'My Volcano' by John Elizabeth Stintzi
'WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS, WE'VE GOT YOU COVERED'—Review #192
Lesson learned: When I make a plan, I should stick to it. This is the novel I was going to review a few weeks ago, but inexplicably passed over for ‘The World Goes On,’ and, wow, what a mistake. ‘My Volcano’ by John Elizabeth Stintzi is beautiful, weird and profound. It was recently long-listed for a Brooklyn Public Library Book Prize and won the inaugural Sator New Works Award, which honors books by authors who identify as transgender or non-binary.
Here’s the cover:
This novel has a lot going on in it. A volcano emerges from the Central Park reservoir in summer 2016. As it grows over several weeks to engulf Manhattan, we meet an array of characters. An 8-year-old Mexican boy is transported back in time to the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan; he speaks the indigenous language perfectly assisted by a spectral presence. A trans man has two selves who talk on the phone; one lives in Hilo, Hawaii, the other in New York. A woman falls asleep every night and wakes up inside another person’s body; her ex-girlfriend is one of them. A Mongolian herdsman undergoes a spectacular metamorphosis after a bee sting. A pair of researchers in Japan study myths and legends about a wrathful fire-being that may, in fact, be real and causing the Manhattan mountain. It reminded me of the goddess in ‘Moana’:
There are other characters, too, as well as a magic opal, buildings that grow legs and walk, and a stone golem that wreaks havoc globally. If that’s not enough to make your head spin, also included between sections are the names of real people who were killed in 2016 and the circumstances of their deaths. They include ‘Goddess’ Diamond, a 20-year-old Black trans woman who was found dead in a burned car; Alton Sterling, a Black man killed by a police officer; and the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, among others. The juxtaposition is jarring, but:
As the volcano continues its growth, companies erect advertising billboards on the mount, obscuring it. One company, the Sun Chunk Juice Co., uses the volcano to market lemonade with the slogan I included in the heading of this newsletter. The axiom about turning lemons into lemonade implies individual effort to turn something bad into something good. But the Sun Chunk Juice Co. has somehow weaponized it, saying when something bad happens, don’t fix it or even worry about it. We’ve got you covered. Just take our pre-made solution, our lemonade, and carry on. The inclusion of the real people’s names feels like an extension of this idea, with Stintzi reminding us that there are very real calamities happening every day. What are we doing about them? Are we taking individual action? Or are we giving into a commercial urge to move on like:
I will be thinking about ‘My Volcano’ for a long time. It’s a fascinating, ambitious and energetic novel, and a feat of story construction. So many balls are in the air, but the author juggles them beautifully. Stintzi’s writing is crisp, quick and clear, and their imagination is extraordinary. I flew through this book. It might not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for something different and fresh, you should check it out. I highly recommend it.
How it begins:
The jogger, the first person to see the peak of the volcano sprouting from the middle of the reservoir in Central Park, in the early hours of JUNE 2, thought the volcano was a breaching humpback whale. But as split second turned to two turned to five, the jogger didn’t see the form rise or fall, and it peaked at only about eight feet high from the surface of the water. She stared at it for a full minute—stretching all the while—before continuing her run. She couldn’t afford to stop any longer because she didn’t want her heart rate to drop.
By noon, the same jogger would approach a local news crew in the park, saying that she was the first to have seen it, she was, and that her mind first thought it was a humpback whale. On several of the evening news broadcasts they put a photo of the volcano rising in the park next to a photo of a humpback whale breaching just off the coast of Rockaway Beach, perfectly foregrounding the Empire State Building. Viewers were asked to respond on social media if they thought there was a resemblance or not. Two news anchors believed the resemblance was there, but four others didn’t. A great many people mocked the jogger relentlessly on Twitter. Near as many people commented on her looks.
When asked why she—the jogger—didn’t report what she’d seen when she first saw it, she didn’t have an answer. She grew quiet. The dead air that followed filled the noise-hungry microphone with the sound of camera mirrors flapping until she added: “You never think you’re seeing something new anymore. I figured it was old news. I didn’t want to say anything because someone would tell me they knew; that everyone already knew. Also, I had six more miles to run.”
‘My Volcano’ by John Elizabeth Stintzi was published by Two Dollar Radio in 2022. 306 pages. $17.66 at Bookshop.org.
Here’s a new feature, combining my love of books and cheese. Inspired by this Twitter exchange, and with unanimous approval by our Instagram followers, Books on GIF will now offer occasional cheese pairings to match featured books. (Let us know your thoughts in the comments.) For ‘My Volcano,’ try this 18-month-aged Mimolette:
First of all, it looks like a lava rock, doesn’t it? But check this out: ‘[T]he appearance and floral aroma of the ring is the work of tiny mites, specially evolved to cheese. The French call them tiny affineurs…’. Tiny French cheese mites! I had never heard of such creatures, and that strangeness echoes the energy of the book. The taste is nutty, and the texture is like a softer Parmesan. Donna wished she had a full-bodied red wine to pair with it, except it was 10:30 a.m. Mimolette is not a sharp cheese, but the taste blooms in your mouth, making you want to cut another slice.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #191
Read this: ‘Against August’ by Haley Mlotek in The Paris Review perfectly captures why August is the worst month. Now that I’m back in the office two days a week, I felt this deeply: ‘All I do is think about my outfits and my commute, constantly trying to choose between my sweatiness and my vanity.’ (Hat tip to Carolyn Freeman, whose weekly newsletter, ‘The Friday,’ is a must-read.)
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,