By Matt Cosper
October 25, 2018
“Watch out for the quiet ones” is what they always say, right? Local writer/musician/visual artist and critic Jeff Jackson is no exception to that rule. To look at him, mild mannered and neat (a little like a bookish techno DJ with his short sleeve button downs and clear plastic eyeglass frames), you’d never guess that Jackson is an absolute prophet of doom. But it’s true. Diving into his works is to be immersed in landscapes often gorgeous and dreamlike but also fatalistic and raw. His new novel Destroy All Monsters, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint FSG Originals is the rock novel to end all rock novels…literally. Subtitled “The Last Rock Novel,” Destroy All Monsters is a punk rock lullaby for wasted youth living in a white noise culture.
Jackson’s work as a novelist is consistently adventurous when it comes to questions of structure. He unabashedly geeks out at the different ways an artist might invite an audience into a story. His social media accounts are littered with found images labeled as potential novel structures or potential novel narrators and his books themselves are carefully constructed story machines. Jackson attributes a great deal of his interest in and agility with structure to his time writing plays for the notorious Brooklyn-based experimental theatre troupe Collapsible (Sic) Giraffe.
“The plays have blown open up my sense of what’s possible in fiction,” Jackson said. “I’ve written literal dream plays for an audience that was sleeping in beds while the show happened around them and plays that invoked a series of rituals to contact the dead. It’s helped me to harness dream logic and the power of ritual, as well as how to incorporate the grammar of film and art installation into my fiction.”
Destroy All Monsters is structured like a vinyl rock ‘n’ roll single with an “A” side entitled “My Dark Ages.” If you flip the book over and upside down you’ll get to read the shorter and stranger “B” side entitled “Kill City.” My Dark Ages is the more straightforward of the two “tracks.” It’s a narrative following the eruption and fall out around an epidemic of violence, a plague of shootings in which musicians are killed while performing live. Kill City is the weirder more impressionistic read, more violent and surreal. That’s saying a lot of a book that trades heavily in violence and surrealism.
Jackson’s books are atmospheric in the extreme; you can taste the air and feel it on your skin. In Destroy All Monsters, we move from rock clubs and squalid punk flophouses to hobo camps in the wooded outskirts of the fictional post-industrial town of Arcadia, where the novel takes place. This strong use of mise en scene is central to a reader’s experience of the book, and to Jackson’s ouvre as a whole. The worlds that Jackson’s readers find themselves in are shabby and cold, hip but dissipated. There is a sense of something damp about all of it, a mildewed atmosphere appropriate for a dead world. The way his characters float slouching and shrugging their way through disaster; how they reach out for one another in the quiet moments between catastrophes is unnervingly vulnerable, as embarrassing as it is endearing.
Destroy All Monsters, like Jackson’s earlier works, is populated with damaged young people, overgrown kids trying (and often failing) to see clearly through a skein of scar tissue. Our protagonists are painfully inarticulate at times. There is a naivete to them that belies the structural adventurousness and philosophical sophistication of the narratives they move in. It’s hard not to love these kids. Asked about his penchant for writing young characters, Jackson returns to his preoccupation with possibility: “Younger people are often at a stage where everything is in flux. It’s a dynamic time when your life can swerve onto wildly different paths. With younger protagonists, there are more possibilities in play in terms of where a story can go and the ways that characters can change. It’s harder to find that with older characters.”
Dealing as it does with the phenomena of mass public shootings Destroy All Monsters could easily have rested on the political themes of our current era. However, the book is better described as being concerned with ethics than with politics. In fact, the violence at the center of the novel’s action has less to do with our contemporary gun culture for Jackson and more to do with capital “C” Culture and it’s waning influence in the age of digital media.
“I certainly don’t endorse violence. And many of the characters’ views in the novel are their own, so to speak. But let’s be honest: Bad Art helps nobody. At best, it’s benign and forgettable. Often it’s toxic and soul-crushing and tramples on beauty and smothers a sense of possibility,” Jackson said. “Our times are terrible enough without Bad Art adding to our troubles. There’s so much art in the world right now that it’s often hard to tell the signal from the noise.” It’s this ambivalence that transforms what could be a straight-forward exploration of mass violence into something more complex. This blending of big questions with a real and intimate sense of humanity is at the core of what we want from a novel. To accomplish this in the context of a decidedly experimental structure and unique authorial voice is what makes Destroy All Monsters such an achievement.
In his work Jackson charts a course through the dangerous terrain between innocence and experience, asking urgent questions about how to live ethically in a saturated world on the edge of collapse, a landscape soaked through and rotten with violence and boredom and noise. There is something in Destroy All Monsters, like his previous work Mira Corpora and Novi Sad that is like stumbling upon some secret in a loved one’s home. The familiar and the strange are intimate companions in the mythic structures Jackson builds for his casts of the underwhelming and the overwhelmed. There is humor and there is horror, and ultimately the feeling that maybe some grand and invisible clock has tolled the change of hours and that this is a folklore for a new era. And running through all of this is a vulnerability, a nakedness of feeling that is almost unbearable at times. For a writer so concerned with structure, Jackson’s books pack plenty of emotional firepower.