Everybody was slow to call it an epidemic.
– Jeff Jackson’s “My Dark Ages,” p. 37
Jeff Jackson had been gathering the raw materials for his new novel, “Destroy All Monsters,” his entire life.
The World War II-era American propaganda cartoons he saw as a kid growing up in Aruba and watching the island’s only TV station. The fantasy world of comics that followed after his family returned to the U.S. The punk rock and free jazz he discovered in high school in New Jersey.
Then, after collecting an English degree at Duke in 1993 and moving to New York City, the experimental theater he immersed himself in — and the riot grrl movement he witnessed in music clubs — while working for nearly a decade in publishing.
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He picked up an MFA in creative writing at New York University in 2001, but finally came to an inescapable conclusion. “I had a really stark moment of self-loathing: I realized I could be a New Yorker or I could be a writer, but I couldn’t be both,” Jackson remembers.
There were too many distractions. Jackson needed a place where he could focus on writing.
In 2005 he and his wife relocated here, where he had a sister who lived in NoDa. “Literally, within the first two weeks after moving to Charlotte, I started writing my first novel.”
That was “Mira Corpora” (Two Dollar Radio, 2013), a surreal coming-of-age tale about a kid who runs away from an abusive mom at 11 to live a brutal existence among punk outcasts. Jackson’s prose jumps about on the pages like adrenalized slam dancers in a mosh pit. Dennis Cooper, the notorious author of “Closer,” “Frisk” and “The Sluts,” called Jackson’s debut a “strangely serene yet gripping, unsettling, and beautifully rendered novel.”
In “Destroy All Monsters” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), Jackson ups the dramatic ante.
The epidemic? It’s one of mass murders — at music venues across America. In the fictional blue-collar town of Arcadia, ragtag members of local indie-rock bands and their fans are coping by spinning all kinds of theories, conspiracy and otherwise.
Like a great vinyl rock ‘n’ roll single, “Destroy All Monsters” (named for an obscure early-’70s Detroit art-rock band) has an A side and a B side. The A side, “My Dark Ages,” is a fairly straightforward account of the murders, told from the perspective of Arcadia’s music scenesters. “Kill City,” Side B, puts forth an alternate storyline, reimagining characters’ experiences and reversing gender roles. Like a great vinyl rock ‘n’ roll album, the novel plays on several levels at once. It’s a commentary on the epidemic of U.S. gun violence, a wistful yearning for the days when popular music had a palpable impact on our culture, and a catastrophic rock ‘n’ roll myth that even David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust couldn’t have imagined.
“I’d had an image of this shooting taking place in a rock club – and this was 10 years ago, pre-Las Vegas and even pre-Sandy Hook,” Jackson says. “So at the time it seemed totally surreal that something like this could actually happen.” He pauses and glances obliquely through wire-rimmed glasses. “Unfortunately, reality has caught up to the book in a big way, which is completely unnerving.”
The epidemic has made love songs irrelevant.
– “My Dark Ages,” p. 108
What Jackson was mostly interested in exploring in “Destroy All Monsters” was the loss of music as a cultural signifier, as something that brings us together in ways that transcend music – Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” in the early 1960s, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” in the early ’70s, the Clash’s “London Calling” in the early ’80s, Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet” in the early ‘90s.
“One of the questions I began thinking about was: How does music mean something again?” Jackson says. “As someone who loves music, I was really concerned that, as a result of the internet and streaming, music has become less important. It’s not that great music isn’t being made anymore, because it is. It’s that digital culture has stripped music of its ability to mean what it has meant in decades past.”
Jackson is sipping tea at Trade and Lore on North Davidson Street, in jeans, sneakers and an oversized blue T-shirt, his hair buzzed on the sides with a longer tuft on top. The internet, he says, has created an endless playground for musicians and fans. But the total access to all music by all people, without much collective curation, makes it difficult for our culture to rally around any one artist, album, single or trend.
“There’s that cultural spark that has to happen to create a sense of community and identity around musicians and fans,” Jackson says. “And that just doesn’t happen much now, even for our biggest artists. I mean, Kendrick Lamar was complaining about how quickly “DAMN.” was swallowed up in the internet noise, and if Kendrick Lamar is complaining, what chance does some local or mid-level musician have for their music to signify.”
But what would a cultural spark look like now?
“There’s that whole idea of getting back to Year Zero in the punk-rock way, but I don’t think that’s an option anymore,” Jackson says. “So I started thinking about the other Year Zero, the Khmer Rouge way of getting back to Year Zero, which is a really horrifying proposition – the idea of a violent culling.”
Jackson’s friend and fellow writer D. Foy, the Brooklyn-based author of “Patricide” and “Absolutely Golden,” read multiple drafts of the novel before publication. “I saw pretty quickly that ‘Destroy All Monsters’ is rife with several themes — our society’s decline into violent psychopathy, the jeopardy of culture in the hands of the mediocre, corporate greed and corruption, and the untenable position of the artist in these conditions, among others — and was amazed that the work could hold them all in such entrancing, masterful balance.”
There’s always something before the beginning.
– “Kill City”
Jackson was 42 when “Mira Corpora” came out; he’s 47 now.
“I think about the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, who talks about how he didn’t start publishing until he was 40 because he felt he didn’t have anything worth sharing until that point,” Jackson says. “I identify with that. I think because I was writing stuff that was weirder and more experimental, it took me a little longer to develop the skills to get it to the point that it could actually communicate to other people and be clear what I’m trying to do.”
His writing style is in-your-face, like the most outrageous fringe theater performances. It’s structurally inventive, sometimes reading like stage directions, other times like journalism, other times a well-written diary entry. He experiments with different points of view, moving from male to female, third-person to first and even second over the course of “Destroy All Monsters.”
It makes sense that Jackson got his start writing experimental theater. That began after he moved from Durham to New York and reconnected with Duke alums who had formed a fringe theater troupe, the Collapsable [sic] Giraffe. During days, Jackson would toil in the publishing industry; nights and on weekends, he’d work with the Giraffe, cutting up old movie dialogue and other found source materials with his own writing to create wildly inventive plays like “Damfino,” which “The New York Times” described in a glowing review as “a multimedia mélange of the real and surreal.”
The company operated more like a band than a theater troupe. “We felt like we were making theater for people who didn’t like theater,” Jackson says. “We were trying to make plays that had the combustible energy of punk rock.”
They won the attention of well-known experimental troupe the Wooster Group, which counted Willem Dafoe and Frances McDormand among its members at the time and which lent the Collapsable Giraffe theater space in summers.
“We felt really lucky to have that opportunity,” he says.
For a few years after moving to Charlotte, he continued to collaborate with the Giraffe, traveling back and forth to New York. But he soon jumped into the middle of Charlotte’s own, nascent fringe arts and music scenes — and diversified again.
“Kill City,” p. 42
Jackson launched the experimental NoDa Film Festival in 2006, and two years later brought the pioneering art-rock band Pere Ubu to town for an unconventional mix of film and music. He started Destination: OUT, a national free-jazz website for which he wrote criticism and profiles. He taught film at UNCC. In the decade-plus since then, he has continued to try new things, curating the avant-garde New Frequencies series at the McColl Center and more recently moving his visual arts studio into Goodyear Arts at Camp North End.
There — where he’s carefully placed an arrangement of seemingly random objects, including a fold-out chair, a cassette tape player, a CD and a measuring device shaped like a banjo — he talks about how his visual artwork dovetails with his other creative ventures.
“I was interested in creating installations and learning how pieces work together in a space,” he says. “So the idea for the studio is to take these objects – some of them found, some bought at salvage yards, some collected and pack-ratted over the years – and create an installation that feels like a narrative, like there’s a connection among these objects that’s just beyond what you can put into words.” He pauses and lets out a muted laugh. “A few people have come in and said, ‘Oh, I totally get it!’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Can you explain it to me?’”
Jackson’s most recent project may seem obvious, but is something he’s never done before. He joined a local rock band, Julian Calendar. “When I was writing ‘Destroy All Monsters,’ people would say to me, ‘You’ve never been in a band. How do you know what it’s like to be in a band?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I was in this theater company that was run like a band.’ I felt like the dynamic would be very similar.
“And then once I did get in a band, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is like being in the theater company – the process, the personalities – it’s very familiar to me.’”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.