Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger

I had actually bought NVSQVAM (nowhere) before The Talkative Corpse was released without knowing much about Ann Sterzinger. I'm pretty sure I had read her blog or an interview with her before I bought it. I never got around to reading it. Even as much as I enjoyed The Talkative Corpse, it took me until last week to actually pick up NVSQVAM.

Lester Reichartsen isn't happy with how his life turned out. When he was young, he was the lead singer of the punk band The Incognito Mosquitos. After he was fired by his band mates, he decided to go back to school to study Classical Letters. Unfortunately, he ended up knocking up his girlfriend Evelyn and got talked into marrying her. Now he has a kid he never wanted, a wife he doesn't love anymore, a job he hates as a teacher at a university in a southern Illinois town he hates and he's working on a dissertation he can barely bring himself to give a shit about.
The problem with getting a doctorate in classical letters, he thought, was not that it was useless. It was that anybody smart enough to actually do it wouldn't spend that much effort on anything but their own creations. Why couldn't he have studied something modern and easy? Then he could have something himself, too.
To make matters worse, his kid Martin is a boy genius. Most parents would be proud of this, but to Lester it's nothing but a reminder of how much of a failure he is. The fact that Martin is a smug, annoying little shit doesn't help either.

Toward the beginning, Lester decides to try to seek therapy at his university's health center. It doesn't go well. At all. This part made me laugh out loud and cringe at the same. It reminded me of my own disastrous attempts of talking to a female therapist who was unable to help me. Like Lester, it came from my own inability to really articulate my problems and a lack of qualification from her for my specific problems. Lester finds out one way that it could be even worse. If you couldn't think about much other than how much you wanted to fuck the therapist.
It occurred to him that she wasn't talking very much. Shouldn't shrinks have some answers instead of just sitting there asking questions and looking lickable? He could feel sweat stains growing on the nice purple shrink chair beneath his male behind. He tried to make a joke to himself about thanking his lucky stars that she didn't have a couch, but it only made him want to scream.
A good portion of the first half of the novel follows Lester, Evelyn and Martin as they visit their extended families for Christmas. Lester absolutely hates his working class father and Evelyn isn't exactly fond of her rich parents either. Both of the visits are ridiculous and hilarious. The contrast between the two precedes the same vein that's mined in the The Talkative Corpse. Idiots exist at every class level. Being working class does not make you good or noble, and being rich does not make you smart or worthy of praise. Ann slings her barbs at every level of society.

Lester's dealings with the bullshit of academia remind me why I decided to stop after undergraduate work, besides the financial burden. Lester manages to finish his dissertation and takes another look at it before he sends it off.
The file finally came on screen and Lester stared at it like a caveman. It seemed to have been written in no known language. He’d been over every phoneme of it thousands of times, and even the English words had no meaning for him anymore; the Latin looked like the transcript of a dispute between squirrels.
I studied Psychology in college. Which is why I now work in insurance. I recall one class on brain chemistry that really took its toll on me. I would study for the tests and feel like I understood the material. Then when I actually took them, I would have the same reaction as Lester. The tests may as well have been written in Latin for all I understood on them. I still have no idea how I managed to bullshit my way through that class.

NVSQVAM is very funny. Lester's antics and Ann's witty metaphors had me laughing out loud several times. Part of the humor comes from footnotes where Ann gives sarcastic explanations of things like the Muppets, Wal-Mart and various music trivia. Such as this explanation of who G.G. Allin is.
Musician of a sort, mostly recalled for pooping on stage.
Or this footnote on Kenny G.
Musician whose success in the 1980s proved conclusively the nonexistence of God.
As funny as this novel is, Lester is not exactly who you would call "likable." He's self-pitying, whiny and often mean-spirited. The way he treats his family is flat out awful. The fact he resents them so much and usually treats them like dirt, however, makes the moments he actually bonds with them seem all the more genuine and sweet.
"Goddamnit, Martin, I will hunt you down and SHOOT YOU if you turn out to be like me! Do you understand?"
These moments also make Lester's fall to rock bottom even more tragic. Much of it is his own fault, but that didn't keep his downward spiral from being one of the saddest things I've read in a long time. I'm avoiding spoilers here, but the ending of this book will punch you in the balls. Even if you're a woman or a eunuch.
Unless you believe in God there's nothing but hell. But there IS nothing but hell, so how can you believe in God?
NVSQVAM (nowhere) is a very funny and a tragic novel of not just the horror of living in the early 21st century, but of being alive at all. Lester Reichartsen is an excruciatingly human character whose life makes you laugh to keep from crying at how awful and pathetic it is. Between this and The Talkative Corpse, I'm convinced Ann Sterzinger is one of the most underrated writers working today. The attention she receives is far too sparse for someone who can write this well. I highly recommend this novel and I'll be picking up her debut, Girl Detectives, very soon.

Buy NVSQVAM (nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger here.

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