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Stintzi-My VOlcano-coverA volcano appears in Central Park. There is no warning, and no explanation. Several weeks later, it’s not only the size of Mount Fuji, it’s an exact replica. The images from webcams at the top of each are blurred into a single image, as people who climb one volcano are seen next to people, thousands of kilometres away, who have ascended the other. The distance between is both nothing and everything.

This is only the first hint of strangeness.

My Volcano, by Canadian writer John Elizabeth Stintzi, is infused with the bizarre. It’s an argument, I think, for fluidity and disconnection, and how they are ultimately, and deceptively, similar. Don’t expect linear storytelling. The books consists of small, often choppy chapters, most of which take place over the months that the New York volcano exists, bouncing back and forth in time in order to weave the plotlines together. Those plotlines are legion. They are never particularly in-depth, but they are so interconnected and reflective of each other that the lack of depth is barely noticeable—and honestly, this is one of those cases where I think a lot of close character work might even have been detrimental. The effectiveness of the structure, the sheer weight of disparate and frequently surrealist imagery, would perhaps have been undermined by a close focus on character.

There’s a lot of emphasis on close focus here, and how important it is to the narrative structure as well as the characters. Let me give two examples. The first centres on Makayla, a New York resident who works at a company called Easy-Rupt, which specialises in providing disconnection to its clients. For an increasing scale of fee, Easy-Rupt will rent, for half-hour periods, small booths of absolute isolation. The booths are constructed so that no signal can enter them. Their inhabitant cannot receive emails or phone calls; they are left to emote in peace, to scream or cry or simply sit in silence by themselves. “The most popular packages were ‘Rage-Outs,’ which offered a variety of wooden or sugar-glass objects that clients could satisfyingly destroy” (p. 50).

The name of the company, of course, is a reflection of volcanism, the uncontrolled eruption of emotion that can both renew and destroy. Clients of Easy-Rupt, cut off from the outside world, from that leash that human observation places on human behaviour, are left to focus on themselves, and to express themselves entirely. It’s notable that one of the more expensive packages includes the option to have Makayla act as observer, someone to absorb any emotional outpouring but who is ultimately emotionally disposable, in that clients can avail themselves of her attention and then wander off, dismissing her reactions from their minds in a way that they presumably couldn’t with friends, family, or even strangers in the street, most of whom are possessed of cell phones through which intemperate or asocial behaviour can be recorded and shared. Easy-Rupt is not only enormously focused, it is consequence-free.

Yet if Easy-Rupt represents a focus on self to the exclusion of all else, the story line that centres on the character of Duncan includes a different kind of focus. A Nigerian scholar working in Japan, researching and collating myths and legends of angry women who come out of volcanoes to the ruin of the world around them, Duncan is also the subject of a continually running webcam. It’s an entirely voluntary act on his part, a twenty-four-hour livestream of his entire apartment, where people can log in from around the world to watch him eat and sleep and sit on the couch, reading. He has hundreds of viewers a day, including some of the other characters of My Volcano, and part of me wonders why: Duncan’s a nice enough man, but it’s hardly riveting stuff, watching an academic working from home, tapping at their laptop for hours at a time. Perhaps I’m just judgemental, but my initial thought was Don’t these people have lives?

Yet the more I read, the more I was confronted with this absolute welter of connection and incomprehension and people, always people, people everywhere, and I began to change my mind. Only the elite can afford the hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to spend part of an hour in an insulated booth, decompressing. Most people, when overwhelmed, have to find other coping mechanisms. There’s something very contained about a man in his apartment, typing. It might be a bit boring to watch, but it’s certainly easy to encompass. For some, this might be a very relaxing sort of focus, a way to limit visual and auditory inputs, a way to make the world small and manageable. That could be an extremely tempting option, I imagine, in a world where so many odd things are happening, where a volcano emerges and ultimately destroys a major city ... or at least it does in some timelines, anyway.   

These ongoing storylines of focus, of disconnection (of interconnection?), are crucial, I think, in a novel where so much of the rest is shifting sands. Stintzi shifts back and forth in time during those few volcanic months, but there’s one child who is literally taken back in time, and much further—one minute he’s with his father in Central Park, trying to sell pictures to tourists, and the next he’s in the Aztec Empire in the time of Moctezuma II and Cortés, half-possessed by volcanic forces that are not, perhaps, quite natural. Periodically, timelines split off and reform, as characters make decisions and then go back and make different ones, and the readers have to integrate the timelines somehow or let them play out in cohort.

There’s also Ash, a film director who spends the novel making ads for a lemonade company, ads which are sprinkled through the text, surrealistic images of lemons and volcanoes and lemons as volcanoes, who finds another version of himself, as the Central Park volcano is another version of Mount Fuji. The two versions of Ash actually get on, but there’s still that bizarre sense of doubling, and doubling back. When Ash’s mum sends him a message to complain that he left the alarm on, which Ash is she talking to? How is she not aware that the Ash filming in New York is not the same as the Ash filming in Hawaii, given that she calls New York Ash to complain about what Hawaii Ash is doing in her house? In what one assumes is not coincidence, Ash was born on the day a Hawaiian volcano erupted. That volcano, Kīlauea, has continued to erupt for Ash’s entire life, so much so that his family teases him about living on “volcano time” (p. 31). Images reflect and refract, a constant series of mirrors that turn story to unstable ground, blurring lines between narratives and geologies and biologies.

Those biologies are rarely stable. In a town at the foot of another volcano, Koryaksky, a Russian woman, Galina, wakes up “from a fitful sleep to find herself enclosed within a giant insect” (p. 103). Shades of Kafka, you are probably thinking (as I did), but Stintzi pushes this a lot further than Kafka ever did—because no one around Galina, not her friends or family or even strangers, can see the insect. They see a human woman, even when the insect encasing that woman is on a date with her boyfriend. The boyfriend certainly doesn’t notice, even when they’re having sex, not until the back of the insect splits open and Galina escapes—at which point the scales fall off and she is treated as if she were the insect she escaped. Her boyfriend “started to scream ... began to throw books and anything else he could reach at her” (p. 145)—until she runs off, to the volcano for a rather more, shall we say, explosive climax.

A biologist myself, these increasingly fluid boundaries between organisms is the most entertaining part of My Volcano for me. It’s not just Galina, skittering down the street in her insect outerwear, both human and not-human and animal all at once. It’s the flat-out weirdness of what’s happening on the Mongolian steppes, as a nomadic horseman is infected with a sort of global consciousness. Dzhambul thinks it’s an ordinary bee sting at first; he doesn’t know the bumblebee that stung him was previously collecting pollen from a mutated thistle, and the mutation promptly crosses species boundaries. Dzhambul begins to develop thistle-spines and green skin, he blooms into a creature that infects his horse and then a growing herd, a growing horde, of different biologies. A hive mind, a green consciousness, taking over the cities and living spaces of the world; making them different, making them better, perhaps—an alternate future to that of mirrored geologies and volcanism, which for its part is creating a golem out of igneous rock in the African desert, to burrow into the industrial spaces of the world and explode there.

I told you the book was strange. Please understand that while I am only skimming the very surface of the strangeness here, it nonetheless all intersects in interesting and surprising ways. It pulled me in. I admit it took me a while to get used to this novel, but by the end I was riveted. My Volcano is, as I commented above, about fluidity and connection and disconnection, and about how things that look as if they could never fit in with all the rest in fact change shape and meaning—until the surprise is not that they are connected, but that I ever thought them disconnected in the first place. It shouldn’t take the continents of the world reforming into one giant land mass to dispose of false boundaries, and it shouldn’t take the mirror image of volcanoes, and of people, to see similarities where they always existed. This is emphasised through the use of the short obituaries of real people which punctuate the text, people who have been killed for their differences. Those differences are frequently racially based, as in a number of police killings of Black people, or as a result of gender identity coming up against violent bigotry. These are small, confronting reminders of the tragic effects of disconnection, of what happens when members of society are treated as out-groups.

Through weight of repetition and imagery, My Volcano fairly crushes the idea that such prejudice is any more than superficial bullshit. The way that people, always people, fall apart and fall together and become mirror images of each other, the way that they intersect with living things that are like them and not like them, is effectively done. Extraordinarily done, I would say, and it’s somewhat of a shame that the very last few pages don’t lean into that more heavily, and instead rely on a somewhat irritating trope beloved of so many science fiction narratives over the years. Stintzi has gone so hard out into surrealism and unusual connection here that it would have been perfectly fine—preferable, even—to avoid a reset back into realism. But then perhaps the assumption that realism is the inevitable result is only that: an assumption—and one much less green and lemon-flavoured and liquidly interconnected than desired.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
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