‘the last rock book review’ by scott manley hadley
Destroy All Monsters by Jeff Jackson
subtitled: “the last rock novel”
engaging, but structurally/tonally v reminiscent of the 1990s, tho w/ contemporary tech
v violent & doesn’t question the violence as much as i’d anticipated. textually accepts the violence. though there are consequences, the violence is abstract.
very American innit
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a rock star. In some ways, I’ve never really stopped.
When I was an undergraduate I wanted to be a rock star novelist, which is basically where you live the lifestyle of a rock star but don’t have to learn how to play a musical instrument. Everyone can write, I always say, because everyone can talk. Actually, even people like myself who collapse in an anxious fit when they try and talk can write things down. Music is difficult, like, writing is tough.
I grew up in England’s West Midlands, where the style of music known to most of the world as “rock music” we call heavy metal. Whenever I’ve been anywhere other than my native Midlands and encountered the word “metal” as an adjective for musical performance, it’s been in relation to a piece of noise that is horribly loud, really fast and just too much.
In the West Midlands, we use “heavy metal” to mean, basically, an electric guitar or two, a drumkit, a bass, MAYBE an electric piano and a peachy singing voice. We’re the West Midlands, the birthplace of titans of rock like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as well as countless less-successful bands. This continued right up until my own fucking teenage years in the noughties. At some point, almost everyone I knew was in a band. I was in bands called Nerds From Hell and Malaria Colon A Comedy Rock Band, and – of course – I performed a few acoustic solo sets of original songs about teenage heartache and like the most obvious covers in the world. We all wanted to be rock stars, me no more than anyone else. We all wanted to rock.
That is the vibe, too, of the setting of Destroy All Monsters, though rather than suburban England we are somewhere in rust belt America. Jeff Jackson’s novel is set in either a small or mid-sized city or a massive town, but either way it’s big enough to have a live music scene but not big enough to be a place people move TO to make it as a musician. It’s not New York or LA, but nor is it Nashville or New Orleans: it’s one of those big, endless, conurbations of the American continent that don’t really have much of a character: a city that could have been real or not real, but it doesn’t make a difference, because it’s real enough.
In fiction, I suppose, one can both intentionally and accidentally create an anywhere, and I think Jackson here does it on purpose. We’re not on the coasts, we’re somewhere in the middle of America, and the characters that we meet and hang out with have grown up with rock ‘n’ roll as part of their very souls.
Destroy All Monsters exists in a near-future, in an alternative-now, or possibly an alternative-just-gone. Whenever we are, we’re in a world when life is slightly cheaper than it is here, where music is both more and less important. People – young people – have begun slaughtering the practitioners of middle-of-the-road music. There have been mass incidents of murder-suicides of rock bands, lounge singers, MCs and country outfits… Performers and performances have been interrupted by weapons (this is yeehaw America so mostly guns) and death death death death death death death.
Into this world of increased risk, Jackson takes us into the minds and the bands of the wannabe rock stars of this small everytown, as they decide to risk everything in pursuit of the excitement they find when they rock. The killings are more like assassinations, the result of a generation rebelling against the commercialisation and mediocritisation of mass musical culture. Perhaps, the creatives who the novel centres on are delusional with their claims of artistry, and this is why the novel is more interesting than it potentially seems: Destroy All Monsters does not chronicle “the last true rock stars” or some messianic-type musicians whose talents redeem them from deserved violent death, they are instead as much a part of the problem as the killers.
The psychological gap between the people who kill and the people who risk death by continuing to perform is slight. Music matters to all of them, but Music doesn’t seem to be good enough for anyone. The murderers slaughter because music doesn’t “mean what it used to”, while the musicians continue to play because they want music to “mean what it used to”, too… This is a novel about punk spirit, rock ‘n’ roll bravado: the idea that getting on stage and rocking the fuck out with your fellow travellers is what fucking matters, man, is what it’s all about.
Destroy All Monsters perhaps suffers from a “cakeandeatit” mentality, satirising both the kinda people who say things like “oh music was better in the old days” while doing just that by being a contemporary novel about rock music (a genre which is, eww, well past its sell-by-date). Music doesn’t matter enough to kill, of course not, but here it does, to thousands of people. In Jackson’s fictional world, Music is worth killing for and Music is worth dying for. Music is a life and death matter in this novel’s world, and it doesn’t matter if we’re meant to read this ideology as tragically delusional, the novel holds and explores this premise artfully throughout.
Music does matter to people, particularly to young people. For many of us, it is the first of the arts that we become obsessed with. It’s a pretty standard “get to know you” question, the “What was the first album or single you bought?” We don’t tend to ask this about any other artforms. We see music as a formative and essential part of youth and life more generally. It is often there, present, beside and behind other things. Few films lack a soundtrack, few shops and bars don’t play something, many people (myself included) let Spotify pump out weird instrumental playlists while I’m reading, writing, thinking, texting, whatever. Music is both central and background, both throwaway and crazy important.
You cannot stare at something without seeing it… you cannot listen to music while you’re having a conversation or writing a chaotic approximation of a book review. Music sits in a unique cultural position (except for TV for fucking weirdos) whereby it is on without being a focus, it is performed with the expectation (and even purpose!) of being ignored. How can something be everything and nothing? How can something be worthy of bloodshed but also mediocre? That’s the paradox, innit, and that’s what Jackson is writing about.
Destroy All Monsters is boisterous and gently experimental. Its two “sides” (rather than “parts” or “volumes”) tell similar – but slightly different – stories and they’re about the importance and validity of artistic expression, but also artistic engagement and receptiveness to art. Is gunning down a bad covers band an act of committed cultural criticism? Is performing your middling little pop-punk songs when you know murderers are being massacred an act of bravery or an act of stupidity? That’s the great thing about music and the great thing about this book: it is able to be both.
Jackson mocks the murderers but lauds them too, he laughs at the bad rockers but he commends their commitment at the same time. There may not be a profound or universal or concise message to be found in the conclusion of Destroy All Monsters, but there is certainly a vibrancy and a tenacity that is deserving of attention.
Could it have been tighter, clearer, more straightforward, less allegorical, less questioning and would it have been a better book because of it? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been a rock novel.
It’s a pleasant, chaotic, playful, rock ‘n’ roll adventure of a book. Could it have been tighter, clearer, more straightforward, less allegorical, less questioning and would it have been a better book because of it? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been a rock novel. Proper rock is messy and meant for underground rooms with sticky floors and stickier trousers… rock ‘n’ roll is most rock ‘n’ roll when it staggers straight to the stage from a shared toilet cubicle with a plastic cup of lager in one hand and a little bit of blood on the septum. Plectrums on genitals, amps that not go up to eleven and make eleven louder, too. Rock doesn’t demand scrutiny, it just promises to be BIG.
Rock is ridiculous and try-hard and takes itself seriously but is always willing to be affectionately mocked. Destroy All Monsters is a fun mess of a text that does everything a rock novel should do. Is it clever? Is it beautiful? Is it wise? Is it something for the squares? Who fucking cares, because it’s rock and fucking roll.
for me, nothing sums up ROCK more than the Meat Loaf lyric, “DON’T YOU SEE MY FADED LEVIS BURSTING APART” which maybe indicates I’m not the best person to review a rock novel.
The recipe for the quinoa/bean chilli I made while riffing on the first draft of this article.
Cook a large diced onion on a low heat until it starts to caramelise. Add dried cumin, smoked paprika (or sweet if that’s the best you can do), chilli (chopped fresh or dried flakes), salt, pepper. Let this all cook down for a while and then add two sweet green peppers, again diced. Add the juice of a lime. Add garlic chopped small, add a tin of chopped tomatoes, add two tins of beans AND THEIR JUICES, cook this for a bit and then add quinoa, then add more lime juice and then a SHITLOAD of chopped coriander. Keep stirring, let it cook down, let a bit of liquid boil away and let the quinoa become ready to eat. Serve with cheese, if desired, or sour cream or something, whatever, if you want. The quantities are imprecise because I’m a cook, not a chef, I make food by feel rather than design: i’m my most rock in the kitchen
Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, visual artist, and songwriter. His second novel Destroy All Monsters was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in Fall 2018. It received advanced praise from Don DeLillo, Janet Fitch, Dana Spiotta, Ben Marcus, and Dennis Cooper. His novella Novi Sad was published as a limited edition art book and selected for “Best of 2016” lists in Vice, Lit Reactor, and Entropy. His first novel Mira Corpora, published in 2013, was a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and featured on numerous “Best of the Year” lists, including Slate, Salon, The New Statesman, and Flavorwire. His short fiction has appeared in Guernica, Vice, New York Tyrant, and The Collagist and been performed in New York and Los Angeles by New River Dramatists. @deathoflit