Peter John McLean
Nvsqvam by Ann Sterzinger (Reviews)
I hate the title of this novel, by Ann Sterzinger, about a classics professor trying (and pretty much failing) at life. I had actually initially thought up a Latinate title for the novel that I’m working on (the one I am world building for), but eventually replaced it with something a little more normal. There is nothing inherently wrong with a Latin title, and if ever a book deserved it, Nvsqvam is the book, as it is actually about a classics professor and regularly deals with essentially Romantic themes. So, in all honesty, I’m not bashing the title, it is fitting for the work, I just hate how long it takes me to spell it out properly.
I read Nvsqvam a couple of weeks ago on my Kindle, because Ann is a cool person, and Matt speaks extremely highly of it. The book is a good read; the first obvious factor was Ann’s writing style, which is confident and immediate—two good qualities in fiction that are pretty lacking from most Gen X and Millennial shit writers. Ann doesn’t really write like most Gen X idiots; she wrote from opposite gender perspective, her protagonist is a failure who continuously fails, and, most importantly, she deals with child rearing in the most disturbingly honest way I have ever read. In a generation overly rife with immigrant stories and capitalism as glorified psychopathy, a candid portrayal of the dark side of academia is both unique and refreshing. It’s like what Don Delillo would write if he didn’t have to pander to the base. I’m not dissing on Junot Diaz or Brett Easton Ellis (I like both of them), I’m not even dissing Don Delillo (White Noise is likely my favorite novel), but both authors of a certain age, and authors writing in a certain time period have pushed mainstream literature into an era where capitalism is instantly associated with psychopathy and evil, immigration is instantly likened to both optimism and assimilation/heritage struggles, and academia (thanks mostly to Delillo) is cooly ridiculed almost as if it were capitalism lite. And then there is Ann Sterzinger, instead writing about academia as if it were the modern realization of Sinclair’s Jungle.
I personally hated college and dropped out (debt free, suckers) and so, while I thankfully couldn’t relate to the struggle of a man living in poverty with his wife and child, struggling to get a degree he no longer really wants, I could still feel the looming sense of defeat hovering over Lester, the protagonist, as he continuously trudges through the monotony of life in a shitty college town. Lester is by no means a likable character, as if that were a fair metric by which to judge a protagonist. He is a depressing, depressive, and selfish person, but all people are selfish and Lester generally just appears to be more honest, at least internally, about how selfish he is.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when he thinks—and sometimes talks—about his own son, who he still wishes they had aborted. This is an obvious point of great conflict for the story, developing along with the plot and eventually culminating in a climactic finish that I personally thought was well developed.
Now let’s look at this through the respective lenses of Feminist, Marxist, and Reader Response Theory. Haha just kidding.
My only real complaints about the book are plot related and if the only complaints about a book are plot related, that means it’s a great book. Plot doesn’t matter at all. It’s like the font. (I’m obviously being hyperbolic, but plot really is the most overly hyped aspect of writing and this is because most of the people teaching writing are really old and out of touch with reality; while plots were an integral part of story telling of the dumber generations that thought MASH was a great TV show and can’t really get into things like Lost or Game of Thrones, it becomes far less necessary for audiences with more sophisticated understandings of what actually drives story, which is conflict. A story without plot but with conflict results in a masterpiece like The Windup Bird Chronicles or American Pastoral; a story without conflict but with great plot results in shit like everything Sue Grafton ever wrote).
So that’s it. The plot in Nvsqvam is often wandering and loose, and sometimes shocking revelations occur that lack the requisite foreshadowing to seem effective, but even still, they work. In life, plenty of shocking revelations lack foreshadowing, so it’s not a serious problem.
Great book. One finally note: I want to mention that time I showered in a bathroom that I think a meth addict lost her virginity in so I have an excuse to reuse that tag. You can read the whole story in my blog post about being a best man.