Jeff Jackson‘s latest book, the novel Destroy All Monsters, follows through on the promise of his earlier books Mira Corpora and Novi Sad. It’s a haunting book about an epidemic of killings at rock concerts–one that feels at once horrifyingly contemporary and unsettlingly timeless. Through a birfurcated structure, Jackson offers up two distinct visions of this setting, each of which overlaps with the other in unexpected ways. Robert Lopez chatted with Jackson about his new book, its structure, and playwriting’s lessons for fiction.
Seems like we have to start with the form. How did you find the form for Destroy All Monsters? Was the book from its conception going to have an A and B side?
Originally there was no B Side. It was only after I finished the manuscript, during the lull when I was looking for an agent and publisher, that I started to wonder if there might be more to explore. I was haunted by an image of the book as the “A” Side of a vinyl single and that led me to wonder what the “B” Side might look like. I came to imagine it as the flipside of the main text, a sort of alternate reality. I didn’t want it to tell the same story from a different perspective, but offer something new.
Kill City (the “B” Side) is designed to both deepen the main narrative and simultaneously rewrite it. So the first section dramatizes the murders that are largely missing from the main text. The second section reverses the fates of two key characters, switches the genders of others, and places them at an unusual funeral. Then the third section remixes everything as a dream that’s shared by the characters.
As I was writing Kill City, I thought maybe it was a companion novella that should be published separately. It took me a while to realize the two sides belonged under the same covers—and that together they comprised the complete book. In fact, FSG bought “Side A” without reading the flip side. I was fortunate that they later agreed to publish them both under a single title.
Was there a book or books that you turned to or drew some sort of inspiration from, specifically when it comes to this innovative form? It’s very interesting that Kill City isn’t exactly an erasure, but is something close to it. Was it difficult to convince FSG that Side B needed to be part of the same book?
I wasn’t specifically looking for models, but Agota Kristof’s series The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie is never far from my mind when dealing with structure. I’ve always loved how each book in her brilliant trilogy writes and reimagines what came before it. As I was figuring out the repetitions and echoes that occur in each side, I looked at how the scenarios in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels obsessively replay themselves, sometimes resulting in different outcomes. I was interested in combining some of his techniques with a more propulsive plot.
FSG was open to including Side B, but it took them a little while to wrap their heads around it. After all, they had bought one book and suddenly I was presenting them with something much more complicated. I think they realized that the double-sided concept could be a good marketing hook, and one that was totally organic to the book and its rock and roll heart. My hope is the novel’s form is both conceptually provocative and makes the book more fun to read.
You’ve also written plays and I’m wondering what’s the relationship between playwriting and writing novels. Did you start off as a playwright? Is there something about a play’s structure that you can translate into a novel?
My playwriting developed faster than my novels, but writing fiction has always been my main pursuit. When I moved to New York in the 1990s, I ran into the Collapsable Giraffe theater company who were looking for a writer—I jumped at the opportunity. I’d written some short plays, but I was more inspired by the collage techniques of fiction writers like Kathy Acker than traditional dramaturgy. The plays themselves were often a mix of theater with installation and performance art. They combined Buster Keaton’s films with crackpot letters about the cosmos, or explored Soviet theories about plant ESP alongside the life of surrealist writer Colette Peignot. I’ve also written rituals for contacting the dead and adapted the epic novel Dream of the Red Chamber into a literal dream play for a sleeping audience.
One thing I learned from writing these plays is that structure is incredibly malleable and can contain many disparate elements, moods, and modes. It made me realize how much was possible. However, in theater the presence of the same actors appearing throughout the play goes a long way to unifying the material for an audience. In a novel, it’s much trickier to create that unity when you’re limited to words on a page.
Do you approach dialogue in a novel differently than you would a play?
They’re similar in that I’m always thinking about the rhythm of the words and the cadence of the exchange between the characters. But for theater, the final test is how that dialogue sounds coming out of a particular actor’s mouth – and it gets revised accordingly. For a novel, what matters is how the dialogue plays on the page. I don’t care how it sounds aloud so much as how it sounds in the reader’s mind and how it’s working with everything around it.
That makes sense, of course. Another formal decision in the book is that we see a variety of points of view, first, second and third. How did this work for you as a writer? Dipping in and out of all of these distinct perspectives. There are tonal shifts each time we encounter a change in point of view.
It felt natural to write most of the novel in third person, but I wanted occasional hits of intimacy, brief x-rays of the main characters’ heads that gave you access to their thoughts. There’s also the interstitial sections “The Birds,” which are written in first person though it reads like third person. That narrator is deeply embedded, almost camouflaged, which makes sense once you realize who it is.
In “Kill City,” I wanted to introduce a new perspective, which is why the second person appears. Partly it’s there to implicate the reader in the disturbing events and disrupt the possibility of sitting in easy judgment on the violent tendencies. It’s also meant to create more closeness between the characters and, in the final dream, between the reader and the book itself.
And like you alluded to earlier, the fates of Xenie and Shaun are reversed from one section to the other. It’s jarring when we come to that after seeing Xenie deal with the circumstances/murders in “My Dark Ages.” I think it speaks to how random such events are and the twisting of roles here is most effective. Was this always how the book was going to work? And what I mean by this is you’ve said you didn’t want the B side to be an alternate version of the same story, but reversing the fates of Xenie and Shaun is a major twist and a great way for the two stories to inform each other and in some ways cancel each other out while merging into one.
Figuring out that Xenie and Shaun’s fates would be reversed was the revelation that made the “B” Side feel viable. By making these two stories impossible to fit together in a literal way, it hopefully focuses the reader’s attention on the echoes and connections between the sides—and within each side.
As you said, it also underlines the randomness of these awful events and how violence can completely dismantle lives. Xenie and Shaun also deal with grief in very different ways and “My Dark Ages” and “Kill City” trace divergent journeys toward reaching some sort of healing.
There’s a fascinating Czech New Wave film by Věra Chytilová called Something Different comprised of two stories which are meant to suggest a subliminal third story for the viewer. Ideally something like that happens with Destroy All Monsters—the two sides generate a new whole that’s greater than its parts, even though it exists only in your mind.