Early in Jeff Jackson’s latest novel Destroy All Monsters, the media reports on a new kind of epidemic that is spreading across America: musicians in rock bands are being shot while performing live on stages of small music venues. Xenie, a singer and fan of her local music scene in Arcadia, retreats from the violent images on TV to the shower, where she “remained under the pelting stream until [the water] ran ice cold, until [her] fingerprints vanished in folds of puckering skin.” The act of having or losing a voice or identity permeates this mysterious, compelling, and timely novel.
Destroy All Monsters is divided into two “sides,” similar to a vinyl record single. One of the pleasures of reading the novel in printed form, as opposed to an ebook, is that you can flip the book over and upside down to read its other half. While the novel can be read in any order, Side A is substantially longer and contains the heart of the book. In “Side A: My Dark Ages,” Xenie’s boyfriend, Shaun, the lead singer of the Carmelite Rifles, becomes victim to the epidemic when it invariably arrives in Arcadia. Xenie then befriends the band’s manager, Eddie, and, through mutual grieving, they start a relationship. Xenie and Eddie talk a lot about the senseless violence, and, Xenie supposes, the reason why they occurred: “The killers wanted music to matter again, she says. They wanted to purify it. It’s like they were thinning the herd, putting wounded animals out of their misery.”
Why the violence is occurring is part of the mystery of the book. The rationalist reader will likely wonder why clubs aren’t increasing security after so many shootings are reported in the news. But I think this is one of the things that Jackson wants readers to reflect on: mass shootings are now commonplace and there is no major effort to improve gun control on the horizon.
The rest of Side A focuses on the preparation of a tribute show for the Carmelite Rifles. Everyone wants Xenie to sing, saying it’s what Shaun would have wanted, but she refuses. “Not everything has to be a performance, she says. That’s what ruined music. That’s why the epidemic had to happen.” While no social media is present in the novel, the argument can be made that the book is alluding to how everything we do now is a kind of performance.
This tension of expressing one’s self appears in the book when the characters struggle with conveying their appreciation and love for those who have died. When someone does a tribute to the dead, is it really about those who are gone, or is it meant for the living? Xenie ponders this with Eddie: “Everybody craves the spotlight…but then they’re so mediocre. It’s pathetic. These days, it takes more guts not to be in a band. We’re probably the last two people who aren’t.” And by creating a tribute show, Xenie wonders, are the living now haunting the dead?
“Side B: Kill City” is a kind of looking-glass version of Side A. Without giving too much away, it’s as if the backup singers stepped up and made a cover song of the single. In this version, Xenie is the one who performs on stage, and Shawn is in the background narrating the story. Here there are several variations from characters and plotlines in Side A that make “Kill City” a dreamlike, creepy, and ultimately thrilling counterpart to “My Dark Ages.”
With two sides that are mysteriously connected, and with its lack of overt explanation, this book may be frustrating for some readers. But it’s exactly Destroy All Monsters’ sense of being open to interpretation that makes it a relevant and chilling depiction of senseless violence today.