Charleston, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2011
We live in a time in which all positive ideologies of the past — be they Right- or Left-wing; good, bad, or ugly — are swiftly spiraling towards the chopping block of “the end of history.” It seems impossible, in today’s post-modern climate of perpetual intellectual suspicion, to sustain a rigorous attachment to any point of view without eventually betraying an impulse to succumb to irony and mockery of concepts once considered sacred and profound.
Indeed, the momentum of iconoclasm, begun in earnest in the West in the 1960s and ’70s (though perhaps in the process of unraveling for decades or even centuries prior), cannot easily be arrested. First it assaults the traditional sacred cows, and then it turns it fury on the tenets of the newfangled Zeitgeist.
Today, with “cultural Marxism” in ascendency, it is those liberal, namby-pamby, politically-correct shibboleths and bromides (mostly concerning enforced hypersensitivity towards the supposed sensibilities of non-whites, women, and homosexuals) that are ripest for derision, detestation, and demolition. What used to be revolutionary has become commonplace, and in becoming commonplace, has lost all appeal. To put it plainly, and vulgarly, no one really believes any of that “diversity” shit anymore. No one believes much of anything anymore, in fact. We have entered an age of “anti-ideologies,” a time in which the most anger, energy, and focus seems driven in an exclusively negative direction, dedicated and determined less to prove anything than to disprove everything.
Perhaps the most extreme form of negativism is a belief system called antinatalism. As expressed at Jim Crawford’s webpage www.antinatalism.net, this mindset amounts to the argument that life isn’t worth living, and that human beings ought not reproduce, since to cause another person to come into existence is to do this person the gravest of disservices. Crawford’s Confessions of an Antinatalist and David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been both make an erudite case for this gloomy perspective, but the best way to propound a philosophy is to tell it in the form of a parable.
Thus we have Ann Sterzinger’s striking and harrowing new novel NVSQVAM (nowhere), which gives shape, form, purposefulness, and pathos to this rather brutally nihilistic, unabashedly morose, and pitlilessly unyielding case against life.
Given that Sterzinger is an outspoken antinatalist herself (check out her amusingly droll and profane blog www.fineillstartagoddamnblog.blogspot.com), one is unprepared for just how devastatingly hilarous her prose can be. Yet most of Nowhere reads, somewhat surprisingly, like a comedy, riffing on life’s unremitting terribleness for the express purpose of provoking bitter, yet still hearty belly laughs in the unsuspecting reader. Her anti-hero Lester Reichartsen is a curmudgeonly would-be hipster, who finds himself listlessly pursuing a dead-end graduate degree in Classical Letters and raising an irritatingly precocious son he never wanted, all the while unhappily married to an attractive, intelligent woman with a bright career in Spanish professorship, whose success Lester bitterly covets. When he isn’t getting drunk or engaging in cheerless banter with snotty undergraduates projecting insufferable attitudes of smug entitlement, Lester pines for his glory days when he was the bandleader of an up-and-coming post-punk alternative rock group, the Incognito Mosquitoes.
Lester isn’t always easy to like, and over the course of the book he makes some truly terrible choices which bring only misery to himself and those around him. Just the same, Sterzinger seems to see her protagonist as less of a villain and more of a poor bastard who, like everyone else, is simply fucked, because such is life. His story, like all of our stories, can only end in tragedy, because that is what it means to be human. Attending the story is an equally clever “meta-text” in the form of a series of frequent and copiously-worded footnotes, which describe the bizarre intracacies of modern American pop culture as if the reader were a representative of a future civilization, completely unfamiliar with contemporary phenomena like Kurt Cobain, Kermit the Frog, or Walmart.
As might be expected, Nowhere ends on a resolutely dismal and savagely forlorn note. I won’t give it away, except to say that it isn’t what you will have expected, you won’t be prepared for it, and it will haunt you for days afterwards.
I have more than once been accused of having rather “dark” artistic sensibilities, but I must confess, Sterzinger’s thoroughgoing antinatalism is a bit much, even for me. Call me a secret bourgeois Pollyannic poseur, but I like to have at least some hint of hope in the things I read, whether they be fiction or non-fiction. Still, I admire aesthetic integrtiy and appreciate literary talent, and Ann Sterzinger has both of these in spades. Take a trip to Nowhere, if you dare.