A fever dream that mixes 2016 homicide statistics with an array of outlandish sci-fi tropes. An allegory on the mutability of all things. A disturbing meditation on the strange reality of the 21st century. An apocalyptic or bizarre phantasmagoria Kaiju roam the lands and wreak havoc. A lyrical treatise on volcanoes as metaphors. A wild ride.
Prospective students of “My Volcano,” John Elizabeth Stintzi’s second novel (“Vanishing Monuments”), will come up with a myriad of theses about the true nature of the author’s prodigious book. The limitless abundance, uniqueness, and irreducibility of “Volcano” will likely encourage as many interpretations as the book will have readers.
Across 232 chapters (in compact sizes; the shortest consists of a single word: “Turbulence”), Stintzi riffs inventively on the disaster movie conspiracy – as unforeseen events rush to explosive disaster, all citizens of the world are affected, but the fate of about a dozen have come under the microscope.
At Stintzi’s Kaiju the creatures are anything but mundane. In Libya, a four-legged headless golem made of volcanic stone emerges with the aim of attacking and demolishing polluted places in Peru, Canada and Azerbaijan. In Mongolia, a shepherd named Dzhambul is stung by a bee that fed on a mutated thistle; soon after, Dzhambul is the heart of a sentient green network that transforms every living thing it touches while spreading across Southeast Asia.
Humans, on the other hand, have more immediate concerns. Jahan, a homeless man reflecting “on the rubble he and the world had made of his life”, receives a magic opal; he soon encounters an old ruined house walking on large lizard-like legs. In Kamchatka, Galina Sadykova locks herself in a giant insect that only she can see. A boy is transported to Mexico in 1516. Ash, a maker of slick TV commercials, encounters an exact replica of himself as nearby an unnamed “white trans writer” faces a “toxic and harrowing life in the heights of Jersey City”. and struggles to complete a novel about the events of the “distant eco-planet VULCA-9d”.
Oh, and let’s not forget this: In Manhattan’s Central Park, a scientifically inexplicable volcano, dubbed Fuji 2, grows 3,500 feet in a month.
Elsewhere, omens, confusing sights, mysterious alien figures and magical artifacts abound. And, to anchor readers in another kind of historical news that is distressing in its own way, Stintzi inserts a series of untitled interstitial chapters that give stark testimony, like: “August 9, 2016. Colten Boushie. Near Biggar, Saskatchewan. Bullet in the head. 22 years old. Another names the 49 victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“My Volcano” is captivating, of course. Monsters, time travel and super volcanoes rarely fail to impress. Stintzi juggles seriously unbalanced plot elements with impressive verve, but the thoughtfulness of the characters (who struggle, like Jahan, with what their lives have become) as the world they know faces a crisis without previous is a permanent pleasure.
Taken together, these sympathetically confused characters form a sort of chorus that grounds the novel by asking a big question: what is this place and what do we do there?
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