Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 2.05.21 PMAs he waits for the gunshot that will kill him to sound in the final paragraph of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, protagonist Eric Packer catches a glimpse of his own death in the crystal screen of his smartwatch. It’s a haunting way to end a novel, but also a frustrating one. How, after all, did Eric’s watch both predict and display his untimely demise?

Fortunately for anyone still wondering about that passage fifteen years later, Aetherchrist, the latest novel from Kirk Jones, starts at least nominally and more than likely coincidentally where Cosmopolis left off. This time around, though, the protagonist who catches a glimpse of his own death on a tiny screen is not a billionaire asset manager but a down-on-his luck knife salesman named Rey.

Unlike Eric Packer, however, Rey sees his impending doom on an old analog television set rather than a digital screen. More to the point, he has time to change his fate. Yet every move Rey makes further entangles him in a bizarre plot to rewire the collective consciousness of a nation and thus to usher into being what could either be a golden age of harmony or complete and utter chaos. Spoiler alert: This being a Kirk Jones novel, the smart money is on the latter.

In many ways, Aetherchrist serves as a meditation on the personal isolation inherent in the digital age. Lamenting the cold nature of online relationships in the early goings of the novel, Rey notes that he has to pretend that all he wants is sex when what he really wants is for someone to validate his existence. Curiously, the bulwark against this sense of isolation is the unfolding plot to plunge the world into chaos.

Indeed, as the forces he’s battling gain the upper hand, Rey experiences a curious sense of communion: “It’s actually happening. I can feel it, a faint transmission like the one you get when you watch a late-night movie that you know hardly anyone is up for. You don’t watch the movie for the content. You watch it because you can feel a small population out there like you, riding the airwaves for a sense of connection.” Arguably, the hopeless search for this sense of connection is what Aetherchrist is all about.

Hot on the heels of last year’s bizarre dance with death, Die Empty, Aetherchrist positions Jones as an author who’s clearly and solidly hitting his storytelling stride. Though dark and twisted, his imaginary universes allow for sharp plot twists and solid character development even as the characters in question face certain doom. Indeed, perhaps it’s their proximity to death that makes Jones’s characters so compelling. In their struggle for survival, they cling to hope in the unlikeliest of places and situations.

Die Empty

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 9.20.47 AMHard as it may be to believe, Die Empty by Kirk Jones is kind of dark. The novel centers on an overweight insurance broker named Lance whose recent acquisition of the entire Masters of the Universe toy line has failed to brighten the onset of middle age or his sneaking and well-founded suspicion that his wife is having affair with his best friend and next-door neighbor, Dave. Complicating matters is the fact that Death — dressed in his traditional dark hood — has entered Lance’s life and offered him a deal he can’t refuse: a guarantee of forty more years in exchange for a lifetime of imagining creative new ways to help Death increase his body count. And, it turns out, the job is fraught with complications.

The humor throughout Die Empty is extremely dry, and the narrative arc follows a weirdness curve that can only be described as exponential. Things don’t just get curiouser and curiouser. They go bat-shit crazy in a David Lynch kind of way. Indeed, Jones’s blending of the mundane and the bizarre gives Die Empty the feeling of a cross between a film like Blue Velvet and a George Saunders story. That Jones narrates the story in second-person adds a layer of creepy intimacy to the proceedings. Imagine, for example, being told that you’re not only working for death and passively plotting to kill your wife, but also that you’re into a category of entertainment labeled “nun porn” and that a man with no pants named Gerald (who happens to be leading you to an abandoned cabin in the woods) may or may not be your father, and you’ll get a sense of the position Jones is putting you in when you sit down to read this novel.

As strange as it is, Die Empty is extremely accessible — particularly in comparison to  Jones’s 2011 novella, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, which is a fascinating if slightly bizarre read about a man who falls into a wood chipper and is reincarnated as a man-shaped mass of tears. Clearly Jones is an author with a vivid imagination and a penchant for oddness. With Die Empty, he uses those gifts to explore the meaning and potential meaningless of life in a world that often seems designed with only death in mind.

Feast of Oblivion

feast-oblivion-frontA few weeks ago, I was in New Hope, Pennsylvania, to meet my friend Sean for coffee. As it turns out, I arrived early and, as chronicled elsewhere on this blog, had some time to kill and wandered over to one of my favorite independent bookstores where I met a pair of writers who did their best to talk me out of buying their books. But I bought them anyway and was rewarded by one of the authors with a used VHS copy of Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington. The book, the author promised, would explain everything. The author in question was Josh Myers, and his novel is called Feast of Oblivion.

Before I get into my review of Feast of Oblivion, I should note that I didn’t really get a good look at the book or the videotape before I hurried off to meet my friend for coffee. As a result, I didn’t realize that the cover of the book was emblazoned with what looks like a confused — or possibly dancing — swastika and that the videotape was stamped with the same insignia. This led to an awkward moment during which I attempted to explain what I was doing with such an odd and fascist looking book and VHS tape in my possession, tried to blame Josh Myers for foisting questionable merchandise upon me, and then gave up when I remembered that he and his accomplice, Jordan Krall, had, in fact, attempted to talk me out of buying their wares.

But their wares, it turns out, kept me amused, if occasionally grossed out, for the next week or so as I became reacquainted with that most curious of postmodern genres, bizarro fiction. And, for what it’s worth, Feast of Oblivion is a shining example of that genre’s conventions. The premise, for one thing, is ridiculous: a self-styled halibut expert visits an underground fortress and accidentally uncovers a plot to destroy the universe. On top of that, there’s plenty of scatological imagery, weird sexual activity, and Lewis Carroll-esque dream logic. In other words, Feast of Oblivion is a delightful romp through a perverse dreamscape in which New Jersey has been reduced to a desert, staircases spiral infinitely upward, and the fate of the universe is in the hands of a man who is obsessed with halibut.

I’d say more, but I’m afraid I’d give too much away.

And then I’d have the halibut to answer to.