Book Review

My Volcano by John Elizabeth Stintzi

a failure of intent

19th July 2022, London Heatwave

My Volcano is a 2022 novel by John Elizabeth Stintzi published by Canadian indie press Arsenal Pulp, who publish a lot of great stuff, including several books I have bought but not yet read (currently somewhere mid-Atlantic in a shipping container) and a couple of other books I have mentioned on TriumphoftheNow.com before, most recently Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu, and prior to that the phenomenal Little Fish by Casey Plett.

My Volcano is a hybrid, non-linear collage-of-a-novel novel about a massive volcano unexpectedly rising out of New York City’s Central Park over the course of a few months, slowly damaging the city as the bulk grows, and then causing massive destruction when it massively erupts. With massive lava and ash release, the repercussions are continent wide, with mass human displacement, huge amounts of death and the same kind of ash-in-the-sky-travel-chaos as happened when that volcano in Iceland erupted a decade or so ago. Seems like a pretty straightforward disaster novel narrative, right? 

Wrong, because rather than situate the narrative from the perspective of a volcano scientist and/or a local or two living with the effects of the problem (the volcano), Stintzi instead provides the reader with a kaleidoscopic vision of people from around the world, using 232 short chapters (there are 347 pages in the novel, so that’s an average chapter length of under a page and a half) to convey vignettes rather than episodes, jerking the reader backwards and forwards through time, from centuries before the volcano appears to years after America has recovered (other than resettling decimated Manhattan) from the eruption, from Japan to Mexico to Mongolia to Brazil and elsewhere, alighting for a moment or two into the lives of disparate but sometimes slightly-connected people or groups of people as they live their lives either in response to – or in ignorance of – the unexpected volcanic growth over in New York City, New York State.

Most of these vignettes feature characters who are returned to, but not all, and several of them seem to grind to a halt a long way before the conclusion of the novel. There is a child who time-travels back to Tenochtitlan just before the conquistadores arrive to destroy it and lives, Narnia-like, several years before returning to childhood in the present day; there is a young woman working in the San Francisco branch of a company that rents out sound-proofed booths for people to scream and cry and otherwise emote in; there are a pair of academics having a long-distance relationship that involves them broadcasting publicly-viewable webcam footage of themselves 24/7 (other than using the toilet); there is a white trans writer (always referred to as “the white trans writer”) living in New Jersey who is struggling to write a novel; there is a Mongolian farmer who is stung by an insect and slowly transforms and joins into a giant, continent-spanning living organism that destroys pollution and the sources of pollution with no regard for the lives it amalgamates/terminates to do so (a bit like – if I remember ‘90s sci-fi correctly – an organic version of the Borg from Star Trek); there is an unhoused man living in NYC who is given a priceless, magical jewel; there are houses that can sprout legs and walk; there is a hotshot young ad exec who is split into two versions of himself, one in his native Hawaii and one who remains travelling the world making adverts for a tasty refreshing lemon drink; there are descriptions of the various adverts made for the lemon drink’s ad campaign; there is a scientist at an observatory in South America who notices that stars are starting to burn out; there is a giant golem made of stone and fire and dirt leaping from the ground and destroying cities utterly in order to curb their destruction; there is a seeming spatial anomaly whereby people walking up Mount Fuji can be seen walking on the Manhattan volcano; there is a doctor working at refugee camps in the Mediterranean who is suffering PTSD following the hospital they worked at being destroyed by guided missiles; there are the spirits of the volcanos of the world who seek to keep it alive and refreshed as necessary, & there are more that I can’t remember, I am sure, and there are also multiple endings for almost all of these threads – we see characters destroyed by lava or fire or tsunamis or falling from heights who we then see in camps or other places years later – which was the true ending for them? As a reader, I don’t know. As a writer, did Stintzi know? I don’t know either.

What is most striking about My Volcano is that it is not a first novel, because it has all of the hallmarks of one. 

This doesn’t feel like a novel. 

It feels like many short stories that have been chopped into pieces, scattered about, and with a few lines added into some – but not all – of them to connect them together. The throwaway comment about an ex in one thread, the reference to someone met once on a holiday/vacation, the chance meeting in a refugee camp in one of the myriad endings… and those myriad endings, right? Like, what’s the ending? How do these stories end? Some of them don’t end, some of them end three or four or more times. And the chopping and jumping about becomes very frustrating as the novel goes on – as soon as Stintzi has got a scene/chapter going, all of a sudden it ends and the book is elsewhere.

I never ever ever thought I would find myself saying this about any novel ever, but I would have preferred My Volcano had it been a collection of short stories rather than a novel. Stintzi writes nice, solid, literary prose, but they take the flawed structure of that airplane-read “novel” Cloud Atlas and make those flaws (clearly distinct stories – not parts of a novel! – split in half with massive gaps in between the two parts) even bigger. The smashed up chronology, the tiny tiny chapters, the crowbarred-feeling connections… it just feels like a failure of intent.

The intention of the novel, I felt, was to create a world-spanning sense of connectedness, and – for me – this was what it failed to do. It also did that classic “Canadian living in the US and setting the novel in the US” but referencing tiny Canadian cities that only Canadians (or people who have lived in Canada) would have heard of (Sudbury, anyone? Saskatoon?), and also having monsters destroying and/or subsuming into a collective whole pretty much the entire human and animal populations of Mongolia, China & India and the countries in between (“billions of people” – p. 321) feels a bit, I dunno, retrogressive?

I dunno, it just… it felt like it didn’t do what it was trying to do.

And that was frustrating, because I enjoyed the way it was written and several – though not all – of the threads were super enjoyable! It reminded me a lot, actually, of the TV show Sense-8, which similarly has too many protagonists, with some of the parallel narratives much less enjoyable than others, yet getting equal screen time.

The way Westworld uses chronological dissonance is a good counter to Stintzi’s use of going backwards and forwards – why am I reading a paragraph or two describing in detail what the volcano is doing on a specific day at a specific time when, fifty pages ago, I read about someone reacting to this exact event? 

I dunno, I feel like I’m being mean here, which I don’t want to do.

I was disappointed by this novel, I was really hoping to love it…

its premise, its idea, its intention, is great, but it just doesn’t fulfil what it promises.

On p. 202, Stintzi writes – I’m uncertain if this is defensively or if it’s an admission of guilt:

“The white trans writer got an email […] that said that she didn’t think the book worked. There was too much going on between the two stories. She suggested pulling the stories apart and focusing on just one of them […] The other story complicated the project, obscured the goals their advisor presumed were its goals. The reader got lost in the movement–the whiplash–between the two narratives, and readers of a book should never be lost.”

It feels like this paragraph is dismisisng the idea of a reader being lost – the criticism of “the white trans writer” is felt to be unwelcome, right? If you’re lost as a reader, you’re at fault?

I get this, right, the idea that a writer shouldn’t have to be understood at all times to be valid, that a text doesn’t need to be as simple as possible to be understood and/or legitimate.

It can often come across as ignorance, as petty, as conservative, the critique of a text that it was hard for a reader to understand. But this is why it feels hollow in this context, though – My Volcano is not a difficult text, it is not murky or textually ambiguous (though it is ambiguous in terms of narrative endings, as discussed), and I never felt “lost” while reading it – I was never confused by what Stintzi was describing, I was confused by the decisions they made regarding structure – it is macro-editorial, rather than micro-literary, decisions that don’t – to me – make sense.

Yes, it is easier to market a novel rather than a short story collection, I get that, but being jarring yet connected for the sake of being both jarring yet connected adds nothing to a text imo.

Stintzi has some exciting, engaging and interesting stories in here, but catharses and narrative satisfaction are lost by the way in which they are ordered: connection, rather than comprehension, is what Stintzi has sacrificed through these structural choices.

& i’ve done this whole thing without once mentioning the Claudia Rankine-inspired inclusion of real life statistics about LGBTQ+ victims of violence that are scattered throughout: again, this may work as a creative non-fiction piece included in a volume of short fiction, but cut up in this novel in the way it is, it feels like a cynical and borderline offensive attempt to add sociocultural heft to a book that really lacks a clear and coherent vision. 

Whatever this book was trying to do, it fails to achieve it. Stintzi’s first novel was highly acclaimed, and I’d certainly consider reading it, but I cannot in good conscience recommend My Volcano – no matter – or perhaps because of – how intriguing it sounds. It’s a real let-down.

Though, of course, if you’re going to ignore my advice and buy it anyway, do so direct from the publisher via this link.

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