Books In Conversation
JEFF JACKSON with Nicholas Rys
Destroy All Monsters
(FSG Originals, 2018)
With attention carefully drawn to both style and substance, Jeff Jackson’s newest novel, Destroy All Monsters is an artifact in and of itself: the text split into a Side A and Side B like an old vinyl single; the text shaded different colors, different type-faces, prologues and false starts and chapters not falling in line as we’d traditionally expect from a novel (Side A’s chapter one does not begin until page 70). These artful uses of white space and text are not just stylistic choices, but inform and work expertly with the purposefully fractured narrative that rests within the pages, as well. A sense of fracturing affects the book on both macro and micro levels, there is a United States torn apart by senseless violence, a town—a scene—a small community also grappling with it, as well.
I spoke with Jeff about some the structure of the novel, the importance of setting, and the influence of his work in theater and his love of cinema on the book, and much more.
Nicholas Rys (Rail): There’s a really interesting section in the book where one of the people who shoots up a rock club goes on a rant at his trial. The narrative tells us, “He pled not guilty, claiming extenuating circumstances, giving a rambling speech that few bothered to follow, something about how he felt assaulted by the difference between the music he heard in his head and the music he heard onstage … He informed the jury: I acted in self-defense.”
In our current age where we can conjure up whatever soundtrack to our day we want, whenever we want, our on-demand economy infiltrating and dominating our music consumption. I feel like there’s a whole generation who prefer the music from the recording, who prefer to choose the songs and the order themselves. They are used to controlling the music and it being predictable and regulated to the recording (as opposed to the wild, untamed spontaneity of a live show where anything can happen). I have a lot of thoughts on that section, but maybe you can talk about that passage a bit, thatmurderers defense. It resonated with me in a bigger way than just this one guys’ defense.
Jeff Jackson: I really like your reading of that passage, but another possibility also comes to mind. It could be the boy heard something wild and untamed in his head and found himself confronted by a dreary and dull performance on stage. Maybe he was feeling assaulted by the predictability and lifelessness of the live music and was trying to “defend” himself against something that he experienced as deadening and soul-sucking. I’m sure you’ve seen bands that bad. It can get especially dire when they cover a great song and butcher it. All that said, I certainly don’t think there’s one correct interpretation here. The book’s meant to be an “open text”— intentionally leaving room for lots of different takes.
Rail: I want to ask if you think you are drawn to a sort of bombed out, post-industrial landscape in your work? While Arcadia isn’t exactly as post-apocalyptic as the setting of your previous book, there is a sense of the town being ... forgotten or left over.
Jackson: One reason is that those places make my heart sing. There’s a beauty that resonates with me at some deep level. I spent my earliest years in Aruba playing among the ruins of an abandoned hospital and army fortifications from WWII. I later lived in Dumbo in New York City surrounded by shuttered factories, fractured cobblestone alleys, decaying warehouses, and art squats. There are many smaller post-industrial cities like Arcadia all across the country. That’s a prevalent reality now which doesn’t get much coverage. It felt like the right locale for this book and its characters.
Rail: This book takes place in a town called Arcadia, your previous book was called and took place in Novi Sad—I’m wondering what are you tapping into with these ancient or mythical names?
Jackson:Arcadia is both a mythical place—Diana’s hunting ground in Greek lore—and one of the most common city names in the United States. So in one way, it functions like Springfield does in The Simpsons—it’s a name that doesn’t pin the place to a specific region. As with Novi Sad, I like laying mythological associations over real places, and vice-versa. Hopefully that charges the landscape with multiple meanings and possibilities.
Rail: It’s clear how integral setting and geography is for you. “unspoiled, harmonious wilderness.” I’m curious about the symbolism of the woods in this book, and again, in some of your other work. I grew up with the woods within eye-shot, and I found they held a sort of mythical presence in my youth, and find woods recur in my own work in various ways. I wonder if you could talk a bit about their presence and significance in your own writing.
Jackson: I’m no fan of symbolism. What’s that Samuel Beckett line? “No symbols where none intended.” For me, the woods are simply another charged landscape. One part of my youth was spent in New Jersey where sections of woods cropped up throughout our small town. It was a powerful space for short cuts, group secrets, private rituals. Forests still hold a powerful allure for me. In Destroy All Monsters, the sections in “My Dark Ages” (Side A) alternate between scenes in the city and the woods. It felt important to show the characters in both those locations and how those environments coaxed out different aspects of their personalities.
Rail: Can you talk about the stylistic/formatting choices in this book? From the way dialogue is rendered to chapter one of side A being on page 70, to the whole side A/side B structure, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this. Did the form lead the narrative or did the narrative you had lead you to this form? Does that make sense?
Jackson: Formatting is important to me—how something appears visually on the page shapes how you absorb it. It might only be subconscious for the reader, but it still has an effect. It’s something I try to figure out while I’m drafting. Throughout, form and narrative influence each other in a sort of dance, one taking the lead and then the other. I’m constantly rethinking and adjusting the structure as the book comes into focus. Sometimes major elements appear very late in the process. For instance, I didn’t even get the idea for “Side B” until after the main text was completed.
Rail: There’s a really wonderful unsentimentally to the way you write about the music scene/scene culture in general. You don’t glorify it and make it magical, but you don’t exactly put it down either. It feels incredibly authentic, at least based on my time in these circles. Were you a scene kid growing up/did you spend time in these circles, and if so, how did that inform the way you write about those things in this book?
Jackson: I’ve spent time around various music scenes over the years. I was mostly on the periphery, but I was paying attention to how they worked. I was also immersed in the experimental theater scene in New York City for many years and that didn’t operate so differently from the music scene, except there was less money involved. My theater collaborators—many of whom were also musicians—always claimed we ran our company like a rock band. So those dynamics were familiar to me.
Rail: Without giving anything away, there’s a scene towards the end of side A where a character is looking at himself in the mirror, considering playing Russian roulette. The narrative, from this character’s POV, reads, “Don’t make a face in the mirror. Don’t even look at yourself. It’s too easy to transform a moment of truth into a cheap performance.” I was wondering if this maybe resonates in some way with the social media/internet culture of the present moment. I was wondering if you could elaborate on this idea of cheapening a potentially truthful or meaningful moment into a show.
Jackson: I suspect the tendency to cheapen our most meaningful moments for dramatic effect is something hardwired into human beings. Social media has made it much worse by enabling people to broadcast every impulse into the world where it can be seen by countless others. And of course social media rewards people for performing their lives in ways that are often divorced from their real emotions, which can lead to serious crack-ups. So maybe the problem these days is really a matter of scale. But the underlying issue remains: It’s difficult not to become self-conscious and falsify our most potentially precious moments—even in art.
Rail:There seems to be a theme running in the book with certain characters viewing music/the scene/bands in general as … less than sincere with their approach or intent with music. Early in side B we are told that many of the people gathered at a show aren’t really there to hear the music, but awaiting their chance to perform. Late in side A, the character of Xenie talks about how everything has to be public now, has to be validated by a crowd, but that most of these people are just mediocre musicians and performers. You play shows with a rock band, is this your experience now? Do you ever feel this way about music or social media? Is Xenie just being jaded?
Jackson: I would never make the argument that there’s no good music anymore. In terms of sheer quantity, there’s probably more good music out there now than ever before. But I do feel that digital culture has stripped music of its ability to signify and shift the cultural needle the way it did in previous decades. And that’s robbed music of something vital. Great music is still great music, but it doesn’t mean as much as it used to. There’s also less financial incentive because it’s hard for young musicians to make money—and as a result, it’s rare to find bands who play like there’s something at stake.
This is a problem for artists in all genres—how do you make your art with urgency when it feels like few people are paying attention and it gets swallowed by the void and the world around you is unraveling? Is what you’re making really worth sharing or is it only adding more noise to an already overloaded system?
I believe it’s still possible to make work that matters and it’s worth taking that risk—and ultimately that’s where I split with Xenie. But the bar feels higher these days for making something worth other people’s time and it often feels like an impossible undertaking.
Rail: The book is very cinematic, both in its visual language and in the way it employs language from filmmaking itself (“no shadows darken the frame”). How important or influential is cinema to your writing, if at all? Did any films influence this project?
Jackson:Cinema is probably as important as literature for me. I think of camera movement as being analogous to prose style. I’ve learned a lot about structure, mood, tone, and character from movies—things I might not have picked up as readily from books. Not that literature isn’t essential as well, but I feel like the two forms are in conversation when I write. I’m sure plenty of films got filtered into Destroy All Monsters, though fans of Alan Clarke’s BBC movies, especially Elephant (1989), might experience particularly strong echoes.
Rail: You currently play music in a band called Julian Calendar. Can you talk about that and how you got involved with the band, what it’s like to write lyrics versus prose? I find it super different, I try to tap into a whole other thing, but I’m curious on your thoughts. Did you get involved with the band before/during/after the book? Did that influence or have an impact on it?
Jackson: Writing lyrics is definitely different than prose. For me, it’s closer to writing for theater because I’m thinking about how things sound aloud and crafting phrases that have to impact an audience in the moment.
I got involved with Julian Calendar because my friend Jeremy Fisher asked if I would write lyrics to fit some of his existing music. I couldn’t do that, but I wrote some simple lyrics that I figured he could put to music. He struggled with that and it was only when I improvised melodies over his music using my words that songs began to take shape. My lyrics tend to be fairly minimalist so that they’re flexible enough to work in a variety of musical contexts. I try to make sure the words carry some complexity—or the right amount of stupidity. I also try to apply what the Fall’s Mark E. Smith called “the three R’s”: repetition, repetition, repetition.
How does all this relate to Destroy All Monsters? I don’t know. I didn’t fall into making music until after I’d finished writing the novel. It was unexpected and unplanned. Maybe I got involved with Julian Calendar in defiance of what I had written.
Rail: You’ve written and produced a number of very successful plays in New York City. Can you talk a bit about playwriting and the experience of working in a theater versus writing a piece of fiction? Is that something you will keep doing? I am also curious how you got into playwriting? I believe your MFA from NYU is in fiction?
Jackson:I joined the Collapsable Giraffe Theater Company shortly after college. They were looking for a writer and I grabbed the opportunity. I had some experience as a playwright, but I mainly approached the task as a fiction writer—using those tools more than traditional dramaturgy. Maybe because it was a collaborative process, the plays came together and garnered acclaim much faster than my fiction, which took a longer time to reach the point where it was worth sharing. By the time I got my MFA in fiction, I already had several plays produced.
I see plays mainly as roadmaps or scaffolding to be used by the director and actors to create something with its own life. The text is only one part of the overall theatrical experience, where the words in a novel have to do everything themselves—with the reader as the lone collaborator, after the fact.
I’ve recently been talking with my main theater collaborator Jim Findlay about working on something new and we've been sketching vague plans for that. Hopefully it’llhappen. Theater and the performance world have contributed a lot to my fiction over the years—writing rituals to contact the dead and plays for sleeping audiences has definitely expanded my ideas about what is possible in literature.