The Listeners

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The Listeners
Leni Zumas
Tin House Books, May 2012
352 pages

Perhaps a lesser-known corollary to the Chekhov’s gun principle is this:  if there is an octopus on the cover of the book, it had better shoot ink by novel’s end.  In Leni Zumas’ The Listeners, however, it’s not ink that’s spilled, but blood, “all red, red, red, everywhere, like a smashed sun.”  The violent accidents of the past drive today’s narrative, centered on a woman who is slowly unraveling as she’s forced to confront her mistakes and the betrayal of a friend.

Quinn is an underemployed former rock musician teetering on the edge of financial security and sobriety.  On the nights she doesn’t ride the bus from the sketchy part of town to her parents’ house for dinner she heads to the bar to meet her old band mates.  There’s Mink, who’s settled into motherhood and a regular bartending job; and Geck, who’s still fighting to stay clean; and the glaringly missing Cam.  The crowd Quinn runs with is quirky enough, a prism through which we see her lost rock star glory, but sometimes feels a bit too familiar.

Fortunately, Zumas lingers longer among Quinn’s family, dysfunctional in its efforts to feel whole.  An understated sense of loss permeates their lives, even years after the death of the unnamed other sister, and Zumas handles these interactions with a delicate balance of humor and pain.  Brother Riley, especially, possesses a calm magnanimity in refreshing contrast to Quinn’s irreverence, as both an adult and in the many childhood flashbacks.

The novel is structured as a series of short vignettes, peppered back and forth through time, and stacked one on another like puzzle pieces to be sorted and put back in order.  From this brevity of scene comes a quiet power and subtle building of suspense.  It is, after all, not the mysteries themselves that resonate but their aftereffects; Quinn is haunted not by ghosts but by her own guilt.

Ultimately, this is a story of grief, and of a family coming to terms with its loss:  “And where was she?  Like smoke around us, sighing at the crinkled shells of our ears.”  The glimpses we see of Quinn’s deceased sister shine particularly bright in the scenes rife with death-talk, a game in which the children indulge, as when she asks her siblings, “‘If while at sea you got a fatal case of calenture—a distemper…would you rather drown alive or be shot by the captain?’”   Here we see the vividness of her imagination, and through it, what might have been—and feel the family’s sorrow as something of our own.