Like many kids who grew up in small towns where there wasn’t much to do, I spent my adolescence going to punk rock shows. I wasn’t an actual punk, mind you. While other kids bleached their hair and affixed Black Flag patches to their backpacks, I wore Wrangler jeans and ill-fitting sweaters, looking every inch the sheltered homeschooler that I was. But my complete lack of effort had the useful effect of making me appear harmless and amusing in the eyes of local gatekeepers. At least I wasn’t a poser. I was an awkward kid looking for something to do, and that put me in good company.
Even if I didn’t dress the part, I loved going to the shows. Sure, it was fun to let loose in the mosh pit and yell along with the band, but what I loved most was the sense of meaning, the feeling that seeing this particular band on this specific night was the most important thing in the world. I may have lived in a nowhere town with no culture to speak of, but those punk shows held in park pavilions and VFW halls were our own personal TV channel, our radio station, our makeshift religion. The perfect vehicle for that mix of earnestness and pretension that defines adolescence.
Jeff Jackson’s new novel Destroy All Monsters dedicates itself to depicting these feelings of isolation and transcendence. It follows several different players in a local music scene that will be familiar to anyone who’s hung around a merch table. But this is no nostalgia trip. You won’t find wistful odes to the scene of the author’s youth. Instead you’ll find violence and contagion leaping from scene to scene, leaving real bodies in its real wake. Is this the dormant spirit of rock and roll, come to wreak vengeance on its halfhearted acolytes for their lack of faith? Or is some malevolent force using the music as a means of locating victims to satisfy its urges?
The novel begins (for the first time, but more on that later) at a theater in Arcadia, a kind of everytown whose abandoned factories and dilapidated warehouses can be found everywhere in the country. It’s the night of a concert put on by the Carmelite Rifles, local heroes who look to be on the verge of making it big. (The band’s name, combining devotion with violence, is a good encapsulation of the book’s style.) The Rifles do make it out of Arcadia to start playing bigger shows, which has the unintended consequence of causing the bands left behind to become grouchy and unambitious. Such a dynamic has happened before, of course. But what happens next is unexpected. The bands start dying.
The first act of violence occurs in Arcadia. A local band consisting of scenesters who were present at the Carmelite Rifles is attacked by a concertgoer wielding a handgun. One of the band members dies. The assailant is captured, but he offers no explanation for his actions, as if he were a puppet being controlled by someone else. And this is just the beginning. The same scenario recurs in other towns. An obscure local band is attacked by a gunman who gives no reason for his actions. Again and again this happens, quickly being designated an epidemic. But no cause—no original virus—is discovered, to say nothing of a cure. The victims go on to relive the violence, forming new bands to play the same venues, as if they’re daring the killers.
Ever since Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, death and rock and roll have always gone together. Many of the greatest rock musicians played with this legacy. Perhaps most germane to Jackson’s project is David Bowie, who encouraged (and possibly started) rumors that he was going to be killed onstage during his glam rock phase. But Bowie was a star and a genius, making him a plausible target for a psychopath looking to claim some meager portion of fame for himself. These are local bands whose only distinction is being targeted for violence. What is compelling the killers?
One of Arcadia’s scenesters, a young woman named Xenie, has a theory. Even speaking it aloud frightens her. “The killers wanted music to matter again. They wanted to purify it. It’s like they were thinning the herd, putting wounded animals out of their misery.” Disturbing, yes, but also undeniably punk. Punk is the anthem of negation, of ripping it up and starting again, to paraphrase both the song by Orange Juice and the book by Simon Reynolds. But the very real violence visited upon these bands feels like an empty gesture, what happens when the spirit of punk has drained away, leaving only blood and safety pins.
It reminds me of a meme that’s been pinging around Twitter. Yes, Donald Trump is president, degrading our laws and culture with his every tweet, but at least he’ll inspire some decent punk songs. I am struggling to prevent myself from typing “Make Punk Great Again,” but it appears I’m unsuccessful. But that seems like a lousy deal right now. I don’t even think it’s accurate, either. Far from inspiring artists, Trump seems to be exhausting them, warping reality more quickly than they can depict it.
Is this all that Destroy All Monsters has to offer? An elegy for a subculture that’s run its course? Not at all, and the real clue as to what this book is up to lies in in its unique structure. Destroy All Monsters is really two books: a novel called “My Dark Ages” and a novella called “Kill City.” These are Side A and Side B of the book, literally. You flip the book over to read the other story, just like a vinyl single. Expanding the universe of a story is a device that more and writers have been trying out recently. Jeff VanderMeer did this with The Strange Bird, a novella that expands on events only glimpsed at in Borne. David Mitchell’s entire oeuvre takes place in the same shared universe, and eventually will cover millions of years, from the dawn of humanity to its eventual transformation.
But Jackson is up to something different. “Kill City” isn’t an expansion of “My Dark Ages.” It’s more like a retelling, or—since this is a story about music—a cover version. It takes some of the characters and events from the other story and shuffles them, changing backstories, fates, and so on, as if the story was retold by someone who heard it secondhand at a crowded bar. It transforms the story as thoroughly as Joan Jett transformed Tommy James when she covered “Crimson and Clover.” But that’s still just the secondary point. The main point is that stories—any story, anywhere—are being capable of being transformed. Their meanings can be altered, their contexts shifted, if you just know where to push.
Perhaps that sounds hopelessly postmodern—metanarratives endlessly in flux and whatnot. But at a moment when the narratives that define our daily lives can seem inflexibly constricting, it sounds downright hopeful. It can take a while to hear it, but when punk says “no” to this world, it’s a way of saying “yes” to a new one.