Author, publisher and editor of TakiMag, Ann Sterzinger recently released her latest novel NVSQVAM (Nowhere) on Kindle, allowing impatient cheapskates (and those of us living at the ends of the earth) to part with a few shekels for this 300 page-long tome. It is a story of one Lester Reichartsen, ailing Latin scholar, cracked genius, alcoholic, absent father to an eight-year-old child prodigy and unenthusiastic husband to the more successful Spanish professor Evelyn.
We are led through Lester’s wistful reflections of misspent his youth as a budding rock star, before his retreat into the unforgiving drudgery of academia, having been ‘forced’ into the responsibility to provide for his unplanned family. His is a struggle with the material, the social and the personal. What is it that makes one a ‘failure’, in the eyes of family, society and oneself?
He put his elbows in the sink-filth, tried to look like David Bowie, and thought to the mirror: I am a doctorate student in Classical Letters, and have no recollection why I ever decided to do such a thing. I am the only drop of blood in my line to have ever learned any more Latin than is in a mass, and it’s too goddamned late to impress anyone. I am married to a chiropractor’s daughter who is writing a brilliant dissertation in Spanish, which is useful, gods damn it, and she named her fucking cat after Frieda Kahlo, and she wants me to feed it. I am forty thousand dollars in debt for a degree that people will only make fun of unless I become a college professor, which means my life is over except for the part where I make myself available as a font of knowledge that nobody wants, and meanwhile my country is pissing away everything it has on a war that makes us look like 300 million Stooges, so even if I wanted to try to get a regular job to pay off the loans I’d be screwed blue anyway. But I’m a lucky guy, because I can still get an erection, and I have somebody to get an erection for, and furthermore I live in the West and do not live in a radioactive mud hut in Cambodia. Hooray.” Lester giggled. ‘Radioactive mud hut.’ Good one. If I could work that into my dissertation …
I started this paragraph with “Sterzinger makes extensive use of inner monologue to draw us into the mayhem of the protagonists’ world” and then I realised that I’m not writing a litcrit essay but a review or reflection for the small audience of the probably male, alt-readers who grace these pages. Women in general have an advantage over men because they read more fiction. Yes, I know, ‘quality over quantity’, chick-lit, 50 shades of Grey and Stephanie Myers, but sadly by spurning reading in general, but especially fiction, one neglects the indirect reflections on life, spirit and the human condition that can be learned by the trials of the tragic anti-hero, the personal effects of their decisions, and the madness that awaits us far enough down the rabbit hole:
Lester was suddenly whomped by empathy again, stupid empathy for this thing; whomped by the indirect, helpless sensation of the dullness and pain and ordinary pointlessness of the creature’s future, for which it no doubt had vague and hopeless hopes. Except for its ‘relationships’—a silly word for truces between bags of meat before the puny soul of each was sucked into the void—its life would be dumb work done so that another dumb animal up the hierarchy could dumbly seek and gather luxury clothes and foods without joy, simply so that others could see that more ‘important’ animal doing so, and perhaps be persuaded to give themselves sexually to that animal, to create more animals in its image to suffer and cause suffering.
Lester is both simple yet flawed and complex. The curse of Lester’s intelligence brings him disgust at the lives of all others – too good for his current life, his only chance of happiness lies in ‘what could have been’ had he continued his music career. His (hilariously) witty cynicism prevents any and all happiness, except for brief periods of gleeful spite, or the relief of his tortured existence afforded by his fifth glass of whisky. He is so warped, the fact that Evelyn stays with him defies belief. I say this as your run-of-the-mill young misogynist who believes in biological differences and everything. His disintegration is like death from a thousand cuts, with a couple of heavy swings to speed up his deliverance.
Although she is a woman (Ah like ’em lit-erate!), Sterzinger deftly traps Lester in the cruel social scaffold that defines the white, middle-class male of his generation – not on the way up, but instead peering down precariously at the peons below, as they thump their bibles, massacre the English language and drive around in expensive tanks.
In this way, Nowhere is genuinely thought provoking. How much do we blame the ugliness of the world, of pop culture for our own failings and weakness? What is more pitiful, the banal bleating of the ‘breeders’ and ‘car-people’, or our own never-realized delusions of grandeur? Are we wretched and jealous of those who have made happy, healthy, comfortable lives for themselves, who ‘sold out’, whilst wallowing in the lazy discomfort of unrealized potential?
If you are one (like yours truly), who shares Lester’s pretensions, who feels his sense of entitlement, you won’t be delivered into a warm fuzzy acceptance of your faults, and of the world around you.
Quit fantasizing, Lester, you’re never going to be anything but a smart peasant.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I know you! All this talk about upper-middle-class assholes has always been a cover-up for the fact that you want to be an aristocrat.” He sniffed. “Well, I should be. Instead of a serf in an oligarchy. With fifty thousand dollars of debt and three pretty pieces of paper[..]
Despite his impulsive, childish nature and relentless adventures in self-sabotage, I still found myself rooting for Lester. Like a tape set on replay (yes, you read tape; this is set in the late 90’s/early 2000’s – there’s even an incriminating ‘tape’ in one of the more theatrical scenes), the constant self-criticism, doubt and insecurity that plagues his every waking (and non-waking) moment is familiar to any man who rejects the norms of his time and place, yet castigates himself for being unable to assert himself and gain the respect of those whom he scorns.
Nowhere is not a quick read, although I ate my way through it over several late-night binges. It’s not clear where some parts fit in (perhaps I’m not lateral enough to understand the lengthy dream-sequences), but it’s long enough that one becomes invested in his character. As his links with the real world become more tenuous, I became less connected with his character, reminding me of Notes from Underground.
It’s hard to describe the tragedy that accompanies Lester to someone who hasn’t read the book – in fact I’d rather discuss the book with somone who has read it (this will be my belated Christmas present to a few friends, so I can selfishly do this). I won’t reveal spoilers here, but Sterzinger clearly is not trying to win anyone over with the ending.
The broader sense is that in life things don’t end well. So much of the bestselling, Pulitzer prize-winning claptrap at your local Barnes and Noble is designed to lift the human spirit, to inspire and entertain, to provide hope and escapism from the dullness of modern life. Nowhere dispenses with this convention, and faces head-on the possibility that there is only suffering, and there is no meaning but comedy to be gleaned from it.
To conclude, Nowhere traverses the normal path laid out for modern novels, and confronts questions that no amount of blog, newspaper or magazine articles could. Dark, tragic and hilariously funny, Sterzinger’s third novel will likely resonate differently with everyone, and should be considered a sound addition to your reading list.