Editor Staff, Fiction, September 6th, 2011
alt.punk (Lavinia Ludlow, Casperian Books 2011, 202 pages)
I’m admittedly confused. It’s been a few weeks now since I put down Lavinia Ludlow’s novel, alt.punk, and though parts of it are still resonating with me, I feel as if I’m not loving it as much as I ought to. I feel like there’s something wrong with me. I’ll try to explain this curious sensation, with all due respect and admiration for a fellow writer and a contributor to this humble magazine. OK, let’s go.
From the very first paragraph, we are pulled rather unceremoniously into the neurotic universe of the novel’s narrator, Hazel, as she zeroes in on the freckle capping her boyfriend’s penis while he forces her to keep the light on as she gives him a blowjob. Now. Immediately, I thought to myself — This is great. A woman writer talking about this stuff. Oh great. The narrator is considering that this is the same hole from which her boyfriend pees, and she’s disgusted. I knew it all along! They do think about things like that! But in retrospect, we’re also herein offered the exact maddening aspect to Hazel’s character, which in the end, made it so difficult for me to ever fully take her side — she doesn’t live for herself. At all. She’s barely conscious of herself. And worse, maybe, her attitudes and formidable recalcitrance in life are closer to that of a 15 year-old girl, rather than a woman in her early thirties with an education and a job.
Belittled by her family, blindsided and berated at her grocery store managerial position, made to feel unimportant at best through her friendships, and enraged equally as much by her boyfriend as the influence of their relationship on her — one that leaves her stuck and entirely unfulfilled — Hazel is the definition of what may have happened to Douglas Coupland’s characters in Generation X, eventually. She’s locked in, and locked in to… not much.
To balance this out, however, much of the strength of Ludlow’s writing comes in the form of tight character development, where often she can draw an entire person through no more than 3 or 4 sentences. When it happens, Ludlow shines, to be sure, and shows off her authorial prowess without beating her reader over the head with it. Hazel says of her “best friend” (in quotes to denote a label borne more out of convenience than truth):
Avaline’s a chemically imbalanced acquaintance I met in the parking lot of Safeway, my workplace, four years ago. She sat in a handicap stall for an entire day crying over the fact that her favorite lip liner had been discontinued and no amount of money would bring it back. I played the role of a good Samaritan by nursing her back to stability in the break room, and since then, she shows up two or three times a week at the store or my apartment and calls on the odd days wondering what’s up. Or down. One minute she’s throwing a tantrum and the next she’s hyperactively bumbling on about her plans with her ballet company. She’s so absorbed in her own whirl of insanity that I never get a word in edgewise. For all the time we’ve spent together, she knows nothing about me, and if I mildly try to shift the topic of discussion […] she’ll revert it back to herself.
There’s a lesson here for just about every writer. Ludlow, through her narrator, has told us not only about Hazel’s friend, but also a ton of information about herself, both direct and indirect, and perhaps most importantly through their codependent ties and the amount of energy that gets sucked out of everyone and onto Avaline. It’s wonderful. And it’s just a paragraph — one that get so much mileage accomplished, it’s almost baffling.
Most likely, you’re wondering about the general plot line of alt.punk, but it’s been described so succinctly here by Ryan W. Bradley in his review of the novel on The Nervous Breakdown, I’ll just quote a brief paragraph from him before moving on to more analysis:
alt.punk is about a couple that brews destruction. Hazel is a germaphobe hypochondriac stuck in the corporate limbo of managing a Safeway, while Otis is a man-child frontman of a punk band, oblivious to the consequences of his actions. They are an unlikely duo brought together by circumstance and perhaps fate. If Shiva were the controller of that fate.
As a reader, my biggest difficulty with this debut novel was finding a smooth patch, a calm reflection, a situation in which any of the characters was not mistakenly reacting to whatever was in their immediate surroundings. Given the sheer velocity of everything in the book, from Hazel’s neurotic pin-balling off of every human surface in her life to her deadbeat zombified punk rock boyfriend Otis’s beautifully horrifying and drug-induced nihilism, I started to feel slightly claustrophobic inside of the sentences and paragraphs, which despite their lush descriptions, often presented to me a narrator who was not going to take a breath for 202 pages. What does this mean?
Here, I go back and forth. What I felt was frustration and desperation, and also maybe some degree of annoyance with the characters in the book. I felt it was difficult to feel any sympathy because in the end, Hazel is leagues past pathetic, and I didn’t see a lot of reasons to root for her, at least not until the final third of the book. But — and this is a huge but — in a world where we are inundated with images and stories and advertisements and cultural production in general, isn’t it amazing that a writer or an artist or a filmmaker can make a person feel something? And so I think, so what if maybe I’m not the ideal reader for this particular book. So what if the book made me feel claustrophobic, desperate, emotionally dulled, aimless, frustrated — it still had the power to make me feel something. And isn’t that pretty much one of the very few jobs that art can be said to have?
Of course, that’s a debate well worth having, but in the end, I think it’s the victory of alt.punk. And maybe more astounding in its accomplishment, Ludlow made me feel exactly the same way that Hazel probably does. It’s almost like I became a version of the character.
And isn’t that more like the ultimate form of sympathy, rather than my initial assessment of not being able to feel any sympathy at all?
Arrgh! Fooled again!
Should you read this? Yes, you should. Despite my criticism, there is more than enough to warrant sucking the juice out of these characters and this storyline. If for nothing else, Ludlow is a writer whose talent is beyond obvious, and one whose career will be interesting to chart from this book forward to the many others she’ll ideally write and put out in the world. Those gifts will be anxiously waited for by anyone who picks up alt.punk and takes the roller coaster ride between its covers.
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