Review by James Yates
In 2005, along with two close friends, I saw The Decemberists perform at the Metro in Chicago. The band opened by filing on stage, single file, dressed like depressed players in a high school recital: Colin Meloy wore a red and white striped jacket, while the rest of the band was dressed in somber black. My friends and I sang and danced along to their songs of murder, lonely widows, and hipster peasants. I locked eyes with a person I was hopelessly in love with, swaying to “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” We were happy, listening to one of our favorite bands. The power of live music is a tangible thing, especially when you’re drunk in your early twenties.
This scene within a revered Chicago venue is almost painfully rose-colored, now. I was young and painfully naive: the friends are now distant memories, having not talked to them in years. Outside the Metro, outside Chicago, George W. Bush was president. The war in Iraq waged. In theory, I knew these were very bad things, but I was cloaked in privilege, the ability to distance myself from grimness. As we’re reminded now, it’s imperative to take joys where we can get them; just because we enjoy a cat video online doesn’t mean we don’t care about gross injustices, the way the current administration fucks everyone except straight white men. The happy memories of that show live side by side with lost friends and the embarrassment of how little I knew about my surroundings.
In Destroy All Monsters, Jeff Jackson’s second novel, self-described as “the last rock novel,” the world of live music is beset by a very real danger: musicians are being murdered onstage. The killer/s don’t discriminate: garage rock bands, classical musicians, and rap acts are targeted. As the murders turn into an epidemic, a group of local musicians in the town of Arcadia, along with their associates and loved ones, alternate between bravado and fear, wondering just how far-reaching the effects are, and whether or not their time will actually come while onstage; it’s the classic psychological case of “it can’t happen here, can it?”
With the shootings happening at an alarming rate, musicians tune out, offering their own easy encapsulations of the causes:
—The killers are just frustrated musicians.
— The killers are just settling personal grudges.
— The killers just got tired of post offices and schools and started shooting up rock clubs.
These hypotheses offer no solutions, no sympathy, and no substance, even as the bullshit riffs of musicians attempting to be cool in the face of danger, but it rings true when matched up to today’s politicians and citizens when mass killings are demanded to be taken more seriously: hands are thrown up, and the “these things just happen” mentality proves worthless and cold.
There are glimmers of hope, though. The novel’s center is Xenie, a young woman whose connection to the Arcadian musicians goes beyond merely being a music fan, beyond the tired label of “bandmate’s girlfriend.” In subtle ways, she has her own musical and performance skills, but finds herself caught up between the worlds of the local music scene and her own lack of self-confidence as a performer. This middle ground: the realization that violence in the country as a whole can often mask or accentuate the violence in people’s everyday lives. Xenie gets caught up in this as both a spectator and a confidant, omeone who must make her own choices as to whether even abstract, personal violence is a solutioJackson’s descriptions of music venues is a wonderful microcosm, especially in the face of extreme violence. With the Orlando nightclub massacre and the Las Vegas mass killing still recent memories, the novel doesn’t attempt to draw parallels. It wonderfully depicts characters in various states of community and solitude, both on stage, on the dancefloor, and in the corridors. Even the most temporary characters are representative of today’s gun-crazed country: the lone killer, isolated, with their own motivation; the out-of-touch journalist asking inappropriate questions; the harried bartender who just wants to do her job, but has to keep multiple people with multiple personalities in check, with the threat of danger nearby.
Jackson deftly avoids overwrought hyperbole about “the power of music.” The scenes of local music clubs aren’t romantic; there are plenty of fuckups, bands with no future beyond their delusions and enthusiasm, venues marked by cockroaches and dirty bathrooms rather than youthful idealism. But music is powerful and comforting in the face of trauma; it merely isn’t the means to the end. As Xenie comes to terms with her fears, she turns to music for solace, but at times, it isn’t enough:
But this time, I didn’t feel inspired to even move my lips. The power of music had been steadily disintegrating, and now I realized the remaining scraps had started to curdle. As I stood alone in my bedroom, my headphones boring into my temples, there was a feeling of something rotting in my chest. Maybe whatever infected the killers had also infected me.
Destroy All Monsters is urgently contemporary, but physically plays with nostalgia; the book itself is divided into two sections: Side A (“My Dark Ages”) and Side B (“Kill City”). These can be read in any order, as the shorter Side B alternates the outcomes of the characters, assigning life and death differently. I reflected on my reading experience and wondered how the overall structure and emotions of the book would have been different had I not opted for Side A first; which side feels more “real?”
Jackson offers his own strange concept of hope within these alternating sides; in both cases, the characters have to confront death, loss, and their own notions of who they are. In a world overrun by a volume of choices, Jackson has given readers only two, but in the midst of horrifying violence and personal loss, there’s a hopeful truth: community and art have the power to change and save.
James Yates is a contributing editor to Longform.org, and received his MFA from Roosevelt University in Chicago in 2015. His fiction has appeared in Hypertrophic Press, Monkeybicycle, Gulf Stream Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, and other publications; his book reviews have previously appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Collagist, and The Fanzine. He currently lives and writes in Lafayette, Louisiana.