Flashes of brilliance in Stintzi’s ambitious chaos
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John Elizabeth Stintzi’s new book exudes real ambition. There are numerous characters, situated from New York to Mongolia, Siberia, to Mexico in the 16th century, and numerous plots which may or may not be parallel. The book is divided into sections and further divided into numbered fragments.
The sections are set off with abbreviated instances of violence against minorities: police killings of African Americans, and hate crimes against queer and trans people, with the murders listed by date and victim age, and centred on blank pages. The main action involves the eponymous volcano, which sprouts suddenly in Central Park in June 2016 and rapidly grows miles into the sky, before joining all the other volcanoes in the world and… Spoiler alert, but if you care about spoilers, you are unlikely to read this book.
My Volcano is Stintzi’s second novel; the first, Vanishing Monuments, was shortlisted for the 2021 Amazon.ca First Novel Award.
Among the famous novelists mentioned in the publicist’s bumpf for this novel are Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Olga Tokarczuk. While one expects exaggeration from a publicist, who is often just doing the author or agent’s bidding, do any of these comparisons seem plausible? Taking only the example of Murakami, and one book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, there are some similarities: both novels use a chaotic mixture of surface realism and the fantastic to tell a contemporary story.
But the differences between My Volcano and Murakami’s novel are stark. Stintzi introduces multiple characters at arbitrary points in the narrative, and while some of the plots appear parallel, in that they have something to do with volcanoes, these plots almost never converge. None of the characters are distinct beyond the kind of description found in a role-playing game, and they have no distinct pattern of self-expression.
The narration is in the third person, and the prose often descends into cliché: “a striking young Black woman,” for example, or “Her head nestled in the middle of his huge chest.” Perhaps the cardboard prose is intended as parody, but cake stuffed with cardboard still fails the taste test.
Murakami, on the other hand, creates a narrator who is passive, but with an active intellectual life, and a sense of how privileged and ridiculous he is, as he avoids employment and indulges his hobbies, and a stable set of characters. The narrative chaos of the novel holds together with a detective story plot, even though it is a parody and involves only a missing cat. So, while professors may classify this book as magic realism, Murakami knows that entertainment matters.
My Volcano has too many books inside, struggling to be born. Some of these books are potentially brilliant. For example, the best character might be Angel, an eight-year-old who lives in Mexico City with his father, who tries to hustle cash out of tourists with an old Polaroid camera. Angel is suddenly transported from this depressing, impoverished life to the central square of Tenochtitlan in 1516. He speaks Nahuatl and meets Moctezuma II. He has a terrifying vision of the barbaric European conquest to come.
Another fleeting character is Galina, who lives in a Siberian city near an active volcano, and finds herself in a “giant insect” like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, being kissed by her boyfriend.
But these sparkling inventions come in fragments, widely separated, and in between we buzz away to other characters on other continents leading parallel lives that meet only at some abstract level.
Nineteenth-century novelists loved parallel narratives, though they usually confined themselves to two, and found a way to make them converge. Tolstoy in War and Peace alternates war with peace, and that simple dualism allows for some profound observation on the chosen themes. Readers will indulge narrative sprawl, but it must cohere enough to entertain or engage, even in the age of Instagram.
Stinzti’s narrative, very showy with the fantastic (a volcano sprouts in Manhattan), struggles with its presentation of the realist surface. After little more than a week of the magic volcano in Central Park, “[a]ttention waned as no station could find a good way to work tension into the story.” Aside from ignoring social media, the dubious assumption here is that every possible event must immediately become banal.
The novel turns into a post-apocalyptic fable at the end, with time warping and circling back. The whole contains less than the parts, and less could have been more.
Maurice Mierau is a Winnipeg writer who enjoys Victorian fiction.