Review by Art Edwards
The question that pulls the reader into Mo Daviau's debut novel Every Anxious Wave is compelling to any rock music fan: Given the chance, what concert would you go back in time to experience? My own mind reeled. R.E.M. in Athens just after the release of Reckoning? The Replacements, stripped to their underwear, in front of 10,000 booing Tom Petty fans? The Ramones at CBGB? Wait, the Ramones and Talking Heads at CBGB? Building a fantasy concert is fun and easy. What's more difficult, as the characters in the novel find out, is escaping the trappings of so much imagined possibility and finding genuine fulfillment in human intimacy.
Such is the dilemma of Karl Bender, Chicago bar owner and former guitarist of the Axis, a group that had some minor commercial success at the turn of the century. Now, in 2010, pushing 40 and hanging out at his bar with his tech buddy Wayne, Karl finds himself with seemingly nothing to look forward to.
Our twenties had been full of rock music and courage. The future made us older, but our wisdom was dubious. Wayne and I avoided the pain of tomorrow with alcohol and old rock bands. Pavement on the jukebox, the heavenly reddish glow of neon signs, and sentences that started with “Remember when ...”
Karl, for all his fondness for yesteryear, could use a little satisfaction in the here and now.
Hope comes in the form of a wormhole found, fortuitously enough, in Karl's apartment bedroom closet. Karl's diligent curating of this portal is indicative in the rules he ascribes to itsuse—namely, no one can go back in time for any reason other than concerts, no one can do anything in the past that affects the future, no one can travel to the future. These edicts feel a bit like straw men, and it isn't long before Wayne forces Karl into letting him go to 1980 New York to save John Lennon from being murdered. The resulting typo by Karl sends Wayne instead to 980, to “Mannahatta Island,” an era that lacks the proper electronic currents to get Wayne back to the present.
Karl's search for help leads him to Lena, an astrophysicist at Northwestern whom he chooses for the rock T-shirt she dons in her picture on the faculty website. Lena, of course, is intrigued by the breakthrough in physics, not to mention the chance to see some of her favorite dead artists in concert. Trips to the past and future by Karl and Lena make the waters of time even more murky and convoluted. As Karl says, “My eyes had seen the past again and again, with tears of love sloshing across my poorly shaven cheeks, but the future was a dry, fearsome spectacle, a box of broken secrets too painful to assemble.” His wormhole turns out not to be so much a portal to a bucolic past as a way to screw up the present and future. So much for keeping it straight edge.
Karl and Lena fight through their personal baggage to see if they have any connection beyond the wormhole. During their trip back to see the Axis play in 2001, Karl wrestles his clumsy heart to reveal his feelings for her. “I told Lena she was beautiful again, as if I were guiding those words into her face, making her take them like medicine.” Whether the pair can trust each other enough to endure love's inherent entanglements becomes the central tension of the novel, the wormhole more of a diversion from their potential with each other.
For those who spent their early years reveling in concert halls, what could be more perfect than revisiting the shows of their youth—or better yet, the ones they missed entirely? Unfortunately, our complicated selves have to tag along as well. As Every Anxious Wave dramatizes, dealing with these complications with courage and honesty is a more reliable path to a life worth living. Daviau has lured us in with the promise of rock music nirvana, and—unlike most rock bands, who seem to relish in keeping us somewhere on the pendulum between elation and frustration—has offered us a way out as well.
Art Edwards' reviews have or will appear in Salon, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Page & Spine, Entropy, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, River Teeth, JMWW, Word Riot, and Cigale Literary Magazine.