Some Freaks

James Miller, UnAmerican Activities

Dodo Ink, 288pp, £8.99, ISBN 9780993575853

reviewed by Jude Cook

The loosely linked short stories in James Miller’s third book – it’s not quite a novel, despite the back-cover blurb, though this is not to diminish it one iota – focus, in the words of its meta-narrator, on ‘a subterranean America full of un-American activities.’ This, at first glance, might appear to be familiar, even hackneyed, territory, supported by the book’s impressive quasi-graphic-novel cover, which drips with junkyard spares, palms, neons and law enforcement officers in shades. The great, twisted pop-cultural landscape of the USA has been subjected to a determined overexposure during the latter half of the twentieth century, rendering it as faded as an old Polaroid. Not just in fiction (Burroughs, Kerouac, Pynchon), but in art (Hopper, Lichtenstein, Warhol) and, most recently, in the cinema (Coens, Tarantino, Lynch). Indeed, there are echoes here of Pynchon, George Saunders and the stories in Wells Tower’s collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, as well as of the dusty prairies of Hopper and the gonzo vampire-killers of From Dusk Till Dawn.

But Miller brings a fresh sensibility to these tales – that of an Englishman abroad, an observer quickly overwhelmed by the dazzle and grossness of contemporary America, its atmosphere of paranoia, greed and full-fat consumption. The book is also an end-of-days narrative, one of eschatological dread, inevitably read against a backdrop of lone-gunman massacres, the Wild West of the internet and an ex-TV star billionaire president threatening nuclear war. The stories manage to be dextrous, dense and politically adept, all of them lit by the appalled humour of an outsider looking in.

Beginning with a beguiling meta-narrative, ‘Unprologue,’ in which an author laments the dilapidated life of the mid-career writer, we’re told the stories we are about to read are not wholly his work but the result of an email from a certain ‘Tim’ in the States, who tediously flags up a ‘factual error’ in one of his previous books. This introduction continues in a bleakly comical vein (‘I forgot all about the email and went back to bed to sob uncontrollably’) until Tim sends the narrator a cache of stories, telling him he can ‘do as he likes’ with them. The device of the ‘found narrative’ is as old as the eighteenth century, with novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Pamela benefiting from the authorial distance it provides. However, Miller complicates matters by revealing at the end of the passage that the narrator ‘changed every word’ of Tim’s work, implying they are, in fact, the product of his imagination after all. Whoever the author is, the net result is that we are intrigued and are eager to read on.

With titles such as ‘Eat My Face’ and ‘Exploding Zombie Cock,’ we get the flavour of what’s to come pretty quickly. In the former, a teenage crystal meth-addict who spends his days flipping burgers under the Golden Arches fast finds himself in Breaking Bad territory when led astray by his friend Rick. If Rick is bad, his dad is badder: ‘one scary motherfucker . . . the meanest, most-cold hearted bastard in the whole of Dooly County.’ Miller’s description of this paterfamilias is one to relish: with a ‘tight goatee around his mouth’ and ‘chewed up’ ears, ‘his eyes are really small, as if his face sucked them halfway back inside.’ Things can only end badly with Rick’s dad on the scene, and it’s no surprise when the story concludes with him picking up an Uzi, followed by the chilling command: ‘Come boys. What say we go vampire huntin’?’

The next piece, ‘Hope’s End,’ switches register, with lyrical descriptions of urban blight: ‘the American sublime soiled by sloughs of deplorable suburban sprawl, dismal drive-thrus, vulgar Walmarts and ghastly retail parks.’ Here, a pompous British academic, Randolph C. Carter, is arrested in the Midwest for an act of public lewdness, ending up in a surreal Pulp Fiction scenario, tied to a stake in the middle of a cornfield by a couple of cops. Carter will reappear later in the volume, establishing the principle of linking the stories through protagonists in one tale reappearing as minor characters in another (or vice versa). Popularised by Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio, this method was used fruitfully by Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad and most recently in David Szalay’s All That Man Is. It’s an effective device, inviting the reader to anticipate how large a role each character will go on to play, and also reinforces the notion that we are all bit players in each others’ lives, despite being the star of our own drama.

‘Exploding Zombie Cock’ is every bit as gonzo and hilarious as one would expect – or fear – from its title. Here, a young man returns from Haiti after spending ‘two thousand bucks’ on a witchdoctor’s potion containing ‘the ground bones of a human child.’ From this, we’re told, he can create a zombie. In a droll scene in which the potion is given to a meathead marine off to Afghanistan, the narrator initially can’t tell the difference after the transformation has occurred. The titular exploding member appears later, but only after the protagonist’s British sensibility takes a sly swipe at literary pretension and his ‘super-hooked-up Brooklyn friends who get to ‘write feature pieces for N+1.’ He ends by noting darkly: ‘This was something I loved about the States: the impending sense of the apocalypse.’

Elsewhere, the appearance of the promised vampires in a string of stories takes the book to another level of what the author, in an essay for Berfrois, has called ‘deranged realism.’ The opening of the ‘The Kiss of the Nephilim’ is emblematic: ‘Two-thirty in the morning, a Tuesday morning I think and I’m sitting in a 24-hour Taco Bell in Miami beach waiting for a fat Cuban whore called Esmeralda to score some crack.’ So far, so James Ellroy. But we soon learn the story in narrated by a vampire, an undead Plantation boss named Aretstikapha, born in 1793, who coolly observes that the world is ‘nothing but a pyramid of cruelty, violence and exploitation.’ Aretstikapha’s blood-thirsty escapades are enjoyable precisely because Miller subverts the tired vampire genre, adding a heady dash of auto-eroticism. As he drains another neck, our hero notes: ‘I also see that he has his cock out and is frantically pulling at himself. Urgh, I should have known he’d be one of those types.’ When he’s taken to a vampire safe-house or sanctuary, the postmodern gags come thick and fast. ‘You’re safe here. . . We have human blood in the fridge . . . There’s a network. We prefer LinkedIn to Facebook.’ When asked about the efficacy of garlic and crucifixes, he replies, ‘You might as well try and kill me with a doughnut. I like garlic. I’m not great with bright sunlight, but then I’m pale.’

The following story, ‘Clicks and Hits,’ is strongly linked to the previous tale, switching POV to a loquacious distant descendent of Van Helsing, a bounty hunter and part-time vampire slayer brought to the sanctuary to eliminate Aretstikapha. When he causally beheads the vampire and cuts out its heart, Miller enjoys describing the carnage:

‘Where you and I might have a heart and lungs, the vampire has . . . this. It looks a bit like a jellyfish, oozing around the internal organs. Green and pulsing, little tendrils and polyps attached to ribs . . . Something a bit like a red light seems to glow within it and I have the sense, as I always do at this stage, that it’s watching me. Two quick cuts and I can pull it out. It writhes and flexes in my hands.’

‘You’ve Gone Too Far This Time’ provides the opportunity for Miller to go too far, in a story that presents the USA in the grip of a porno apocalypse, in which a porn star (the impressively fake-named Trixxxie Foxxx) gets to take centre stage after having been glimpsed on Youthtube at the end of the previous story. An obvious corruption of YouTube, this ubiquitous channel connects nearly all the tales – a free-for-all, where porn stars, vloggers and advertisers all vie for clicks and hits. Also running through most of the tales is the NewOathKeepers blog, an evangelist conspiracy theory site symptomatic of an America that has fractured into a labyrinth of extremist underground movements, all operating with impunity. Trixxxie is presented in both the first and third person, imparting a disorienting sense of ontological insecurity: ‘I/She/Trixxxie opened my/her mouth to the fourteenth and fifteenth cocks . . . Christ, this gang-bang took it out of us.’ It’s a nice device for illustrating the weary work of living behind an alias – and the wearier work of being the biggest porn star in the world. Inevitably, Trixxxie’s stream of consciousness makes for the most extreme story here, capturing the unsmiling, unironic madness of the American adult film business.

The story also introduces the end-of-days theme, something Miller develops assiduously later. In a sinister welcome, an old man greets Trixxxie: ‘You’re new here. Shall I show you my sleeping boys sleeping staying beautiful waiting for the seventh trumpet to blow?’ This apocalyptic strand appears in ‘I Want to Go and Live in Norway.’ Here, the narrator’s mother has ‘a series of dreams in which an angel told her the first of the seven seals had been broken.’ Later, she finds herself in a trailer park full of white supremacist goons, whose entire torsos are covered in tattoos: ‘A swastika on one bicep. . . a huge iron cross on his back.’ The callow protagonist asks: ‘I mean, who has a swastika tattoo, right?’ Judging by the current state of the USA, lots of people. Finally, with the idiom of most stories entirely American – all ‘taillights’ and ‘interstates,’ with southern towns called Naples or Rome – UFOs were bound to make an appearance at some point. Here, we are told, ‘grainy footage of the lights in Colorado . . . sent the nation UFO crazy.’

The penultimate story, ‘The Abomination of Desolation,’ is probably the best in the book. Narrated by the sanctimonious Reverend Cornelius Parker, the vampire killer Abraham Helsing makes a return appearance when he sells the reverend the heart of Aretstikapha. ‘A dread thing, radiant with malice,’ this talismanic organ threatens to destroy the preacher as we follow him on a road trip across state lines, in a mythic tale of good versus evil. The drama is deflated by a bathetic stop at McDonalds. The description of Parker’s feast is one of the highlights of the book: ‘I order four Big Mac meals and go large on the lot . . .A glorious intoxicating wash of salt, fat and sugar.’ Later, Trixxxie Foxxx returns, becoming, in the reverend’s eyes, ‘The Whore of Babylon,’ neatly joining the pornographic and eschatological strands.

The final story, ‘The Archon Invasion’, by contrast, is perhaps the weakest. This might be because the ‘hot southern sky . . . the flatlands, the Badlands, the green wasteland of the American soul’ are replaced by the homely location of the Hay literary festival. Here, Esther Daniel, the abducted teenage daughter from an earlier story, is now a successful YA author, reading from her book. The familiar decorous rodeo of an English book festival and its authors’ yurt are too far removed from what’s gone before, even given the return of Trixxxie Foxxx, present to promote her memoir, the splendidly titled Fuck and Tell. However, it does give Miller the chance to gently satirise the publishing industry. This attack is continued in the ‘Unepilogue,’ in which the first-person voice of the meta-narrator returns, grumbling about his editor at a party, spending his time ‘talking to some of the much more famous writers that he also edits.’ While this afterword doesn’t quite tie up all the book’s resonant themes or sum up the memorable descent into the moronic inferno of the USA, it does make the reader ponder the nature and limits of storytelling. Maybe, he suggests, its best not to provide easy answers. ‘It’s not like we have a meaningful plot here, anyhow,’ comments the author, before disappearing into a peroration about books not being like life. By this point the reader sympathises with the narrator of ‘I Want to Live in Norway,’ feeling a strong urge to be surrounded by ‘sensible people who don’t believe in the end of the world’ and not the crazed denizens of Miller’s United States, with its tsunami of porn, drugs, guns and deranged white supremacists.

So, a dirty great Big Mac of a book. UnAmerican Activities is a guilty pleasure, as well as a finely crafted collection of short stories in disguise. Best washed down with a double bourbon and crucifix to hand, the tales here linger long and potently in the imagination. The book’s publisher, tiny indie Dodo Ink, has fast established an enviable reputation for adventurous and transgressive fiction that is supremely well-written. With books such as Seraphina Madsen’s Dodge and Burn, Monique Roffey’s The Tryst, and Neil Griffiths’ epic As a God Might Be, it is hard to pigeonhole. And this, perhaps, is its USP. Unlike its nearest competitors, Galley Beggar and Fitzcarraldo, whose rarefied aesthetic is marked by their French-style covers, Dodo Ink seems to welcome the sui generis. If its fellow small presses are the cool kids – Factory Records, to put it in terms of legendary indie labels – then Dodo Ink is more like Rough Trade or Postcard, home to brilliant misfits such as the Smiths and Orange Juice. Long may it wave its freak flag high. And these new stories by James Miller are a fine addition to its list.
Jude Cook ’s second novel, Jacob’s Advice, is funding now on Unbound.