Tag Archives: Two Dollar Radio

The End of the Universe Begins in the Suburbs

 

twodollarradio.com

twodollarradio.com

Writers have long mined the suburbs for rich veins of ironically sunny ennui. The highways, big box stores, and mathematically precise grids of identical houses are easily made to stand for culture and ambition left at the wayside. The sprawl extends to the horizon, then swings back and plunges just as far into your soul.

In his screenplay-as-novel The Glacier, performer and writer Jeff Wood exaggerates this common anxiety to fantastical, end-of-the-universe proportions while managing to say surprisingly little.

Early on, we see a crew of three driving through the snowy landscape and taking measurements, chatting and arguing among themselves. But this is no ordinary survey crew, and something otherworldly is taking place beneath the surface of this nameless Ohio suburb.

A mushroom cloud appears in the distance, and “a wall of atomic fire rolls across the grid.” Jonah, the quietest of the surveyors, pauses the cloud, is vaporized, then reappears along with all else that has been destroyed.

We see other characters, all somehow affected by these stitches in reality, who eventually cross paths. There’s Robert, an old man who’s barely stopped himself from committing suicide with a shotgun to the head. Samson sells hot chocolate from an ice cream truck, but can offer more powerful substances to those who ask. Simone is a caterer for the polite but cold Mr. Stevens, and suffers from an unnamable fatigue.

While time keeps stuttering, they continue, faintly aware that something’s off. Strange things keep happening: the characters glimpse face-painted apparitions of themselves, something smells like it’s burning, and a flock of cardinals crashes into Robert’s house. All this is rendered in flawless, crystalline prose: “Red birds are piled like roses, circling the house.”

What’s happening? We keep on being reminded that it is getting closer, but never quite learn the nature of it. Instead we’re treated to pretty but vapid monologues, such as this one when Jonah reads aloud from his notebook:

 It came like a great tide, sweeping them away. A continual, invisible explosion of white heat particles twinkling and glittering in the ether between entropy and determination. Suspended and informed somehow, and brutally awake. A throbbing nerve mode. Arced-mass breathing in the curvature of space as if released from its cage of flesh and skull in one precise flash. Titanium veins pounding incandescent armies of nano-teleology.

Toward the end, we witness the prologue to “it”—a grotesque mass suicide orchestrated by the catering boss Mr. Stevens. He gives some speeches of his own, marked by the same mix of philosophical and scientific terms name-dropped in a muddled frenzy, before the novel culminates in “a field of brilliant white light” and what appears to be another reset in time.

(Mr. Stevens makes some interesting Biblical allusions. He calls the mass suicide “the last supper,” and he sees himself as the snake in Eden, who he considers the hero of the story. These allusions raise intriguing questions. What’s so bad about knowledge of good and evil? What’s the relationship between the faithful and death? But they connect to nothing else in the novel. Throwing out ideas like this without developing them adds little to a work, like a brilliant philosopher’s quote presented without context or analysis in one of my high school essays.)

We learn nothing about the characters here, their origins or motivations, as they go their murky business. No themes develop either, though Wood constantly tells us how bleak everything is (“Rising light bleeds over skeletal treetops”), and that this is in the suburbs. Even during the climax, it’s about as coherent as one of the more hastily written episodes of Dr. Who.

Wood’s prose, as I’ve acknowledged, can be lovely, but imagery does not a novel make. Atmosphere may be able to carry a film by itself; on the page, it grows cloying. The Glacier is not as much a novel as a collection of vignettes that glitters, weightless and mundane, in the ether between entropy and determination.

The Glacier: A Cinematic Novel by Jeff Wood. Published in September by Two Dollar Radio. 214 pages. $24.99

Follow me on twitter @RNaokiOBryan

No Hope in the Wilderness

twodollarradio.com

twodollarradio.com

Two hitmen travel to a bar after their latest job, expecting to get paid, only to find that it’s been burned down. So begins Colin Winnette’s debut novel Haints Stay, and it only gets bleaker from there.

Haints follows Brooke and Sugar, two brothers and the aforementioned hitmen, who wander looking for work while fighting off thieves and lawmen. One night, a young boy appears between them, naked and not knowing who he is or how he got there. After determining that he’s not worth killing, they name him Bird and let him tag along.

Bird is soon separated from the pair by a stampede of wild horses, and the brothers are arrested when they arrive in a town. Sugar—who is actually Brooke’s sister, and pregnant—is put in jail, where authorities plan to hang her after she gives birth. Brooke makes a lucky break from captivity and begins wandering through the wilderness. Bird is taken in by a family, only to be sent fleeing again when its patriarch is murdered by creditors.

As the synopsis suggests, there is no security in this world. “[W]e are always in the wilderness,” says one character. “Beneath everything is wilderness and there is no end to it.” There’s no religion, either, or standards of decency or morality, or, most of the time, familial love.

Even in the novel’s most stirring moment, when Sugar escapes from prison, massacres a town searching for her newborn, and takes off when she finds it, Winnette makes clear that it’s not a mother’s love at work:

“As it was, something was keeping the thing pressed to his chest. Something made him want to warm it and stop it from crying. He did not feel a tenderness toward it, but felt a strong desire to balance it out. To put the creature and himself on a more even keel.”

Haints Stay does not have particularly well-developed characters or sense of place—the setting seems vaguely western and apocalyptic—and sometimes feels like a bleak parable without a moral. And the coincidences that bring various characters together in its final pages strains credulity, introducing sentimentality into a novel that proudly shuns it.

The novel’s ending gives us not hope but a bit of sick comfort. Terrible as it can be, the world keeps moving along in awfully familiar patterns.

Haints Stay by Colin Winnette. Published June 2 by Two Dollar Radio. 212 pages. $16.00

Starving Among the Stars

sarah-gerard.com

sarah-gerard.com

By the time we meet her, there’s not much left to know about the nameless narrator of Sarah Gerard’s debut novel Binary Star except that she has an eating disorder.

She hates her body, too flabby compared to those of the celebrities who condemn her from magazine covers. She eats and purges. She substitutes coffee and Red Bull for sleep. She stays in a relationship (and goes on a road trip) with an alcoholic and indifferent boyfriend who feels passion only for vegan activism. She counts every calorie: “I eat four banana chips and regret it because they’re cooked in coconut oil and sugar. I feel like a failure.” She wants to punish herself through painful sex and food that stings her insides.

We also see that she’s studying education and astronomy, hoping—or having once hoped—to be a science teacher. She occasionally flashes back to her practice lessons, in which she describes how stars move, burn, and fade away. Burning stars have been used as metaphors for burning people countless times before, and Gerard makes the point bluntly here, but it still works.

Ultimately, this slim, tragic, beautiful novel is powered not by its wisps of character or plot but by its intimate portrayal of a self-hatred that threatens the narrator’s sense of self and reality.

“I pull the sheets over myself and stare at the dark, I stare at nothing,” she writes. “I pant. I’m falling through space. I fall through a void without coordinates.”

–Available January 13th from Two Dollar Radio. 176 pages. $16