less, though a $40 donation will secure you a stylish Pioneers for the Greater Holocene T-shirt, a convenient way to show your fellow citizens your interest in preserving the current geological epoch.

The Pioneers formation was in part inspired by the upcoming determination by the International Union of Geological Sciences as to whether the current geological epoch, known as the Holocene, has come to a premature end due to man’s harmful impact on the planet, thus placing us firmly in the Anthropocene. While most scientists seem to take the Anthropocene’s arrival as a foregone conclusion, implying that the planet will be blighted by humans for millions of years to come, Keats argues, “Pessimism is not a scientific way of thinking…We cannot accept the catastrophic results of declaring the Anthropocene an epoch.”

He stresses that work can be done and changes made, even on an individual level, that could perhaps alter the Anthropocene from a multi-million-year epoch to something more like an unfortunate but brief episode during humanity’s time on Earth.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 3One might expect the Pioneers would find an ideal base in the Bay Area, where so many people believe in the reality of climate change. Keats explains this isn’t necessarily so. San Francisco, for example, is simultaneously “the best place” and “the worst place” to launch such an endeavor. Keats sees the Bay Area as having a culture of compartmentalization—people genuinely care, but often feel as though simply caring, even if divorced from action, is enough. He cites “a paralysis among those who recognize the problems of climate change” because “when there’s no clear path forward, people end up doing nothing, which is not tenable to me.” Yet the situation is not without hope: “We are unable to act on our beliefs when the situation seems futile, but I also believe that any small action can potentially pull us out of that stupor.”

Emphasizing the concrete, active nature of the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene, Keats believes small gestures, from planting seeds across the urban environment to documenting and protecting what current plant life exists, can have massive ramifications. “Since the Industrial Revolution, we have had an attitude of antagonism towards other species,” Keats explains. “We take for granted that they will be compliant. But in reality, if we disappear, they will take over—so how compliant can they be? The Pioneers are about taking the opposite tack and advocating a sharing of power between species at every level.”

To this end, the Pioneers have distributed starter packets throughout the city, containing seeds for native grasses that will take root wherever people spread them, as well as a special nutrient mix for lichens capable of turning concrete into fertile ground. With enough time and effort, it’s possible the Pioneers could see San Francisco radically transformed into an urban forest. No doubt such a transition would create some measure of chaos, at least in the beginning, but Keats sees this as entirely in keeping with the Bay Area’s reputation for disruption. “Nature isn’t Disney or Bob Ross,” he reminds us. “It’s not altogether peaceful.”

Although the Pioneers’ vision for the planet includes a much more level field between man and nature, Keats argues, “This is in no way meant to be a Luddite move or a call back to the past.” This will likely register as good news to San Francisco’s pervasive tech industry, though Keats is leery of their involvement. “Technological industries have a tendency to see themselves as saviors of what technology has wrought in the past,” he states.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 4The truth, as the Pioneers see it, is that for the last 11,700 years the Holocene has been good to us—as stewards of the planet, we ought to try our best to see the epoch doesn’t come to an abrupt end many millennia before its time. For while epochs are generally defined as lasting millions of years, it’s all but certain the Anthropocene will not last as long; mankind’s accelerated destruction of the planet will see humanity’s extinction long before then, ushering in an entirely new epoch. “This is a reason for pessimism and soul-searching,” Keats admits, “but also optimism and soul-searching.”

Keats is not fazed by those who view the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene as something of a poetic but futile gesture. “When you start with the literal, you end up in a fist fight,” he says. “But the arts have a history of changing the way people think.” The Pioneers, then, do what Keats has perhaps always done: utilize “play and absurdity” as a means to “encourage re-thinking, re-framing, and re-alignment” on both an individual and collective level, and to “challenge ideas that seem entrenched.”

Admiring Keats’ stark black and white portraits in the Modernism Gallery, it’s difficult to dismiss the efficacy of his methods. The sight of these oft-ignored but persistent plants inspires one to both watch their step and consider the life that is all around us—if only we look for it.

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‘Hard Mouth’ by Amanda Goldblatt: What Grief Can Do

Amanda Goldblatt novel Hard MouthWhen Denny, the twenty-something narrator of Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel, Hard Mouth (242 pages; Counterpoint Press), flees Washington, D.C., for a mountain cabin to avoid witnessing her father’s final cancer-ridden days, the reader hesitates to judge; after all, who’s to say we wouldn’t do the same in Denny’s place? We all grieve in our distinct ways, and in that regard Denny’s choice seems as sound as her father’s to reject treatment for his third round of cancer. After ten years of watching her father slowly decline, she realizes, “I needed an out…I did not yet understand that courage was unrequired in making such a decision. Only a dynamic cycle of folly, and an inability to break same.”

Although Denny tells no one about the cabin, she does not leave the city alone: sporadically making himself known is her invisible friend, Gene, a sort of vaudeville comedian with a long string of ex-wives and a habit of making his opinions known. Denny realizes her imaginary companion is just that, but, unable to connect with her co-workers and on edge from the stress at parents’ house, she finds Gene’s boisterous presence a welcome counter to her isolated existence. “I know: Gene was there and not,” she shares. “Like faith, or air. I only believe in one of these things, but—he was a modern convenience, a thing that you could use unthinking, on most days.”

Despite her impulse to flee from the dreariness of urban life—the rude passengers on the subway, the stifling crowds and empty chatter during happy hour—Denny would scarcely classify herself an outdoorswoman. “I am not a naturalist. I only wanted to leave,” she states. “…this wilderness walking was just an unremarkable commute. There was a greenish vestibule, a gray and gray and brown vestibule. I moved through this landscape like a mall-walker in poor condition.”

Still, a desire to leave the world behind does not alone mean one is equipped to survive in the wild, and much of the tension and excitement in Hard Mouth comes from watching Denny—in many ways, an average millennial—fend for herself against the unexpected developments that arise: sudden rainstorms, hostile animals, and the arrival of a suspicious guest named Haw. Even as Denny forms an attachment to an injured cat she calls Thingy, and less so to the potentially dangerous Haw, there remains at the back of her mind the notion that, in many ways, her sojourn to the middle of nowhere has been a death wish. “I wanted to be dined upon by some animals,” she admits. “What better penance could I offer to the world?”

Hard Mouth recasts the traditional adventure novel as an intense psychological portrait of contemporary malaise. Unlike so much writing about nature, the book remains decidedly unromantic. For whether she’s stranded in the depths of a mountain cave or yelling at a man-spreader back on the subway, Denny’s first task is to contend with herself. The narrator’s troubled mind is laid bare on every page through Goldblatt’s unflinching gaze—there’s little glamorous about Denny by the time her journey leaves her half-naked and caked in mud, but she is vividly real. And the pain of witnessing a loved one’s slow degradation is rendered excruciating enough for us to believe Denny would prefer the physical hardships of repairing a torn roof or scaling a watchtower in a rainstorm over having to say good-bye to her father. Grief can do that.

But Denny finds “the secret was that no matter what I did, I was alive,” and life is waiting for her on the other side of her mountain excursion. Along the way, she might be shaped for the better through tending to the wounded Thingy, letting go of the phantom Gene, and confronting Haw. For Denny, her journey is brutal but rewarding. For readers, though, Hard Mouth is all reward.

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Q&A with Susan Steinberg: ‘Machine’ and an Automatic Tension

Susan Steinberg novel MachineYou can accuse the narrator of Susan Steinberg’s Machine (149 pages; Graywolf) of many things, but failing to hold the reader’s attention isn’t one of them. Steinberg’s first novel after a series of story collections, Machine chronicles a dread-filled summer on a nameless shore following the suspicious drowning of a teenage girl. Our narrator, a former friend of the deceased, grapples with guilt, teenage boredom, and her own privileged family’s struggles. “This is a story about desperation,” she states, “you could also say acceleration; but in this story, they’re the same.” The novel unfolds in haunting and poetic style, with Steinberg making liberal use of the semicolon to propel the reader along the page. Despite its brief length, the narrative feels weighty in its ruminations on youth in despair. Steinberg discussed Machine with ZYZZYVA via email:

ZYZZYVA: Machine  is told in these somewhat independent sections, many with their own unique formatting, and several of which have been published as standalone pieces in places such as ZYZZYVA Issue 115. The structure is not quite what I’d call a “novel-in-stories,” but it is something unique. How did you develop the structure of Machine?

Susan Steinberg: I thought I was writing a linked story collection narrated by the same character throughout, but as I started putting the pieces together, it made more sense to try to envision it as a novel. This meant I had to stop thinking about whether or not it would satisfy whatever expectations or perceptions I had of novels in general, and start focusing on why I had to tell this story in an often fragmented, differently formatted way. I had to figure out how to push aside conventions—formally, structurally, and stylistically—and still have it make sense. I spent a lot time playing with chronology and condensing time and combining characters.  It’s a book, too, that omits a lot, including names and scenes, but I find omission to be a big part of how I understand story.

Z:  The novel made me think about how something interesting often happens while we’re on vacation, particularly when we’re young: we experience the desire to toss aside inhibitions and give ourselves permission to act like a different version of ourselves. The narrator of Machine is frequently concerned with how she will be perceived by both her own social clique and the locals who live by the shore. Was the sometimes performative nature of “being on vacation” on your mind while writing the novel? 

SS: I did want to convey that there’s a lot of performing going on, but I see the setting less as a vacation and more as a repeated ritual, as if the narrator is always expected to live two lives: the girl she is in the city and the girl she is at the shore. I see vacations, in general, as luxury, whereas I see these summers, drunken as they are, as pressure for the narrator, particularly in how they relate to her identity. Sustaining that performance, the constant shifting definition of self—and to be conscious of it—is fraught and often painful, so I don’t see it so much as a freedom as I do as an obligation, just like the performance she does when she’s back home.

Z: There is an undercurrent of menace and latent violence throughout Machine. The book is a reminder that teenagers can be, well, dangerous. What were some of your literary influences in writing what one might call a more realistic depiction of young people?

SS: This is a great question, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m not convinced my depiction of young people comes from literary influences. I think it comes more from having been the teenager I was.

Z: I noticed a reoccurring theme of doubling throughout the novel –– there’s the narrator’s father’s study in their family house versus his study in their house by the shore; there’s the pristine side of the lake the family vacations on versus the “poor side” of the shore, and more. The narrator even states at one point, “…say there’s no such thing as fiction; say there’s only substitution.” Was this doubling a thread you wove through the book, or something you noticed appearing during the writing process?

SS: The doubling wasn’t something I planned, but at some point I realized I was returning to issues of substitution and replacement and, again, performance. I became interested in how characters were playing the roles of other characters—the narrator inhabiting the life of the drowned girl, the other woman inhabiting the life of the narrator’s mother, the brother’s plan to follow in the father’s footsteps—and it led me to thinking about how fiction, too, is just a replacement for something else, a situation or emotion, and how simultaneously liberating and restricting that can be. I think this relates to your earlier question about performance and vacation, that fine line between when it’s fun/freeing and when it’s work. Perhaps that fine line is the where much of the conflict lives in this story.

Z: In this novel, you seem to bend the semicolon to your will. You deploy this perhaps under-utilized bit of punctuation to great stylistic effect throughout the novel. When did you realize that you could use the semicolon as an effective means to tell story you wanted to tell in Machine?

SS: I love “bend the semi-colon to your will.” I want that on a shirt.

I used a lot of semi-colons in my previous book, Spectacle, and then I was being more ambitious, trying to make the semi-colon connect more than just clauses. I wanted to connect entire stories to one another with a single semi-colon, and I wanted to makes a point about intimacy, to show the difference between clauses that need to be separated by a semi-colon versus a period. In writing Machine, it was more a way to work with time and pacing. I was thinking about the speed of the semi-colon, how it’s faster than a period, slower than a comma. And it’s more elegant, for lack of a better word, in my opinion, than both. I like forcing that elegance onto an ugly scene. I think it creates an automatic tension.

Susan Steinberg is the author of the story collections Spectacle (Graywolf), Hydroplane (FC2), and The End of Free Love (FC2). She is the recipient of a United States Artists Fellowship, the Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, and ZYZZYVA Issue 115, among others.

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‘The Churchgoer’ by Patrick Coleman: The Limits of Doubt

Patrick Coleman novel The ChurchgoerEven if Patrick Coleman’s first novel, The Churchgoer (354 pages; Harper Perennial), was not prefaced by a quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the story’s noir flavors would be unmistakable. Mark Haines, a former youth pastor turned burned-out security guard and amateur surfer, lost his faith and more than a step when his beloved sister committed suicide years ago. In his rearview are a wife and a teen daughter who can barely swallow their bile to speak to him on the phone every so often. Meanwhile, always close at hand is the alcohol addiction he fights to keep a lid on. (“Alcoholics, like pastors maybe, are never recovered but always recovering,” he notes.) Mark spies a chance to do some minor good in the world –– a shot at redemption would be too much to hope for –– when he happens across Emily, a young woman by the side of the road, trying to thumb her way from Oceanside to Seattle.

Mark offers to buy her a meal at the local greasy spoon, an act of generosity he must shamefully admit is at least somewhat motivated by his attraction to Emily, but little does he know his good deed will go far from unpunished. Emily isn’t a femme fatale, but she might be that other noir staple, the Woman in Trouble:

She wrapped the leash around the tail of the board and walked up the beach, a classic California profile in nearly full shadow, her features existing only in a burned, golden shade, like the saints on Renaissance altarpieces that seemed to be inwardly self-illuminated. But Emily couldn’t be the surfer girl the Beach Boys sang out, the girl half the young (and not so young) men around her lusted for, laughing through evenings at bonfires and ukulele sing-alongs. That was just her darkened profile, a corresponding outline. And if she was in shadow, my face was catching the light, and she was coming my way.

The further Mark becomes enmeshed in Emily’s life, the further he enters a world of violent drug dealers, underhanded evangelicals, and powerful real estate magnates. “San Diego’s a small town,” Mark notes, “and the evangelical scene is even smaller.” Mark is far from a seasoned private detective like Phillip Marlowe, but his own self-loathing and guilty conscience will prove all the motivator he needs to dig deeper into the conspiracy once Emily vanishes without a trace.

The Churchgoer is populated with the kind of hard-boiled monologues one associates with the noir genre (“Time and perspective,” Mark muses, “two unrelenting, changeable assholes –– but not without a sense of humor”), and its cast of pistol-wielding drug peddlers wouldn’t be out of place in your average detective novel. But Patrick Coleman’s background is in poetry (his poems previously appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 94), a background that’s revealed not only in The Churchgoer’s lush language –– even the seediest and most squalid neighborhoods of San Diego County are rendered with great care –– but in the way Coleman is far more interested in Mark’s crisis of faith than a conventional plot.

As Mark’s amateur investigation (which includes impersonating a police officer when necessary) sends him undercover to one of Southern California’s most successful “mega-churches,” he comes face to face with what he views as a mirror of his former hypocrisy. He ultimately can’t resist the opportunity to ruffle the church’s Santa Claus-esque pastor:

He was a good actor, a professional preacher, face muscles that could bench three-hundred and open a beer bottle with nothing but a dimple. Speaking was his way of control, his lifeblood. I didn’t want to let him have it, kept taking it away.

Even so, Mark must eventually acknowledge that his quest to “save” Emily might merely be an attempt to make up for all the ways he’s let down his daughter –– assuming Emily needs any saving at all. In the end, Mark’s lot in life stems from one decision: the moment he turned his back on his religion and family when the foundation for his faith crumbled. But the numerous close calls he encounters while searching for a trace of Emily will cause him to question the dogma of hatred –– hatred for himself, hatred for the world –– that has served as his bitter fuel in the intervening years.

The Churchgoer is at once a cracking noir yarn and an introspective examination of the limits of belief and doubt. Late in the novel, Mark experiences his own “dark night of the soul”; with Mark trapped and in the dark, quite literally, this section allows Coleman to dive deep into Mark’s sensory experience and mental battle as he struggles for air. It’s a test of will as great as any faced by a Biblical hero (like Daniel tossed in the lion’s den), and Coleman renders the scene with language that recalls the opening of Genesis:

The silenced filled the darkness and the darkness filled the silence. Then the terror rose up.

Nothing. I was adrift in nothing. Nothing to see. Nothing to do. Nothing to hear, except my own breathing and whispered profanity.

Back against the wall, Mark finally encounters a situation that his quick wits and smooth tongue can’t get him out of. Like so much of The Churchgoer, this moment serves as a reminder: no matter how far we think the past is behind us, no matter how self-reliant we claim to be, there always comes a reckoning. In this case, the reckoning packs a punch, but so does Coleman’s unsentimental prose in this stellar debut.

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‘The Wind That Lays Waste’ by Selva Almada: A Long and Humid Afternoon

Selva Almada novel The Wind that Lays WasteA devoted man of God and his sullen teenage daughter are on the road to a church in a remote village when their car breaks down. They soon find themselves at the mercy of a grizzled mechanic who has sworn off religion and runs a garage alongside his wide-eyed son. Though the setting may be Argentina, the setup for Selva Almada’s latest novel, The Wind That Lays Waste (124 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Chris Andrews), feels as though it could be plucked from the pages of revered Southern author Flannery O’Connor. But while Almada shares some of O’Connor’s subject matter and spiritual concerns, this is largely where their similarities end. O’Connor’s stories are well known for their frequently doom-laden endings –– the personal violence building to almost apocalyptic proportions in the lives of her characters. Almada tends to take a gentler and more introspective tract.

The slender tome focuses on the tentative connections between Reverend Pearson, his daughter, Leni, and the sparse crew at the garage they find themselves marooned at: the elder Gringo Brauer and his progeny, Jose, nicknamed Tapioca. As Gringo works on the broke-down auto, and as a storm begins to brew over the countryside, Almada steadily reveals the characters’ backstories in alternating chapters.

As a young boy, Pearson was baptized in a river by a traveling preacher and has since taken to his role as Reverend with a zeal his disaffected daughter does not share. She still bears the emotional scars from the day her father abandoned Leni’s less-believing mother by the roadside. Regardless, Pearson clearly holds sway over his congregation, which Almada wonderfully depicts in an expressive passage:

When he lifts his head, he takes two steps forward and looks at his audience. The way he looks, you know he’s looking at you, even if you’re sitting in the back row. (It’s Christ who’s looking at you!) He begins to speak. (Christ’s tongue is moving in his mouth!) His arms begin to perform their choreography of gestures, only the hands moving at first, slowly, as if they were caressing the listeners’ heavy brows. (Christ’s fingertips on my temples!) Gradually his forearms and upper arms begin to move as well. The torso remains still, but already you can sense a movement in his stomach. (It’s the flame of Christ burning inside him!)

In contrast to the Reverend, Gringo Brauer is a practical, “salt of the earth” type whose days of hard-drinking and womanizing are far behind him; he’s since settled into a contented middle-age, satisfied with a life fixing cars and looking after his collection of stray dogs, as well as another kind of “stray” –– the son he never knew he had until the boy’s mother dropped him off at Brauer’s doorstep.

As the Reverend’s auto troubles lead to a long, humid afternoon of repairs and conversation, Brauer is none too pleased when Pearson begins saying grace over their meals and speaking of spiritual concerns. He tolerates the Biblical talk the best he can, but when Pearson takes a shine to Tapioca –– seeing in the boy a reflection of himself as a younger, untainted child –– conflict between the two men threatens to boil over. Almada proves adept at depicting the religious fervor that takes hold of Pearson when considering Tapioca; there’s an unnerving intensity and single-mindedness to his passion:

Tapioca, on the other hand, was as clean as a newborn child; all his pores were open, ready to take Jesus in and breathe him out again.

Together they would turn the Reverend’s work, which was still just the sketch of a long-cherished dream, into something concrete and monumental.

Tapioca, Jose, would not be his successor, but what the Reverend had failed to become. Because Reverend Pearson had a past, too, as he knew better than anyone else, and in that past there were mistakes, and those mistakes came back now and then to haunt him like a vague but persistent cloud of buzzing flies. There had been no Reverend Pearson to guide him. He had fashioned himself as best he could. But the boy would have him. With Reverend Pearson on one side and Christ on the other, Jose would be invincible.

The climax to The Wind That Lays feels appropriately Biblical: we watch these two very different men come to blows in the mud as rain pelts the earth and thunder cracks the sky. In the grim, often fatalistic world of Flannery O’Connor, this violent confrontation would have likely led to an irrevocable tragedy. But here there is a path forward for these characters, one in which they might learn to let things go and develop as individuals. Alamada’s nuanced approach leaves room to explore her characters’ pasts in some detail, but, crucially, these individuals –– even the Reverend Pearson –– are not defined by their mistakes.

No doubt there will be consequences for their actions, as Pearson’s determined quest to convert Tapioca against Brauer’s wishes only further drives the wedge between the Reverend and his daughter. But their mission will not end here, at this wayward garage in the country. For them, the road stretches far ahead; Almada’s novel offers but a brief glimpse of a moment in their journey, but it is one she renders with great and deliberate meaning.

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‘The Paper Wasp’ by Lauren Acampora: Truer Than Life

Lauren Acampora novel The Paper WaspIt’s easy to conceive of the world of celebrity as a modern day pantheon, populated by figures as remote and untouchable as the gods. But how often we forget that those who fill the pages of Us Weekly are, in fact, people, too –– with family, old flames, and, yes, former classmates tucked away in their distant pasts. As Lauren Acampora’s first novel, A Paper Wasp (289 pages; Grove Press), opens, Abby travels to her ten-year high school reunion in Western Michigan in hopes of making contact with Elise, a former childhood companion now on her way to Hollywood stardom. Although the two only share a few fleeting words at the rather dismal event –– the mentally ill, artistically inclined Abby is dismayed to find most of her classmates have settled for a more conventional life of marriage and childrearing –– Abby takes Elise’s tossed off invitation to visit her as an excuse to steal her parents’ credit cards and a book a flight to L.A..

Unbeknownst to Elise, the decade since graduation has not been kind to Abby: she’s manic-depressive, lives in her parents’ house, works the cash register at grocery chain Meijer’s, and the scar along her abdomen serves as a memento of a failed suicide attempt. If Abby thinks a sudden venture to Los Angeles and the possibility of rekindling her friendship with Elise will solve all of her problems, including a stunting case of artist’s block, she is sorely mistaken. Her psychological issues are as tightly packed as the luggage she takes on the long flight to California.

A Paper Wasp almost dares readers to see how long they can occupy Abby’s truly dark and tormented mind. Abby is clearly obsessed with her grade-school friend:

After you were tucked into bed, breathing loudly through your mouth, I stood in the room for a few moments, watching you. I remembered those everlasting slumber parties, those torturous nights when I’d stare at your face in the dark –– your profile like that of an illustrated girl in an English children’s book, the fine articulations of an Alice or a Wendy, the curl at the nostril, the vermillion of the upper lip –– before you turned away, in slumber, and the hair fell across your face, screening me out.

Before long, Abby has ingratiated herself into Elise’s life, and secured a position as the starlet’s live-in personal assistant. Abby soon begins to fantasize about both Elise’s lover, the Argentinean actor and polo player Rafael, and the possibility of collaborating with experimental film director Auguste Perren, who hovers around Elise’s social circle. If A Paper Wasp were following a more cliché or expected route, one might expect Abby to ultimately usurp her friend’s position in the movie industry, leading to a tale of sisterhood turned to professional and romantic rivalry. But Acampora is true to her characters: Abby is simply too damaged and toxic to ever make inroads in show business. She comes to alienate nearly everyone she meets, and even her appraisals of Elise absolutely drip with disdain, despite their supposed friendship:

I was an observer, a tagalong, a pet. It didn’t bother me to be left in waiting rooms during dress fittings, to sit in the parking lot during script workshops. I didn’t mind not being introduced when you ran into an acquaintance at Nobu. I was admittedly lost by the politics of the film industry, useless as a strategic adviser. I was simply there to listen, to groan in sympathy and glow with pride. And listening was what I did best, what I was grateful to the heavens to be able to do. I loved the sound of your voice. Whatever its petty grievances or vacuous prattle, I would have been happy to hear it forever.

Acampora’s 2015 story collection, The Wonder Garden, displayed a Cheever-esque talent for depicting suburban dysfunction, and she brings that same flair for middle class despair to her characterization of Abby, particularly when describing her dreary college days in Michigan, which stand in sharp contrast with Elise’s sunny existence in California:

When the leaves flipped their colors that first September, it was a personal betrayal, sleight of hand. Rather than slowly fading into gold and umber, the trees burned red. They surrounded the quad in a satanic circle. I sat on the grass and tried to quietly read the newspaper. A terrorist siege in Russia, children taken hostage with their parents. I turned the page. The Janjaweed, burning up villages. Students threw frisbees around me and laughed on their way to the dining hall.

Living with Elise, Abby gains access to the Rhizone, a Scientology-esque creative compound overseen by the enigmatic Perren. It’s there she partakes in guided dream workshops in order to access the Spring, the Rhizone’s concept of the creative unconscious as influenced by the works of Carl Jung. “It’s very important that you listen to these dreams,” her guide at the Rhizone instructs her, unaware of just how unstable Abby is. “Their messages can be truer than life.” This sets Abby on a dangerous course.

Despite the often-vapid nature of Hollywood and Elise’s solipsistic worldview, it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for the actress, especially as Abby weaves a destructive path around her. The novel nears its conclusion as Abby reaches the crescendo of her latest manic phase, and we have to fear for those caught in the young woman’s machinations. A Paper Wasp is a dark fable on the nature of friendship, fame, and the way dreams can influence our waking life. It’s also a reminder of the consequences of mental illness when, as in Abby’s case, it goes unchecked and untreated for too long.

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‘A Student of History’ by Nina Revoyr: A Term Among High Society

Nina Revoyr novel A Student of HistoryIn Los Angeles, there exists a rarified social echelon known as the Street People. These are not, as their moniker might suggest, the many who find themselves without shelter (much like San Francisco, L.A. is currently dealing with a staggering increase in its homeless population). Rather, the name refers to the wealthy landowners and developers who saw prominent streets named after them: the Crenshaws, the Chandlers, the Van Nuys. The descendants of these 20th century tycoons move in a world of power and privilege, the kind that isn’t even whispered about in the society pages. It is into this hermetically sealed environment that the protagonist of Nina Revoyr’s latest novel, A Student of History (238 pages; Akashic Books), finds himself thrust after he takes the job of transcribing the diaries of one of Los Angeles’ most wealthy heiresses.

In his early thirties, Richard Nagano is a graduate student at USC, still reeling from a recent breakup and struggling to make ends meet. At first, he looks at the gig working for Marion W– (the book censors her last name as though to protect the family’s privacy and prevent litigation) as merely a way to supplement his meager income. But as the elderly Marion takes a shine to Richard, going so far as to update his wardrobe with far more stylish (and expensive) attire, and employ him as her escort to various social clubs and galas, Richard realizes the shrewd older woman might be his entry into the upper class. What’s more, he begins to suspect her youthful diaries contain the kind of compelling historical gossip that could revamp his currently stalled graduate thesis.

Both of Richard’s motivations dovetail when he becomes infatuated with Fiona, a well-to-do socialite who quickly develops an interest in Richard, despite the ring on her finger. At her urging, he continues to investigate the tragic secrets hidden in Marion’s past, secrets that once uncovered could potentially put Richard’s good standing with his employer at risk.

With her past novels carrying titles such as Lost Canyon and Southland, it’s clear Southern California has long represented a preoccupation for Revoyr. Her style is both elegant and pleasurable to read; she juggles geographical detail, context, and plotting with a deceptive ease. Revoyr’s L.A. is a city teeming with contradictions, one where the world of everyday concerns and that of the elite class co-exist but rarely intersect until, that is, a random stroke of luck or fate sees a person travel from one world to the next. But even as Richard rubs elbows with the city’s rich and powerful, there remains something to remind him of his origins: his mixed heritage means Marion’s largely white social circles tend to exoticize his good looks; and while Marion may invest in Richard’s clothing, she’s not about to buy him a new car. And so, Richard must head from one soiree to the next in his broken down Honda, the shocked looks of the valet parking attendants a constant echo of his working-class roots.

At the heart of A Student of History, and what prevents the novel from merely serving as a takedown of the scandalous ultra-rich, is Revoyr’s complex characterization of Marion W–. At times, Marion doesn’t seem to have a good word to say about any of her peers; she frequently speaks out of both sides of her mouth, and doesn’t exactly tow the line of political correctness. Yet she is kind to those who work for her, she is fiercely protective of her family, and she absolutely dotes on Richard. While Richard serves as the audience identification character and our entry point into an unfamiliar domain, it’s Marion who proves the most memorable in the drama that unfolds. Her contradictions are exemplified by the fact that she donates generous sums of money to charitable causes, yet does so anonymously, in large part to upstage and frustrate other donors:

You gave that money?”
“Why, yes. Several years ago. No one there has any idea. They all think I’m a stingy old bitch.”
I let this news sink in. Of course she had given it. That was the reason she’d wanted to attend. “But…why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you want people to know?”
“I have no use for all this fuss,” she said. “People groveling and then wanting more. It’s better they think that you won’t given them anything.”

When Marion ultimately comes to feel as though Richard has betrayed her trust, it registers as a betrayal for the reader as well, even though Richard has far more to lose than Marion with his expulsion from the Hollywood high life. Through their time together, Richard reaches some understanding of Marion’s contradictory nature:

She was a misanthrope who gave generously to causes she claimed to despise; an aesthete who welcomed people who didn’t share her sensibilities; a professed hater of the social niceties that she performed with such grace.

In many ways, A Student of History adopts the familiar structure of the bildungsroman; like other classic novels before it, such as Sentimental Education and Great Expectations, we witness an earnest young man enter a hitherto unexplored sphere of luxury and privilege. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading the novel is inhabiting that familiar structure, knowing all the while Richard will likely end his term among high society with a sense that perhaps he has lost more than he has gained. Yet by placing the novel in so specific a milieu—Los Angeles in 2019, an era where Americans are feeling the class divide more than ever—Revoyr forges a work that stands on its own. If the book’s ambitions prove modest, it feels entirely appropriate, considering Richard’s ultimate discovery that sometimes a modest life lived well––far from society luncheons and award ceremonies––is good enough.

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‘Diary of a Murderer’ by Young-ha Kim: Offbeat and Darkly Rewarding

Young-ha Kim novel Diary of a MurdererWith a title like Diary of a Murderer (200 pages; Mariner; translated by Krys Lee), the latest English release of Young-ha Kim’s work might attract some strange looks while you’re holding it on the subway. But it’s a feeling more adventurous readers will be used to by now, and this story collection boasts precisely the kind of offbeat and darkly rewarding fiction that should appeal to such readers.

An award-winning author in his native Korea, Young-ha Kim has already seen several of his novels translated into English, though Diary of a Murderer is his first story collection to be published in the United States. The book opens with the titular novella, told from the point-of-view of a “retired” serial killer with an unusual predicament: right as he begins to suspect his adopted daughter’s new boyfriend might be a killer himself, he receives a grim Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Suddenly every day becomes a struggle to preserve his memories as he races to collect proof that his unsuspecting daughter’s suitor is not who he claims to be.

The idea of a protagonist attempting to solve a mystery while dealing with short-term memory loss no doubt brings to mind Christopher Nolan’s influential 2000 thriller Memento. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Young-ha Kim’s story was brought to the silver screen in Korea. 2017’s Memoir of a Murderer proved a box office hit in there, despite the fact that the screenplay deviates from the source material by turning protagonist Byeong-soo into a more likable, Dexter-esque vigilante who only preys on the worst of society.) But Kim’s story makes no such commercial considerations and, as a writer, he seems uninterested in the genre or pulp potential of his premise. Instead, he employs the idea of an unrepentant killer with a rapidly deteriorating mental state as a means to ruminate on the nature of memory, familial responsibility, and evil.

Throughout the story, Byeong-soo resists others’ attempts to psychoanalyze his behavior; he seems to suggest that the mere impetus to investigate evil––to try and study its root or cause––is tantamount to courting self-destruction. The most chilling exchange comes late in the novella when a journalist arrives to interview Byeong-soo about his past crimes:

A man who said he was a journalist visited me. He said he wanted to understand evil.
What he said was so clichéd, it amused me.
I said, “Why are you trying to understand evil?”
“I’d have to understand it in order to avoid it.”
I said, “If you can understand it, then it isn’t evil. Just stick to praying, so you can stay out of evil’s way.”

 The rest of the collection features three shorter works that leave behind thriller trappings for more existential and absurd territory, which proves even more satisfying. “The Origin of Life” follows the hapless Seojin, who begins a love affair with a childhood sweetheart named Ina, now trapped in an abusive marriage. Their romance soon leads to terrible consequences for Ina but, fortunately for Seojin, he is able to extract himself from the situation before any harm comes to him; thus, the story serves as both an examination of emotional cowardice as well as the all-encompassing sense of relief one experiences upon narrowly avoiding a disastrous fate:

He was suddenly overjoyed. He was the only one intact, now and in the future. Happiness overwhelmed him. He had resisted temptation, and even felt proud that he had protected himself from a crisis. Fanciful ideas like the origin of life didn’t matter; being alive was what really mattered. Only then did he feel he had truly grown up, as he proudly let go of the sentimental kid who’d read biographies and harbored useless dreams.

Possibly the highlight of the collection, “Missing Child,” chronicles the devastating fallout that occurs when a young married couple’s small child is abducted in a department store and, far stranger, the radical new domestic life that forms when the boy is returned to his parents many years later, after the husband has quit his job and the wife developed schizophrenia. The family unit finds themselves unable to rectify the truth of their biological relation with the unease they now experience in each other’s company––too much time has passed and too much has been lost to ever go back to the way things were. Although the story is told from the third-person perspective, Young-ha Kim briefly enters the father’s consciousness during a crucial moment with his son:

I started considering genes only after we lost you, after I’d crawled on all fours searching for strands of your hair. I believed that it would help us find you. And because of the test results, you’re sitting in front of me right now. But you’re a real stranger to me, just like I must be a stranger to you. If the DNA from the hair I finally found on your baby clothes matches the cells scraped from the inside of your mouth, it means that you’re the same person, and we have to believe it, we must believe it, we’ve got no choice but to believe it, but why can’t we see it with our own eyes?

Diary of a Murderer ends on a meta and comically surreal note: “The Writer” follows a middle-aged novelist faced with writer’s block and a looming deadline, even as his ex-wife may or may not be sleeping with his new editor. Young-ha Kim clearly derives glee here from poking fun at the notion of the writer with a capital “W” as enshrined by popular culture. The narrator of “The Writer” is constantly trying to devise ways to get out of his literary contract, with little consideration given to the integrity of his work or his audience of loyal readers. When he realizes he could be sued for breach of contract if he doesn’t eventually turn in a book, he receives some advice from his friend, a philosophy lecturer:

“Then how about this instead?”
“What?”
“Write an unintelligible, chaotic book that’s unpublishable. Write something like James Joyce’s Ulysses. A difficult book, one around a thousand pages long, without a clear plot line or a recognizable subject.”
Ulysses has a plot and a concrete subject.”
“To be honest, I haven’t read it. What’s it about?”

Unconventional and acerbic, Young-ha Kim’s stories possess a knack for black humor as their protagonists find themselves in increasingly degrading situations. Diary of a Murderer feels like a stellar entry point into the writer’s distorted world, and makes clear why his examinations of contemporary urban life and its many contradictions have earned him comparisons to the likes of Albert Camus and Haruki Murakami.

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‘King of Joy’ by Richard Chiem: Millennial Malaise

Richard Chiem novel King of JoyKing of Joy (176 pages; Soft Skull Press) floats out from under a narcotic haze. The first novel from Richard Chiem follows the recent reissue of his story collection, You Private Person, and expands on that book’s knack for exploring millennial ennui. As King of Joy opens, lead character Corvus finds herself in a purgatorial place; on the run from a painful past, she’s spent the last year residing in a secluded woodland manor with a host of other young women and their employer, a pornographer named Tim. Her days are loosely spent in a druggy stupor, socializing with her cast-mates and performing for Tim’s camera:

The poise and happiness of her years are gone but she owns a slowness no one could take from her, a rock no one could dare budge, drinking cold milk straight from the carton, more in her head than anywhere else…The lie she tells sometimes is that she’s doing okay, that there is nothing wrong. Most days, there is nothing to say.

Early on, we witness Corvus’ arrival at the mansion on a pitch-black night; she watches a half-naked woman use a torch to light a tree on fire as others dance and pop champagne bottles. It’s a surreal moment, one inherently cinematic; Chiem has appropriately cited Harmony Korine’s 2013 movie Spring Breakers as a primary influence on the novel. Just as in that film, there is an undercurrent of menace throughout King of Joy, creating the sense that violence could erupt at any moment. Both Tim’s intentions and Corvus’ future appear as ambiguous as the past Corvus remains determined to put behind her.

The novel utilizes a cyclical structure as Corvus’ departure from the house in the woods ultimately leads her to a different isolated mansion, this one protected by a moat full of man-hungry hippopotami. The strange events that unfold there trigger Corvus’ memories of her former husband, a successful but tortured playwright, and the modest life they once shared together. It’s here we develop a sense of the tremendous cloud of grief Corvus has been living under for more than a year now—but also an understanding of how that same grief can be channeled into a source of strength:

In story books, in movies, and in pop songs, Corvus has always loved the stubborn characters the most….the loser getting kicked in the teeth and choosing to smile, mouth full of blood, instead.

King of Joy possesses a funereal tone, shifting through events in a nonlinear fashion that suggests a consciousness in Corvus attempting to reckon with the trauma of her past. There’s a dream-like quality to the situations Chiem invents, and animals in the book are often attributed more admirable human qualities than the humans: people let Corvus down but pit bulls, cats, and hippopotami alike display loyalty, adoration, and a fierce protective spirit.

The novel tends to take on the same languid energy as the lives it depicts. In that sense, Chiem was likely wise not to extend the story past two hundred pages. But there is something refreshingly ordinary about the author’s milieu. His characters are disaffected urbanites, not academics or precocious wunderkind. They listen to Elliot Smith, work menial jobs, and look forward to the end of the day when they can self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. King of Joy finds Corvus occupying a bleak fork in the road. Through her struggles, she doesn’t reach any hard-fought truth; she doesn’t emerge from her suffering with a greater appreciation for life, she simply emerges, and in her world, that’s enough.

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‘Trump Sky Alpha’ by Mark Doten: President Troll

Mark Doten novel Trump Sky AlphaFor many Americans, the phrase “The Man with His Finger on the Button” has never registered as so ominous and disturbing as with a President as ill-tempered and braggadocios as Donald Trump in the White House. As Mark Doten’s latest novel, Trump Sky Alpha (288 pages; Graywolf Press), opens, those fears are realized when a crippling cyber-attack on America’s infrastructure prompts President Trump to unleash the country’s nuclear arsenal upon its perceived enemies. “The loss of life, it’s always tragic,” Trump intones from his massive zeppelin-like fortress, the titular Trump Sky Alpha. “But it’s been incredible. The results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. We have little Rocket Man and the crazy disrespect and Iran and China and it’s all been contained beautifully.”

Doten then jumps a year later, after roughly 90 percent of the world’s population is eradicated in the ensuing nuclear warfare on January 28, with the survivors residing in heavily monitored, sterile government shelters. Our protagonist, Rachel, is a journalist and widow given her first assignment as a writer for the fledgling New York Times (now based in Modesto): a piece examining Internet humor before the end of the world. Rachel makes the case that there are other, more important stories to be telling––for instance, just who launched the cyber-attack that precipitated the events of 1/28, and how many civilians are still alive out there in the apocalyptic wasteland––but her editor assures her this story, about the memes and jokes that comprised Internet culture shortly before Trump launched the nukes, is the only story their government handlers are comfortable with her writing at the moment.

Just as the remnants of civilization have survived, albeit in a controlled environment, so, too, has the World Wide Web; in order to write her story, Rachel is permitted access to the last cache of the Internet before 1/28. Rachel’s investigation sends her tumbling down the rabbit hole of web humor in the early 21st century, from Pepe the Frog to the Distracted Boyfriend meme. Her study throws in sharp relief the difference between the way the tech giants of Silicon Valley envisioned their social media landscape—

…the men who saw the internet as a new utopian space that would dissolve the old industrial giants, the obsolete monsters, those countries and corporates of unfreedom, and usher in new forms of being, or restore the old ways we’d lost…

—and how quickly that naïve vision was perverted by users who resorted to the kind of virulent trolling, misogyny, and racism that can be found in almost any corner of the Internet:

The sense that it was this, it was the structure of the internet, that had amplified the stupid and the evil, and at the same time flattened them, made them impossible to distinguish. Or made distinguishing them somehow beside the point.

Trump Sky Alpha draws a direct line from the poisoned well of Internet culture during the Aughts to the rise of Trump as both cultural icon and President––our Troll-in-Chief––as if to say one would not be possible without the other. “From Watergate to Gamergate, from Pizzagate to Trump. A line, perhaps, or lines,” Rachel writes.

Despite her article’s seemingly frivolous subject matter, Rachel’s stake in it proves personal: if she turns in a satisfactory draft, the government has promised to take her to Prospect Park, the site of the mass grave most likely to contain her wife and daughter. The story ultimately leads Rachel on a strange journey to uncover the identity of the mysterious hacker, known only as Birdcrash, who may have launched the cyber-attack just before 1/28, as well as their ties to a Filipino-immigrant writer named Sebastian de Rosales and his obscure novel The Subversive. By the time Rachel comes face to face with Birdcrash, the pop culture-obsessed computer genius references everything from The Legend of Zelda to Moonraker, all while holding Rachel hostage with a power drill:

Did you see The Matrix. The real truth––the reason Neo can stop the squids in the real world, otherwise barely acknowledged––is that there is no outside the system in The Matrix, they’re all in there all the time, it’s bedtime stories or lullabies, this dream of resistance. The metalevel, the outside of the real matrix, in that, their head jackets aren’t removable…But here we can. We can do something about it here. We are drilling in your head.

Though Birdcrash’s ramblings are clearly the product of a disturbed mind, his rumination on the impossibility of true “resistance” echoes another of the book’s arguments: that in the end, as our country lies in smoldering ruins, armchair activists and impassioned tweets will have done little to stem the ride toward ruin. “There’s no magic hashtag resistance position right now for journalists,” Rachel states. “There’s no democracy dies in darkness or the fucking news fit to print. Just accomplices to whatever this is.” Though Rachel makes this declaration from the other side of a nuclear Armageddon, it’s easy to make the case she speaks for us in the moment, echoing the helplessness many Americans feel each day when they turn on the news.

Unlike the would-be “disruptors” of the tech world, Trump Sky Alpha proves genuinely disruptive literature, taking readers on an often violent and unsettling ride, told in a form that feels as fluid and ever-shifting as Internet culture itself. Doten draws ample influence from his science-fiction forbearers, particularly cyberpunk icons such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but by setting his novel only a year or two from our present time, Doten removes the sometimes-reassuring barrier of genre and presents us with a novel that is uncomfortably and hideously now.

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‘Mothers’ by Chris Power: The Fragility of Connection

Chris Power Mothers story collectionThe characters in Mothers (287 pages; FSG), the debut story collection by London writer Chris Power, occupy tenuous positions in their personal lives. Many of the ten stories here hone in on the bitter resentments and petty debates that arise when a romantic relationship has barely formed or, alternately, reached its breaking point. In “The Crossing,” protagonist Ann comes to regret her backpacking weekend with recent lover Jim:

Several times, in the weeks since she had met him, Ana had thought Jim was telling her what she had wanted to hear. Even before she agreed to this weekend away the trait had been irritating her…She had wanted to sleep with him as soon as she saw him, leaning against the kitchen counter at a party in a big, dilapidated house in Chalk Farm. And she had slept with him, but now she wished she had left it at that.

As one might expect, the backpacking excursion doesn’t end well for Jim; his attempt to restore some of his masculine pride and put himself back in Ann’s good graces leads to disaster at a swift-moving river crossing.

Stephen, the narrator of “Portals,” visits Paris to stay with an old acquaintance, a charismatic Spanish dancer who invariably wins the affection of the men who cross her path (including Stephen). As various would-be gentlemen callers vie for Monica’s attention, the brewing rivalry among them sets the stage for a violent altercation at a French drum ‘n bass club:

Michael went down so fast it was like I made him disappear. A space cleared around us. Monica—who I never saw or spoke to again—looked at me like she didn’t even know me. Which she didn’t, I realized. I laughed. It was so ridiculous and sad.

And in perhaps the collection’s strongest piece, “Above the Wedding,” a young Englishman named Liam travels to a destination wedding in Mexico City for the purposes of confronting the husband-to-be, with whom he shared a brief physical tryst and still nurtures feelings for:

As the security light above the garage flicked on, frosting the driveway white, Liam called his name.
Miguel stopped, turned.
“You’re going to have to talk to me some time,” Liam said.
Miguel smiled, not unkindly. “No I am not, Liam,” he said, and turned and walked into the darkness.

It is the “unkindly” in that last sentence that hurts the most, and throughout Mothers Power exhibits a similar knack for detail in his depictions of the way people navigate disintegrating relationships, whether due to fading sexual chemistry or the barriers put up by mental illness. An eponymous sequence of stories appears at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the book, each installment focusing on the life of the troubled Swedish native Eva. The opening story relays her childhood outside of Stockholm, while later pieces touch on her struggles with depression and failed attempts at maintaining a family. Power lets some of the connections among the stories reveal themselves slowly, and each one can comfortably stand on its own, though the final two chapters are united by the imprint of Eva’s physic pain: “When it comes it’s like all the rules change,” she explains. “You feel everything falling apart and coming back together in new shapes, shapes you can’t understand. You lose the ability to make sense of anything.”

A couple of the stories in Mothers register as outliers: “The Colossus of Rhodes” ruminates on the nature of storytelling itself, as the narrator admits to exaggerating the details of an uncomfortable incident from his childhood in order to express the anxiety of being a parent in a world where it is often impossible protect one’s children (“…I can’t help but wonder if the same thing happened to them, would I want to know? And if I knew, what then?”). Elsewhere, “Johnny Kingdom” follows the hard luck of an English stand-up comic and family man attempting to make a living by impersonating the fictional comedian Johnny Kingdom (a clear stand-in for the late Rodney Dangerfield). Power cleverly utilizes the concept of a comic recycling a deceased comedian’s material to examine writer’s block and the struggle to find a creative voice that is uniquely one’s own:

Sometimes he was asked, with genuine puzzlement, why he was doing someone else’s bits—a crime in comedy, but complicated in this case by the fact that he wasn’t trying to pass someone else’s line off as his own, he was only performing someone’s entire act… He was as uncomfortable with what he was doing as anyone else was.

Mothers proves an elegant collection, touching on a host of issues deeply ingrained in our modern experience: the fragility of human connection, the impulse to travel, and the painful ramifications of mental illness, among others. Power’s prose is spare and exacting, excising the needless word in pursuit of emotional truth. Mothers proves a rewarding experience for the lover of quiet short stories that speak volumes.

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Rock ‘n Roll Suicide: ‘Destroy All Monsters’ by Jeff Jackson

Destroy All MonstersTo the young, music can be a religion. Destroy All Monsters (357 pages; FSG), the latest novel from Charlotte-based author Jeff Jackson, trades in the kind of punk fervor that inspires teenagers to thrash in mosh pits, raid merch booths, and obsessively listen to the same album. The power of what a few kids and some amped instruments can do is clearly a subject near to Jackson’s heart; not only does he perform in the self-described “weirdo pop band” Julian Calendar, but he’s allowed the vinyl single format to influence the design of the novel itself: Destroy All Monsters features an A-Side—which constitutes the novel proper­­—and a reverse B-Side, an alternate follow-up to the main story that follows some of the same characters in radically different incarnations. The novel contends frankly with both the difficulties of maintaining youthful passion for loud, distorted noise as one grows older and how the resentments and obligations of adulthood begin to accrue.

Destroy All Monsters centers on the music scene in a “conservative industrial city” called Arcadia. The prologue opens with a memorable performance by hometown heroes the Carmelite Rifles at a show attended by a motley assortment of locals:

The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities.

Also present at the show are two of the characters who will drive the rest of the novel: budding musician Florian and the forlorn but enigmatic Xenie. Not long after the Carmelite Rifles show, which ripples through the audience’s lives with the impact of an early Velvet Underground gig, a mysterious plague grips the entire country. All around the United States, club patrons are being transfixed by some unknown spell that causes them to gun down or otherwise attempt to murder the bands onstage:

The noise duo at the loft party in the Pacific Northwest. The garage rockers at the tavern in the New England suburbs. The jam band at the auditorium on the edge of the Midwestern prairie. The blue grass revivalists at the coffeehouse in the Deep South. There was never any fanfare. The killers simply walked into the clubs, took out their weapons, and started firing.

Although the killers’ motives remain largely ambiguous (most of them appear to be in a trance-like stupor as they go about their attack) the parallels to recent events are chilling. After terrorist attacks on music venues in Manchester and Paris in the last few years, it is all too easy to imagine the same violence occurring on this side of the Atlantic. The threat of danger feels heightened for the young people at the heart of Destroy All Monsters, to the point that the question of whether or not to perform a scheduled show becomes a matter of life and death for Arcadia’s local acts.

When tragedy ultimately does strike (“The band is heading for the [song] bridge when the first shot is fired”), Florian and Xenie are left to figure out how to privately mourn the loss of a close friend when seemingly everyone in town is doing so in a very public, outsized way. The spat of murders across the country also force Xenie to reckon with the fact that so much of the music playing at local venues and taking up space on her hard drive is, in a word, mediocre. “I used to have a huge music collection,” Xenie relates. “I was obsessed and even saved my concert stubs in a red cardboard box. Sometimes I’d open the box, and just touching the tickets was enough to give me a rush…These days I crave silence.”

Her statement is a lament for an age that has come to be defined by noise, much of it meaningless. Xenie and others in Arcadia’s music scene must grapple with the difficulty of conveying authentic expression in a world drowned out by sound. As Florian contemplates after the last show he’ll ever play: “It’s too easy to transform a moment of truth into a cheap performance.”

Destroy All Monsters understands the impetus to pick up a guitar and strum a power chord, perhaps out of the misguided notion that the result could lead to some change in the world. And the novel understands the disheartening fact that the country is full of numerous small towns like Arcadia, with its dive bars, shuttered factories, and hobo camps, each of them with their would-be punk rockers like Florian. Amid the story’s nationwide epidemic, Jackson’s characters display crucial growth: what ultimately comes to matter—more than selling out concert halls or recording a promising demo—is remaining true to the memory and last wishes of their friends after they’re gone. “Not everything has to be a performance,” Xenie concludes. “Some things should stay pure.”

Jackson, whose prose registers as punchy and acerbic, leading the reader through multiple act breaks and perspective changes with ease, is sincere in his depiction of provincial youth yearning for an escape. In the 21st century, rock ’n roll might not mean as much as it once did, but Jackson has written a fitting tribute to its lingering spirit.

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