Since 2014, when Jeff Jackson and I roamed the AWP Writers Conference together, I’ve read everything he’s written—that I know of, anyway. Jeff’s style is a grab bag of tricks from the journalist, the diarist, the theorist, the historian, and the artist of high letters. The beauty of his work lies in that he can range so wide, plunge so deep, and roar so high, and still be not merely readable but compulsively, achingly sensitive.
To my great pleasure, his latest offering, Destroy All Monsters, has been hailed pretty much across the board for the brilliantly dangerous book it is. The New York Times calls it “a wild roar of a novel” that is “predatory and seductive.” The Los Angeles Times says it is “formally complex, experimental, poetic, puzzling … beautifully written and just plain daring.” NPR notes that the work “forces readers to ask all the right questions … while telling them a beautiful truth,” and, that, with a nod to Led Zeppelin, that hierophant of sex and drugs and rock and roll, it’s “the bustle in your hedgerow.” And yet few of the notices I’ve seen range much past the novel’s patent focus on gun violence and music, nor, really, do any of the novel’s blurbs, wonderful as they are.
The “epidemic” of killings that lies at the core of the narrative, where we see musicians of every stripe murdered as they perform, is to my mind a sophisticated trope through which to consider DAM’s host of other themes—our society’s decline into violent psychopathy, the jeopardy of culture in the hands of the mediocre, corporate greed and corruption, and the untenable position of the artist in these conditions, to name just a few. The musicians in this story, the best of them humdrum at most, are proxies for a phalanx of contemporary artists whose work relies almost entirely on content and hype, if that, at the expense of aesthetics and thought. The musicians’ killers are sentinels not merely outraged by the corrosion of principals and taste across the arts, but driven past the extremes of reason—ostensibly, we presume, because reason doesn’t hold much more weight anymore than do aesthetics and thought—into a frenzy of violent purification. If it seems the action’s least gesture is sodden with a spirit of the apocalypse, that’s because apocalypse in the world of this story can’t be anything but imminent.
The book’s two “sides,” “My Dark Ages” and “Kill City,” each of which, in an alternate telling of the same events, contradicts the other, bolster this sentiment: There’s no longer any way to make sense of our lives because there’s no longer any point of reference we can agree on from which to determine falsity or truth. Opinion has become fact, fact fiction, fiction a detestable mirage. In a world so far gone, suggests the fable that is DAM, there’s little promise for rehabilitation, reconfiguration, reconstruction, or renewal, much less of repentance. Beyond the scant moments of tender connection we find in the ruins here and there, our best hope lies in a sort of afterlife, the one we’ll get only—maybe—if we can burn it all down while solemnly remembering that before we did, “there was blood on the wall.”
The Millions: You’re not “just” a writer, but an accomplished musician and artist as well. And when you’re not making all the cool stuff you do, you’re talking about the stuff others make. Given you’re bona fide critic of literature, music, film, painting, and performance art, among others, it’s tough for me to imagine I’ve conjured from whole cloth the interpretation I just offered of your book. Can you speak to whether, ahem, I’m on target here, and, if so, to what extent?
Jeff Jackson: I appreciate your expansive reading and you’re definitely on target. DAM is using music as a lens to look at the larger death of culture and loss of consensus that I worry we’re living through. What happens to an art form (like rock music) when it seems to have outlived its relevance? How did we get to the point where money is a key arbiter of artistic value, where a film’s opening-weekend grosses capture people’s attention more than the movie itself? Where many artists feel like they have to curb their imagination to fit the marketplace or they’ll be shut out from it? Where polished middle-brow work is routinely praised as high art? It’s not just our political values that are upside-down right now.
You’re right that in the novel, while society certainly feels broken, the characters find ways to solace and connection. Sometimes it happens in the middle of an engulfing forest fire. Other times it appears with a quiet gesture of empathy in an empty parking lot.
As you point out, the novel’s two sides each pose a reality that cancel out the other. Some critics have read this as representing fresh hope, but I like your suggestion that it undermines certainty and reinforces the sense of ruin. That said, DAM is meant to be an “open text,” leaving readers maximum room to form their own conclusions. That quality is important to me both for aesthetic reasons (it makes for a more satisfying story) and political ones.
You can have “woke” content, but if your narrative is telling people what to think and actively manipulating their emotions, you’re still enacting the same repressive structures that encourage people not to think for themselves. And it’s this control mechanism—even at the level of narrative—that needs to be dismantled.
TM: One of the ways I feel you powerfully address these concerns in the book is through the old dichotomy of man vs. nature (or life vs. art). As we’ve both noted while you were revising the work, large sections of it—as much, perhaps, as half—take place in the woods surrounding Arcadia, the town where the story unfolds. When I was thinking of topics to explore in this conversation, it struck me that Terrence Malick deploys this strategy in just about all of his films. I see it most blatantly in The Thin Red Line, with jump cuts from scenes of brutal warfare to tranquil images of the wildlife just beyond the battlefields. The opening shot of the crocodile sliding quietly into its river, for instance, haunts me regularly, fraught as it is with the tension between the creature’s present calm and the ferocity we know is soon to come. The sections in DAM called “The Birds,” each at the end of the first four chapters, create a similar effect by compelling the reader to make sense of the elemental simplicity of singing sparrows and the terrible complexity of a boy who for reasons he can’t explain has just slaughtered a group of musicians. There are many other such moments, actually, as when two of the characters spy a white-tailed deer gliding through the trees surrounding the freaky homeless encampment they’ve just passed through. What else are you hoping to accomplish with this ploy, and why?
JJ: I wanted to add another dimension to the novel—outside the insular scene of clubs and practice spaces. For me, the woods have always been a place of mystery and secrets, refuge and loneliness, wonder and danger. There were wooded sections throughout the suburban New Jersey town where I spent high school. Entering those spaces, I felt a heightened sense of sharing the world with other creatures. It was a place I simultaneously belonged to and didn’t.
Both birds and deer play an important role throughout the novel. The bird showcases a pure form of communication, but there’s also something alien about it. We project our own meanings onto those sounds, not fully understanding them. Also, “The Birds” sections are narrated by a character who never physically appears in the novel. There’s a metaphysical element to her observations of the sparrows she’s describing.
There were lots of deer in the town where I grew up because we were near a large nature reserve. I vividly remember the hunts that took place when the deer population grew too large. Supposedly it was necessary, but it was horrifying as well. So the novel is wrestling with the idea of culling—and its cost.
I love the way Terrence Malick juxtaposes nature and war throughout The Thin Red Line. One thing that strikes me about his movies is how radically the content is shaped by his editing, how meaning is created through the musical way he strings together sequences of images, juxtaposing and rhyming them. That approach was definitely on my mind while working on Destroy All Monsters.
TM: The vision expressed in all your work is decidedly dark. While Mira Corpora features a sick and broken mother, on the one hand, and a psychopathic pederast, on the other, the rest of your stories, to my recollection, present only teens and adolescents who, if they haven’t been discarded by their families, have run away from them. Family does loom a bit larger in DAM—one character has a memento mori, for instance, his mother’s initial tattooed on his arm—but on the whole, family is so far from the minds of your characters that few of them even mention their families, much less miss them. And the ecoscapes they inhabit—where they live and under what conditions—are frequently as dire as their psychoscapes: abandoned buildings in collapsing cities and raggedy encampments in the hinterland woods of collapsing cities. In a word, the milieus in which these children subsist are dire to the extreme, if not, as in Novi Sad, outright apocalyptic. Can you speak to the ways these settings and the children in them reach toward a larger statement about the world as it “really” is, whatever “really” is (if it is)?
JJ: It often feels like we’re living in a world without adults. As the planet is faced with the calamity of climate departure, many of our so-called leaders are behaving like spoiled infants, throwing tantrums and thumbing their nose at oncoming catastrophe. Our world is really at a precarious tipping point. The apocalyptic has been part of the human imagination since Day One, but there’s scientific reason to believe we may soon experience disaster on a scale that’s beyond anything in recorded history. My books are channeling those potential realities, registering those seismic ripples. Maybe they’re accentuating the darkness of the world to make it more visible.
And you’re right—family is something that has been mostly lost. The characters still try to make connections, but they’re navigating a world that’s increasingly unknowable. My books are slightly hallucinatory and employ dream logic in an attempt to capture the rapidly fraying texture of modern life. So-called realism doesn’t do the job anymore. Even our sense of time is radically different now—we’re bombarded by so many dire events and conflicting reports that it’s hard to maintain any memory.
Some readers see the broken lives and landscapes in my books as metaphors; others experience what’s described as a recognizable reality. The city of Arcadia in DAM functions as a realist post-industrial city that’s undergone hard times and a heightened space for the action of the novel. The reality is both.
TM: The plots of each side of DAM are relatively simple. And yet the way these plots unfold is on many levels quite complex. And with both Sides A and B presented through a lapidarian construct of prologues, preludes, and parts, themselves at times divided by chapters, we often find ourselves on wonderfully nebulous ground. Moreover, in tandem, each side’s plot renders the other desperately ambiguous. But since neither side is mutually exclusive—they aren’t two separate books, but two parts of a single book—we can’t escape reading the events of the whole they make as comprising what I’d call a master anti-plot.
It’s no surprise, of course, that I love all of this. My own work ethic relies on a number of basic assumptions, among them the truism that context is everything. Meaning is fickle. Our imaginations are draconian. The way we perceive any given narrative moment is inextricable from the moments before and after. This is why, typically, the success of any plot is in my opinion always contingent on the power of its structure. It’s not just what a story tells that matters, but when each of its parts are told, as well. DAM’s anti-plot, however, throws the bunch of this out the window and asks its reader to make sense of events that, in the end, we can’t with true confidence say are “real.” Earlier I spoke of the wobbly state of facts in today’s world, of how, remarkably, opinion seems to have usurped them wholesale. How do these considerations play for you in this book, and what were you hoping to achieve with it overall?
JJ: It was an interesting challenge writing a novel with two possible beginnings and endings. I think it’s ideal to begin reading from Side A, but I constructed the stories so that either way a sizable surprise awaits you when you flip the book over. Each side works on its own and creates its own dramatic tensions, which later find echoes in the opposite side.
The book is definitely questioning ideas of reality. Today it often feels like we’ve lost all stable points of reference, that narratives keep getting scrambled and remixed, that, as you just suggested, facts have become subjective prejudices and opinions are weapons. It’s no accident the novel’s two sides are connected by various trapdoors the reader can tumble down—the drop is disorienting.
Because of all this, it was important that the stories themselves have a lot of momentum and the reader is eager to keep turning the pages. Ironically, all the scenes are written in “real time.” On Side A, each chapter takes place over a few hours, and you’re moving alongside the characters. There’s no opportunity for flashbacks and hopefully no reason to pause. On Side B, the main chapter takes place during a single night that starts at a funeral home and soon devolves into a dangerous drunken bender.
As the two sides converge, there’s also the feeling that the alternate realities may connect in a metaphysical sense, that there’s another way to “see.” But ultimately what do the two plots add up to? Maybe a third story emerges from the collision, one that exists only in flickering glimpses in the reader’s mind. Or maybe it’s closer to one of my favorite quotes from Tom McCarthy, who says literature “creates a zone of noise where everything and nothing is said at the same time.” Since DAM has no definitive beginning or ending, the act of flipping from one side to the next generates a feedback loop of ambiguity that speaks to this “noise.”
TM: There’s a moment near the end of Side A in which two of the characters encounter a teenager who has just shot a young doe, one of countless deer being slaughtered after the local government has determined that “the habitat can no longer support the overpopulation of deer [throughout which] disease is spreading.” At first it feels merely odd that we sense a connection between the plot’s simultaneous holocaust of animals and artists. Our suspicion is soon further provoked, however, when one of the two characters considers that the young hunter “has the same expression as the other shooters. The so-called zombies.” When the hunter himself shortly confirms this—“I can see the sickness that’s ruining these creatures,” he says. “It’s a gift I got. Somebody has to put them out of their misery”—we can’t help considering the relationship outright.
The killing en bloc of paltry musicians is proclaimed by the media to be an “epidemic.” The slaughter of deer, though, is the result of an epidemic. It’s almost as though the second orgy mirrors the first to render unmistakable another of the novel’s dreadful ironies: the true epidemic at the heart of DAM isn’t one in which bad artists are killed but in which bad artists are killing. Like a spreading disease, they have infected the culture at large to the extent that, in the minds of a small few—“the destroyers”—nothing can save us from the blight these artists have become but their total extermination. This moral dilemma—a bramble at best, an inescapable quagmire at worst—harkens back to the postmodernist obsession with the nature of objective reality and absolute truth. Who is to determine what constitutes “reality” and “truth,” to say anything of “real” “art”? And for those who believe themselves the lawful arbiters of these matters, what is the source of their authority to eliminate from the cultural landscape the people and work they’ve deemed so bad? Or then again, is there perhaps a middle ground somewhere here, a liminal zone from which to contemplate these matters with greater detachment, absent the pressure (or even obligation) to endorse any given case, however compelling?
JJ: In a perfect world, it would be possible for artists to detach one way or the other, but right now I don’t feel we have that luxury. Art is in my opinion under attack from would-be dictators and capitalist forces that prefer anodyne and unquestioning work. There’s no choice but to engage.
The culling of the deer does function as a sort of fable within the fable of the book, replaying the epidemic in different terms. The deer are innocent creatures, but the government believes their sheer numbers will lead to the destruction of habitat and the spread of disease. Because it wields power, the state gets to make this drastic decision.
In the novel, Xenie feels some of the same urges as the killers and believes they’re trying to thin the herd of bad musicians. Like them, she thinks there’s too much music, and yet she doesn’t follow their path. Her solution is to silence herself: She simply refuses to sing, renouncing music out of her reverence for it. This isn’t done lightly or without cost. In some ways, she’s following the tradition of artists like Rimbaud and Duchamp, who walked away from art.
Who qualifies as the arbiters of “real art” these days is a tough question. We live in an information-overload society, but instead of granting critics more space to grapple with art in this challenging context, there’s less room than ever. By necessity, most reviews can only skim the surface. It’s better than nothing, but it often cheapens our sense of art and its meaning.
The characters in DAM might expect too much from music, though I think that’s because they can feel something has gone missing—or, maybe better put, been stolen. There’s graffiti in the story that says, “Break up your band.” But perhaps a better slogan is a Situationist one from May ’68: “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” Through violence, or silence, or constant rehearsal, they’re trying to reclaim a world where the sounds they make actually matter.
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.