“This book is so weird,” I texted my girlfriend, when I was about a third of the way through John Elizabeth Stintzi’s My Volcano, published by Two Dollar Radio today. “It’s kind of interconnected stories,” I continued. “Some people are in each other’s dreams and stuff.”
“Whoa,” she responded.
“One kid is an all-powerful cloud, and one person exists in two places at once and they chat on the phone and one version of him helps the other one with their work, and one lady is also kind of a giant insect but nobody can tell. It’s kind of like Kafka, except she hasn’t transformed, she’s kind of inside the insect, looking out? And then she explodes out the back of it while having sex with a man she doesn’t like, and runs away but still has wings, flies to where her literal dream girl lived in her dream, looks through a telescope and there’s the dream girl flying (she’s also an insect?), and she flies to her and they make love above a volcano and when she comes, the volcano explodes.”
Erupting volcano emoji.
If that sounds particularly, even annoyingly modern, it kind of is — My Volcano is an abnormal, bizarre, sometimes frustratingly opaque novel — but it’s also one of the most exhilarating ones I’ve read in years. There are also buildings that traverse space and time via massive animal or mechanical legs, a diorama within a diorama that is actual existence being built and destroyed by an old woman, and a creature that subsumes every organism it touches, including humans, until it becomes an interconnected being billions of organisms large — and then it fights a massive, anti-industrial stone Golem.
I both dread and look forward to the next few years of film and art. I haven’t yet seen a movie set during the pandemic; everything I’ve seen has existed in pre- or post-pandemic Earths, or alternate universes where it didn’t happen. This makes sense logistically, of course, but it’s also surreal. Some art has explored the impact of the pandemic via metaphor, like last year’s film Don’t Look Up, which was supposed to be making a point about climate change, and did, but was actually one of the most heartbreakingly poignant skewerings of pandemic life this side of Bo Burnham’s Inside.
It’s also an apt comparison for this novel. I don’t think Stintzi was attempting to comment on the pandemic. But a massive, rapidly-growing volcano bursts suddenly and unexpectedly out of a lake in New York City’s Central Park and starts destroying everything … and after a few weeks of the volcano being a trending hashtag, everyone rushes to get “back to normal.” Despite the increasingly dangerous threat to human existence. The volcano eventually gets massive billboards placed on it, ad campaigns centered around it, and then it fades into the background. Until it doesn’t.
It’s not the only extremely strange thing that starts, or continues, to happen over the few months in 2016 that are the setting for this novel; see above. But the primary response, by the vast majority of humanity, to the bizarre occurrences happening around the world is temporary annoyance and eventual indifference. This makes it difficult to know exactly what’s really happening. Some strange occurrences seem impossible, others are eminently plausible; they are ignored by everyone equally. Is the woman looking out at the world from inside a giant bug, holding hands with the man via her tarsus, kissing him via her mandible, delusional and experiencing a psychotic break? Dreaming? Or does he really not notice, or care, that she is a giant insect? Millions don’t notice, don’t care, about the volcano.
Millions of people die and/or are displaced by the volcanos — a few others also happen to show up around the same time — and millions more continue to die and/or be displaced by war and gun violence and poverty and in car crashes and from preventable disease and viruses for which there is a readily-available vaccine, and many of us don’t notice, don’t care; life goes on. So … what does “plausible” even mean? A single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic, according to Stalin (apparently). Stintzi accentuates this by occasionally breaking between chapters to highlight an individual person’s death — usually to gun violence, usually queer or trans. Then the story continues, unaffected.
Our interlocking protagonists are the few who seem bothered by the increasingly bizarre nature of reality. A professor and his research assistant obsessively scour the Internet for additional stories about a woman descending from a volcano and destroying the world — they’ve found far too many, with far too much in common, in far too disconnected languages and cultures, for it to be a coincidence. Some characters actually notice supernatural characters present in their worlds and follow them into a deeper understanding of what the Hell is going on rather than ignoring them. A few try to reconnect with ex-lovers.
It’s not clear why the volcano arrived or why the Earth is being destroyed by the Golem, by the earthquakes, by the growing unified superorganism. In fact, they seem to be at cross purposes: The superorganism, which because of its photosynthesis passively heals Earth’s air pollution without effort, aims to destroy the Golem, which appears to be attempting to destroy Earth-polluting centers of industry — you’d think they’d be on the same team. The cadre of timeless goddesses that seem to be observing the destruction of the planet disagree about whether they should let it proceed. Is it all random? When the world ends, we won’t be around to ask why it did. Is it worth it to attempt to save the planet? To end suffering? To be affected?
Would it even be possible to survive in the United States, in the West, on Earth, while being truly affected by unnecessary suffering and/or death? Or is ignorance the only option that results in us keeping some semblance of sanity? It’s insane to believe that you have a magic lemon that compels you to carry it on your person at all times, and it interrupts your sleep by sending you into other people’s bodies during your dreams, and you wake up exhausted every night but can’t bring yourself to get rid of it. Even if it’s true. One character starts to have a breakdown because she experiences this exact scenario. If the truth is bizarre and distressing and hopeless and nobody would believe you anyway and it’s destroying your life and your sanity, isn’t the sane strategy to retreat into ignorance and/or delusion?
Are the protagonists — people who care or, at the very least, notice what’s going on — heroes? Or losers? We all die at the end of our little stories, and some of us will have been miserable because we’ve been grappling with truth and reality and attempting to care about others. Some of us will have had a grand old time living in little dream worlds where things are fair and just and nobody else’s suffering matters. Who’s right? But if it’s such a toss-up scenario, with no clear correct path, why do our hearts so frequently tug us in the direction of empathy?
My Volcano seems to present a vision of a foolish, hopeless humanity, consistently fucking up and doing everything wrong in the face of certain destruction and yet, in tiny ways, once in a while, trying to move toward desire and love and the future and empathy and, overall, understanding. And mostly failing but trying again and again, beset in every conceivable way with the most beguiling dilemmas but still making modest attempts at solving them.
And it loves us for it, and I love it for it.