It’s been a hot minute since I felt like something I’d read was punk rock as hell, but Julian K. Jarboe’s debut collection, Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel, is 100% punk. It’s an angry anti-capitalist thrill ride that kept me up way past bedtime.
I cannot unlink reading from what it really is: consumption. I stuff myself on similes, I gorge on artistic glamours. This book is packed with moreish flash fiction pieces, a couple full meals, and even some poetry near the end to cleanse the palate. I scarfed it as though I was scared someone might take the plate away before I finished.
Had anyone attempted to take it away before I was done 1) I would definitely have stabbed them, and 2) I would not have been even a little bit sorry.
Common themes throughout the stories include queer identity, generational trauma, unhealthy and sometimes abusive family relationships, and the absolute fuckedness of capitalism. Given the general state of everything, these are all highly relatable.
“Self Care,” previously published in Nat. Brut, is a personal favorite, abandoning the slightly dreamy, lyrical tone of the pieces that immediately precede it for capslocky confrontation. The tone here reminds me of Porpentine at her strongest as it spills a flood of unmet needs into a beautiful oceanpunk hellscape.
“I am completely, one-hundred-percent AWARE that if I destroy myself out of spite it’s neither confronting nor fixing my problems BUT! You know what? My problems are what I have left to work with!”
“Self Care” is a celebration of the anger that surfaces when you care fiercely and compassionately about the probably-doomed world. It holds up trans solidarity, and more importantly, trans joy in the face of bigotry and alienation. The friendship between Anthony and Bert, two trans people accepting shelter of dubious quality from a restrictive Christian church, is a highlight of the story, and the spell they cast together was for me an emotional peak in what was a whole mountain range of love and anger. In an environment where their existence is met with disapproval and gritted teeth, their ability to celebrate each other reinforces Anthony’s rebellious self-esteem.
Jarboe’s characters are simultaneously vividly embodied and alienated from the body. This is most apparent in pieces like “The Heavy Things,” a seven-page tour de force in which the protagonist menstruates a series of metal gadgets while their parents encourage them to grin and bear it, because it can’t be that bad. This metaphor flexes in multiple directions: Body and gender dysphoria? PCOS? PMDD? Endometriosis? The general question of how much suffering your parents will ask you to bear so that they don’t have to pay attention to it? It’s all here!
Embodiment and alienation are also prominent in “I Am a Beautiful Bug!” (previously published in Maudlin House). The palpable joy of building a body one can bear to live in is abruptly met with a terrible truth: resolving your own alienation with your body and identity just alienates all the shitheads who gatekeep literally everything you need to get by.
“I am not a metaphor,” I said. “I need my driver’s license, and I would like to update my photograph, please.”
All aggressions macro and micro experienced by our insect protagonist are infuriatingly realistic, particularly the labyrinthine bureaucracy necessary to be acknowledged by any instrument of the state. However, the climax of the story is full of a soaring, cathartic joy.
“Love” is too weak a word to describe how I felt about “We Did Not Know We Were Giants,” an outlier in both setting and tone. This, more than any other piece in the collection, begs to be read aloud for its sheer lyricism. (And yes, I did.)
“I saw the god of storms on the midsummer at the summit of my childhood. In bright, blessed solitude, high atop our mountain, I scoured for ground cherries along the ledge of an unshaded cliff. They grew within a crinkled husk, and when they ripened, the husks parted like eyelids and the sun-yellow fruit peered out like the jaundiced doubt of the elders. I plucked the delicate fruit out from the granite in fistfuls.”
Again, we come back to themes of consumption: you gain the powers of what you eat. I want to slit open this story’s belly and crawl inside it and sleep safe within the possibility of this world. And when I wake up, I’ll go find a different god to fight, and I’ll eat that one too.
The titular story, “Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel” displays some of Jarboe’s strongest character and worldbuilding work. It’s moody in the best way—both atmospheric and also “whew, BIG mood.” The capitalist hellscape we know and despise has only gotten worse in the near-future, with megacorps shipping workers into space to perform menial labor. Unable to hold a job down on Earth and stifled by his relationship with his mother, Sebastian looks to the stars.
“Yes! Everyone tells me to move on and find another job but I know the truth in my heart. Whatever work my soul was fated for is naught for this world.”
The vein of family trauma runs deep in this story, and when Sebastian’s older sister Lara takes center stage, we’re forced to confront that primal fear of turning into your parents. Jarboe handles discussions of intergenerational trauma, heritage, and psychoanalysis with a comforting wryness. Nothing they describe is a new experience, especially to those of us who are Always Online, but I found myself deeply grateful that someone else saw and articulated it.
However, unlike many of Jarboe’s other pieces, this story felt as though it was confined by its length: it read more like the first few chapters of a novel than a standalone piece. Were they to expand this story later on, I would pre-order it in a heartbeat. As it is, I’m a little disappointed that I couldn’t follow Lara and Sebastian out longer, or find out where middle child Oscar disappeared to.
“Estranged Children of Storybook Houses” revisits the theme of family trauma, and also showcases the flexibility of Jarboe’s extended metaphors. Changelings are often interpreted as a cipher for neurodivergent children, and a throwaway comment from a doctor about how “it’s different in girls” strongly reinforces this reading. However, the distance and coldness of the protagonist’s family will resonate with anyone whose existence somehow disappoints their parents. Although the climax of the story is satisfying, my favorite scene is when the protagonist finds the taken child, the daughter her parents should have had, and realizes that they wouldn’t have liked her either. There’s just no pleasing some parents.
Regardless of whether you know or care who else is feeling it, none of your emotions are unique. If that’s your jam, you want to read this book.
As a whole, this is a strong debut collection from an innovative author, and I look forward to reading more of Jarboe’s work in the future. Anything I haven’t specifically reviewed here is a failure of my memory, not of love.
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