Book Review: My Volcano
Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
My Volcano explodes with a surreal, apocalyptic take on modern society.
When a growing volcano emerges suddenly, inexplicably, in Central Park, the public is shocked. But even as it expands, threatening the city, people lose interest. Most are ready to move on to the next headline-grabbing surprise or are unwilling to acknowledge that the volcano was ever there in the first place.
Before 2016, the year in which John Elizabeth Stintzi’s My Volcano is set, this reaction may have been perplexing. In 2022, it rings sadly true. With the many threats, tragedies, and bewildering developments of recent history, we have become weary, numb, overwhelmed.
Stintzi’s novel reflects the surrealistic feeling of the early 21st century—the feeling of life going on as normal when things are decidedly not normal. The threats rumbling under the surface are, we may feel, invisible even as they stare us in the face.
“One network stationed a reporter in the park for a week, interviewing pedestrians and tourists about it—the mountain, crag, growth—and after the novelty of the first day or two, nobody really had anything to add. Tourists would often refuse to answer their questions, instead asking whether there were still Frankenfish in the water, and where the best place in the park was to watch the ducks.”
The novel follows at least nine main characters, not to mention the doubles and alternate versions of themselves that several encounter. Researchers attempt to understand the nature of the volcano. A commercial director sees imagery he can leverage for his latest shoot. A man experiencing homelessness is gifted a valuable jewel that may contain the volcano’s secrets. A trans writer is caught up in otherworldly events accompanying the volcano’s appearance. A young boy in Mexico City is transported centuries into the past, where he is inhabited by a cloudlike being at the center of it all. The various attempts to understand the situation developing in New York are loosely interwoven, allowing for tangents, sub-plots, and surrealistic scenarios that bridge fantasy and reality. That so many discrete stories are successfully integrated within My Volcano is nothing short of astounding.
The volcano itself is personified in the story of Otherwise, a mythic figure who emerges from volcanoes to wreak havoc on the world below. Another arc involves an emerging hive mind that infects all living organisms it encounters with a sort of transcendent interconnectedness. The battle that plays out between these two forces is but one element of the novel, and not a climax that the reader may expect.
A central thread for many characters is the feeling of disconnection fostered by the world that they—and we—inhabit. When our technology, social structures, and economic systems wall us off from each other, volcanoes of all sorts are bound to result. In particular the novel centers the queer and transgender experience, employing doubles and out-of-body experiences to engage with questions of identity, perception, and estrangement.
“Staring up at the bigness, João felt comforted by how small and alone he was, and how smallness and aloneness was the one common thing in the universe. If there was a god, João decided, she would be small and lonesome, too.”
My Volcano is at its strongest when commenting on modern society—digital and commercial culture in particular. From an advertising campaign which makes apocalyptic imagery seem heartwarming to a company that rents private booths where people can release pent-up emotions, Stintzi’s descriptions are pitch-perfect: just bizarre enough to be satirical, just realistic enough to show the strangeness of our world. The language captures a delicate balance between our attempt to stay grounded and a world that threatens to collapse under our feet.
Organized into short chapters, often less than a page in length, the novel structurally mimics the attention spans and disconnection of the world it describes. Despite this fragmentary and nonlinear structure, Stintzi masterfully reorients us as we move from chapter to chapter. The reader is never lost. Interspersed among the narrative are the names of victims of gun violence and hate crimes, reminders of the tragedies we should not be complacent with, the volcanoes we ignore.
“It soothed them, soothed the despair at knowing there was no end to their struggles, there was no shape the jagged truths of their life could find to create some usable meaning. As their heart slowed in the shadow of the mountain, they heard a sound like scratching against the side of the building, and without thinking they approached the edge, looked down, and saw sprouting from the sides of the building the massive legs of a cat.”
Gradually, any semblance of realism unravels, and the early promise of the novel turns left. The final third makes some moves that are difficult to square with the rest of the narrative: plotlines are dropped, developments are undone, pacing wavers. It may be futile to impose narrative logic on a novel that subverts real-world logic, but the two types are not the same. At times the reader is not sure what is a dream, what is real, or what simply is, without explanation. Some may find the ambiguity confounding; some may embrace the enigma.
Ultimately, the novel gives us a funhouse mirror of ourselves and our society: entertaining, thought-provoking, and purposefully strange. The volcano—any of our volcanoes—always threatens to overwhelm, demanding our attention. The question remains what, if anything, we will do about it.
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Genre: Literary Fiction / Disaster Fiction
Print Length: 330 pages
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