The Fire’s Beckoning Flicker: Destroy All Monsters by Jeff Jackson

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Destroy All Monsters 
Jeff Jackson 
FSG, 2018

 

The premise of Jeff Jackson’s novel Destroy All Monsters isn’t so much music or even violence, but mania of the kind inspiring myths like the frenzy of Maenads. More directly, seemingly random acts of violence are breaking out across the county. The only link among the mass shootings, stabbings, and explosions are their targets–musicians murdered in the midst of their stage performances. It’s not just a specific genre, but a phenomena affliction all kinds of music–country, hip-hop, dance, indie rock, metal, or pop. Jackson writes about a spreading frenzy, a fever infecting music itself. It is a disturbing and wildly inventive story.

Formally, Jackson has created a novel attempting to mirror the A- and B-Sides of a record. We don’t read dueling narratives. Side A isn’t competing with Side B and they are not opposing version of the same story. Rather, they are complimentary and augmenting tales able to stand alone but resonant more when taken together. The main story is titled My Dark Ages and the B-Side, which requires readers to physically turn the book up-side-down and begin again is called Kill City. The effect isn’t necessarily new nor is it absolutely necessary towards deciphering the novel. In fact, it works as a sort of literal metaphor, which unfortunately can be groan inducing like most puns. It’s gimmicky, but I’ll never not enjoy having to physically interact with a story. Jackson avoids these pitfalls by writing a ‘b-side’ that mirrors the ‘a-side,’ reversing character roles and giving readers a different point of view from which to encounter the same phenomena. 

Xenie and bestfriends Shaun and Florian live through the shootings as they attempt to make their name as musicians. Each embodies a deeply conflicted and anxious stance not just towards the shooting but their vocation:

“Every song he writes these days feels false. He lays the guitar flat across his knees and stares at the newspaper. The vacant expression loom in judgment. All his friends call the killers zombies, but Florian worries they might be something even more disturbing, true believers in pursuit of some ideal they can feel but can’t name. Perhaps they represent the true essence of the audience. He simply refers to them as fans.”

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There’s a tone to Jackson’s prose reminiscent of Nick Cave’s fiction and the deep, bloody melodrama of his music. To ask as Jackson does “Has music itself become corrupted in a culture where everything is available, everybody is a ‘creative,’ and attention spans have dwindled to nothing?” may seem an antagonistic question, but it’s not. Rather, it’s a painfully earnest kind of contrarian wonder and foundational to rock music; it’s the kind of question allowing a man to prance across a stage well into his 70s.

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But what if he didn’t? What if he just died or, rather, was killed off? What makes Destroy All Monsters compelling is how it sets its course true and there are horrible consequences. In the indie rock town of Arcadia, a utopian fictional nowhere, the bestfriend and girlfriend of a fellow slain musician struggle with whether or not to give a tribute performance, and if so, how to do so without making it about themselves. This impossibility is at the heart of the trauma swirling around the very idea of music like reverberating thought.

Dressing a young adult romance up into perhaps the greatest anti-Syd & Nancy story without turning into pop garbage like so much presented on network television and conventional film is a true accomplishment. Jackson is able to embrace earnestness without ever going off the deep end and yet infuse enough literary sensibility to make the novel more than its plot. Living in a nation where mass shootings is a given, where mass murder is written off as just a fact of life, this novel is both challenging and meaningful. As it’s been described, the novel isn’t “a group of surly teens or twenty-somethings reminiscing about how good the scene used to be or how music was pure before life got in the way. There is a tangible danger involved in the pursuit of music because of the epidemic revolving around these characters’ lives and we’re forced to look at these conversations from a different angle. We see a new perspective, giving these tired and old debates a fresh take.” One can’t help be see an eerie parallel with the teens who survived the Parkland shooting. There is no strict parallel between the rock music and our gun fetish, but Jackson teases us by zeroing in on the sublime addiction each possess. Michael Solender says as much in his review, “Each new horrifying shooting builds upon the last.  Their impact is felt and experienced in total, both repellent and attractive to those caught up in the scene. The successive club killings aren’t portrayed as crimes as much as inevitable occurrences, each compounding upon the last and slowly gaining momentum.

Destroy All Monsters is an engaging and inventive novel. For a generation who found deep refuge in music, a way to be alone together, it rings true. However, roughly midway through ‘side a,’ it seems the story falls in on itself slightly but overall the novel is redeemed by the truncated ‘b-side.’ Kill City, like a nearly every classic ‘b-side,’ has moments where you want it to become the main story, where it sounds like it could grow into a better, grander story than its lead partner. 

There is beauty in the carnage, but ultimately Jackson writes nothing challenging or even asking why that carnage is beautiful, what provokes us into being drawn to it, or why it never even occurs to us to see beauty elsewhere. Yet Destroy All Monsters succeeds because it does provoke those questions making it literary and exceptional.

 

About the Author

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Jeff Jackson is the author of Mira Corpora, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His short fiction has appeared in GuernicaVice, and The Collagist, and five of his plays have been produced by the Obie Award–winning Collapsable Giraffe theater company in New York City.

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