Some books keep you at arms’ length from their characters misery. Ann Sterzinger shoves your nose in it, like you’re a misbehaving dog and the book is your mistake. In one sense, it’s very funny. In another sense, it’s not funny at all. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re made of carbon, SOMETHING in this book will hit too close to home.
Lester Reichertsen was a punk rock musician until his band kicked him out, seemingly on the verge of their big break. Now he’s living a fairly typical death in the world of academia. His dissertation is proving as painful as root canal surgery. He works as a put upon TA at the local college. He almost hates his son. He’s not drifting away from his wife, but only because they were probably never close to begin with. He is alienated from everyone, including himself. In short, he is a human anchor, plumbing the depths of the middle class by colliding with the bottom head-first. He’s a Holden Caulfield grown old enough to see himself become one of the phoneys.
The book is a succession of partly comic, partly ghastly events that illustrate the emptiness of his life. Encounters with his father and his father-in-law, unreconstructed narcissists both. A run-in with his old band. A young woman who might be the Lolita to his Humbert Humbert. All of it serves to reaffirm that he’s not insane, he’s just stuck in an insane world. How does he function? Is there ANY way to function? As you approach the end of Nvsqvam, it’s with a growing sense of apprehension, as though the thinning sheaf of pages is a ticking bomb. There can’t possibly be an escape for Lester.
The book is intense and grim, but it’s funny, too. Sterzinger induces cringe-laughter so frequently that I think my neural pathways have been trained to never again do one without the other. Like A Confederacy of Dunces (a book this sometimes reminds me of) Nvsqvam‘s characters seem stylised and exaggerated without seeming fake. This is another one of those books where you’ll meet every jerk you’ve ever known in its pages, if you’re not careful.
It also has an interesting metafictional angle, similar to Will Self’s The Book of Dave (although Sterzinger doesn’t go as far with the concept). It’s written in a way that invokes an classical document, filled with footnotes to help explain 21st century culture to some far-future student. At first, these footnotes seemed distracting. But they’re hilarious, and soon one looks forward to them – it’s like the book just proffered you a hors d’ourve. And I liked the way the events of Lester’s life become intertwined with the classical text he’s writing his dissertation on.
As the book progresses, the early gathering of stormclouds builds to a cat-5 gale. Nvsqvam is an exhausting book, and reading in small passages is recommended and perhaps necessary.
But it’s honest, and that makes it all the more painful. The publisher printed the title of the book at the top of every page – in an eerie way, this almost seems to become part of the text. Occasionally, Lester has small reversals of fortune. Sometimes, there’s a ray of hope. But your false hope is crushed anew every time you turn the page by a reminder that no matter what’s happening, you’re still Nowhere.