I recently had the pleasure of finishing Ann Sterzinger’s NVSQVAM (nowhere); I’ve never laughed so hard at a book that made me feel so terrible. Her novel follows the life of Lester Reichartsen; an ex-singer turned academic who’s stuck living in the South with a wife, a cat, and a child he never asked for, who tries to cope with the sadistic ennui of living amongst today’s proletariat by ignoring and hurting those around him.
Lester is a terrible person.
The fact that he is a terrible person is what makes the book so funny: because only a terrible person in the depths of depression will tell you how it really is. He’s not so different from Hunter S. Thompson, who once described his country as:
America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
Lester doesn’t pull any punches, because nobody’s every pulled any punches with him. His stream-of-consciousness narration rips into the pseudo-intellectualism of academia – how is tearing apart some long-dead intellectual, for the sake of earning a PhD, fundamentally any different from filing an HR complaint about a coworker, so that they’ll be passed over for promotion? How is it any different than a music industry where talent is less important than dealing with drug-addicted venue owners? How is it any different than a political movement where Nietzsche’s Will to Power devolves into a pile of narcissists pulling one another back into the bucket?
Okay, that last one came from my own inner Lester, not Sterzinger’s, but that’s precisely the point: Lester might be a terrible person, but at least he’s a person, and at least he has a reason for being so terrible. If you’ve ever seen the world for the horrific parody of decency and human life that it is, then you’ll enjoy Lester’s free-floating hostility.
After all, it’s not the Lesters of the world that you have to worry about; it’s the empty Skin Suits. The people with no Logos at the core of them. Those who use reason and emotion to hurt and twist with no purpose or end in sight. Lester’s terrible, but he knows it, he can tell you why, and he always has a reason for doing whatever he’s doing. His wife on the other hand? His father? What the hell are those people? Trying to understand them is a fruitless, never-ending kaleidoscope of horror.
If there’s a failing I’d point to in Sterzinger’s book, it’s that she painted the Skin Suits too convincingly. Partly this comes from living inside the narrator; he has no idea what sort of monsters surround him, and so he misses out on the subtle clues, and even the more obvious contradictions, which should have given them away. The other reason they stay hidden because they’re this convincing in real life. While reading NVSQVAM we are entirely absorbed with Lester’s life, in the same way that we stay self-absorbed in our own lives. We assume that those in our environment are autonomous and self-sufficient, that if they need our help they’ll say something, and that if they ask for our help they actually need it. We assume they possess personhood, and that there’s a reasonable explanation behind all of their actions: we don’t tend to monitor them in search of insanity.
This is why many readers miss out on what sort of people surround Lester – even myself. Despite my vague sense of unease at the other characters, and my ongoing sympathy for Lester’s plight (even though he’s a terrible person) I didn’t fully catch on to who these people were until I reached the Afterword, where Sterzinger lays it all out.
Ann? Stop having so much respect for your audience. Sometimes we need you to spell things out in baby talk.
During the Elizabethan era, stories were grouped into one of two categories: comedies where everybody lived happily ever after, and tragedies where everybody died in the pursuit of their beliefs. NVSQVAM is a mixture of both; a comedy that will leave you feeling sick inside, until you vomit up all of the evil out of your soul. But after that sickness passes you’ll be left with the assurance that you’re not alone. You’re not the only one who sees this cultural wasteland for what it is, and you’re not the only one whose weaknesses seem to have been started in the bedrock of your life. And yet, there is hope for us. Lester – the miserable wretch that he is – is so much worse off than us. His life serves as a warning of what ours could become, as well as an affirmation that we can do better.
Gen Xers should read it for the commiseration, Millenials should read it so that they can begin to grasp our cynicism, Baby Boomers should read it so that they can understand what sort of hellscape they left us with, and namby-pamby Christians should read it to acquaint themselves with the inner-darkness that they pretend isn’t there.
Immerse yourself in your inner Lester for a time; you’ll be a better person for it.
Ann Sterzinger blogs at www.AnnSterzinger.com. NVSQVAM (nowhere) is available on Amazon, and is now available in Kindle Edition. Next week I’ll be reviewing Man Going His Own Way by Bernarch Chapin as a natural follow up.