Fair warning: alt.punk opens with the narrator performing a certain act on her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend. If you’re okay with that, then you’re in luck, because Lavinia Ludlow’s debut novel is nothing short of spectacular.
The narrative focuses on a thirty-year-old Safeway manager named Hazel, whose ennui over the dead-end nature of her job is paralleled only by her crippling fear of the contagions, allergens, and carcinogens that constitute her world. On top of that, she comes from a family of weight-obsessed type-A personalities, has a mother who laments that Hazel will never “just be normal,” and she’s just met a would-be rock-star named Otis who spits when he talks and whose biggest dream revolves around doing makeup for low-budget slasher films. The trouble is, Hazel really falls for Otis and all that he represents — namely, a break from the soul-numbing drudgery of working at Safeway. The result is a trainwreck of a relationship that makes for a great read.
More than anything, alt.punk speaks directly to anyone in the twenty- to thirty-something age bracket who feels hoodwinked by western culture’s promise that we can have anything we want as long as we work hard and want it badly enough. Hazel’s desperation to find some modicum of meaning in her otherwise bland existence is palpable throughout the novel; she’s funny, witty, and smart, yet her options are so limited that every decision she makes, no matter how misguided, makes perfect sense. To put it another way, Ludlow clearly understands what it means to have grown up in the last decade or so of the twentieth century only to wake up one day as an alleged adult at the dawn of the twenty-first. At thirty, she’s a lost child, clinging desperately to the ideals of her youth as she struggles to forge a path to adulthood. Her story, in other words, is the story of a generation.
I almost want to say that alt.punk reads like a cross between Jennifer Weiner and Chuck Palahniuk, but that would be doing the novel a grave disservice, for at heart, it’s the ultimate anti chick-lit experience. Gritty and raw as a scratchy seven-inch punk E.P., alt.punk is more closely aligned with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream. In short, alt.punk has all the makings of an underground cult classic.
-Review by Marc Schuster