By Joe Sacksteder
Tobias Carroll’s new novel, Ex-Members, immerses readers in the punk scene of New Jersey in the 1990s, but the story’s gravitational pull is less that of the Alphanumeric Murders, the fictional band whose history it documents, and more that of one particular building in the fictional city of New Dutchess. No, not a basement or VFW where the band got their start, nor eventual venues they play, like the Wetlands, but rather that of an unfinished hotel on the Delaware River that residents simply called “the tower.” It functions in some ways as a traditional objective correlative, described in the opening chapter as “frozen potential,” abandoned after New Dutchess’s bid for a train line failed. Readers will soon realize that it’s more than just a symbol, that there’s something nagging and ineffable about the tower, that something about its almost demonic influence on the novel’s characters borders on magical realism, that its power might even be working on the form of the book itself, short-circuiting a specific literary genre, the novel about a band—David Mitchell’s 2015 Utopia Avenue, for example—into something that’s uncategorizable and resistant to all tidy nostalgia.
Its magic often registers on the sentence level, repetition serving in the following passage to enact the tower’s dual aspects of attraction and repulsion, entropy and fixity:
When the children looked up at it bewildered, the tower still stood. Security guards waited outside of it and looked up and shrugged, and the tower still stood. Police made periodic passages past it seeking defacement or defilement, the tower still stood. When those whose jobs had failed because of it cut their hands and ran them down the sides of concrete, the tower still stood.
Wait…what? Lulled by the repetition and the alliterative, stressed syllables of the sentences’ cadences, I required blood smeared on walls to awaken me to the human tragedy. The workers vanish as quickly as they appeared, and years of the children’s lives zip by in a loping sentence whose time compression serves further to emphasize the tower’s monolithic stature:
The children who’d first seen it loom over them conjured their myths about it and grew to adulthood and never quite shook those myths, those legends, the stories of what had gone wrong, of what had stunted the tower, of what had made it inert.
This sentence can be seen as an announcement of one way to view the very existence of Ex-Members: it quite simply is one of those many conjured myths. As marks Carroll’s approach to crescendo and cadence, the final sentence of the first chapter clicks brilliantly into place, moving readers from general, anonymous histories to a central consciousness of the story in a way that also creates propulsive momentum that lasts the rest of the novel. Carroll writes:
And on nights some years later, when thunder crashed and lightning lit up the western sky, a man named Virgil Carey sat on his front porch and let himself become half-drenched and looked up at his view of the tower and wondered if it would be so bad if, on one of these nights, some storm finally brought the whole fucking thing down.
Carey is a childhood friend of Dean Polis, lead singer of the Alphanumeric Murders, is one of their biggest fans, and much of the novel’s mystery hovers around his falling out with Polis and the band.
Ex-Members “short-circuits” because it balances traditional literary pleasures with experimental aspects that refute their “correct” function. In addition to the novel’s purposefully messy hybrid and nonlinear construction—including sections of transcribed interviews with band members as well as Carey’s tape-recorded monologues—Ex-Members makes you fall in love with compelling characters who then vanish from the text. It also simply never fully explores plot material that, red-herring-like, seemed of central importance. An example of both subversions is the story of Carey’s father, who becomes obsessed with the tower and the traumatic, perhaps imagined experience of seeing someone fall from it to their death. I would have very happily read a whole novel about how Carl Carey translates experiences from his life into his niche job as a board game designer; but it’s like the sheer chilling power of his section’s final paragraph sweeps readers away from access to him. Having befriended a construction worker who worked on the hotel, Carey finally summons the courage to ask, via letter, if he knew anything about the death. “‘If there is someone to mourn, I’d like to be able to mourn them,’” his letter ends. “Six months passed before a response came. ‘There is no one to mourn,’ read the letter in its entirety.” Which of course could have at least three meanings.
The one not to be mourned is potentially another character whose intriguingness is counteracted by their textual ephemerality: Greil Reed, a coworker of Mallory Polis, Dean Polis’s mother. Like the ineffable wrongness of the tower, there’s something wrong with Greil Reed. In some ways, he’s very talented at his job and very superficially put together, a wunderkind. (“Could one still be a wunderkind in one’s late thirties? she wondered.”) But small details of his speech and comportment are uncanny, as are his interests outside of work, in particular The Alphanumeric Murders: A David Peter Fielding Mystery, his self-published novel based on a previous urban planning project gone awry. (Mallory loses track of her gifted copy; later, it’s mentioned that Dean made up the band name but nobody knows what inspired it—just one of many fun Easter eggs.) The doomed New Dutchess project seems fated for a sequel. Greil’s increasing obsession with the tower results in behavior so bizarre that, leading up to his sudden disappearance, he nearly gets fired. For years, there are only rumors, until Mallory is contacted by the police and shown some vandalization assumed to be Reed’s on the inside walls of the tower:
These were words and they spelled out a narrative and, as she looked up, she realized that they went higher than her reach, they went higher than the reach of someone much taller, that they reached heights that no one could have reached without some sort of ladder or apparatus.
The moment and the implications reach higher, too, than my mind can reach, a connection profound but tenuous between The Alphanumeric Murders, the workers’ blood smeared on the walls, and Ex-Members, the tower completing a textual journey from setting to objective correlative to form of the novel itself—“words across the walls of several stories like some sort of binding spell or unwieldy manifesto.”
With pun on “stories,” pun on “Reed,” Ex-Members indeed reads somewhat like interconnected stories assembled around the pull of the tower. Its effect on me as a reviewer is that I’ve barely talked about music, about the band, about the characters at the center of the novel. But to live in a place like New Dutchess, to be drawn inexorably back to it like Virgil Carey, to get punk music, is to understand something about the periphery. I don’t know that much about New Jersey punk music in the 1990s, way more than before, of course, but I can appreciate the confidence it takes to write a novel composed of false trails. Whole lives are lived as such, Ex-Members suggests, characters defined by memberships long lapsed. It could be worse, the novel also suggests, and there’s always the hope for a reunion.