Jeff Jackson’s Destroy All Monsters is about a band struggling to stay together after their friend and former bandmate is among many musicians murdered onstage in an epidemic of mass shootings at concert venues. It’s about the ex-girlfriend of that dead musician. It’s about the city around that dead musician. It’s about the dead musician. In ways you wouldn’t expect, it’s sometimes about the shooters. It’s about you and me. It’s about the time we live in, the times our ancestors lived in. It’s about music. It’s about burning your house down. It’s about facing the gun and being behind it.
Jeff Jackson’s debut Mira Corpora and its follow-up Novi Sad are aesthetically distinctive from any other book on the shelf—the first with its frayed-edge paper, the latter with its blue pages. Destroy All Monsters continues the trend of standing out, the cover looking like a high-contrast punk flyer, the format mimicking a double-sided record or cassette tape. Two books in one—an A side and a B side—each side expanding or putting an alternate spin on the material of the other. There’s no denying the presentation of Jackson’s latest novel is musically influenced, but what do its guts look like? There’s a famous black and white photograph, circa 1970, of punk rock icon Patti Smith sitting in a Chelsea Hotel room—eyes gazing through the camera to pierce the soul of the voyeur—a revolver dangling from her right hand so casually that at first glance, you see the gun as a cigarette. Jackson’s hypnotic, dream-like prose captures the tone of that photograph.
His mind keeps returning to the one time his mother beat him as a kid. She had trusted him to stay alone in the house. He had pulled the curtains, turned off the lights, and lit some candles. He put on a favorite album, found at a flea market, whose cover featured two women in black housecoats and red scarves standing against a brick wall. It looked like they’d been cornered, but they snarled defiantly at the camera and bared their red teeth. He played it at obliterating volume until he felt himself dissolving inside the ecstatic din. When he opened his eyes, he wasn’t surprised to see the living room was on fire. The flames climbing the curtains made sense, a physical manifestation of the music, ignited by forces deep within the song.
Every action of the characters in Destroy All Monsters revolves around mass shootings. There is the grief of friends and lovers, as well as the conflicting emotions of new love sprouting in the midst of that grief. There is the band that has to wrestle with whether or not the show must go on, and if it does or not, what does that mean for the ones they’ve lost—if anything? And what would it mean to keep playing—to potentially die for your art? It’s in these questions, in this environment of omnipresent chaos and dread, where the violence begins to infect those in mourning, and an understanding of the shooters themselves begins to slip in unsuspectedly, causing the novel to move from a literal depiction of violence that feels very present, to a metaphorical exploration of grief—the grief of friends growing distant, of young lovers outgrowing each other, of music losing its passion.
Unfortunately, the ideas that the novel presents—however literal or abstract—begin to feel a little too drawn out at times, a little murky at others, and I think the length of the book is to blame. Something I loved about Jackson’s previous two books were the slim size, the lack of fat or fluff, the ability to easily revisit them and explore the ideas within deeper and deeper. Destroy All Monsters is definitely one that lingers well after closing the last page, but I can’t help but see it as a small painting on a giant canvas. I can’t help but imagine it as being even sharper if it’d been chiseled at a little more, if maybe Side A would have matched the musculature of Side B. On that note, I definitely recommend reading the halves of the book in order. It’s being advertised as working either way you approach it, and that’s true, but when reading Side A first, Side B presents a twist that is too good to spoil. My complaints of length aside, this is still a masterful work by someone I’d dare to call one of the greatest living authors.
The two girls stand over the bodies of the dead musicians, holding Magnum revolvers of enormous caliber—the echo of their shots reverberate in their ears as loud as mortar volleys—they’re surrounded by hot shell casings and the acrid smell of gunpowder—the living room of this house show is silent, the furniture pushed against the walls, the overhead lights switched off, the walls spattered with permanent shadows—the two girls are spackled with gore, their skin wet and sticky, spongy particles lodged in their teeth—the blonde’s glasses are splashed crimson, tinting her view of the room, but she doesn’t wipe them off—the brunette’s eyes resemble scuffed marbles, her gaze steady and unblinking—she turns and shoots the blonde in the head, not watching the descent of the corpse as it crumples to the carpet—then she places the barrel of the revolver against her own temple and presses the trigger—but nothing happens—the blood from her hair steadily trickles down her smooth forehead and she starts to blink—furiously—the only sound is the repetition of the girl’s index finger pressing the trigger, the steady rotation of the empty chambers, and the rhythmic click of the hammer—those three interlocking sounds, in continual sequence, again and again and again.
Violence permeates this novel, described in vivid detail as Jackson juggles the vocabulary to come across as both gritty and, in a way, beautiful. The mayhem is immediate, yet detached. The story is topical, yet timeless—a reminder that violence is in our history, in our music, in our souls. Rather than present a clear, one-sided critique of the social climate, Jeff Jackson has done something much more powerful and genuine with Destroy All Monsters: he’s given the readers a mirror.
It’s always about paying tribute to the dead.
It’s never about trying to make the living feel better.
Destroy All Monsters
by Jeff Jackson
FSG Originals; 359 p.