August 2003

Michael Schaub

fiction

Victims by Travis Jeppesen

As professions go, book reviewing is not among the hardest. It requires little physical exertion, and the risk of fatal on-the-job accidents is encouragingly low (although every time I miss a deadline, which is every time I turn in an article, my editor threatens to break my legs). It's a sweet gig. But then someone like Travis Jeppesen comes along and fucks everything up by writing a novel that utterly defies description. There's no way to condense the plot into a brief little synopsis, no way to describe the characters with adjective-laden appositional phrases. Victims is a thrill to read, and it's the best debut novel I've read in a very long time, but it's harder to figure out than a Rubik's Cube. Unlike the toy, though, Jeppesen's novel has the potential to change your life.

Victims is the first book on Akashic Books' Little House on the Bowery imprint, a series of books selected and edited by transgressive legend Dennis Cooper. Anyone expecting to see Akashic roll out a whole line of mini-Coopers (lame, I know) will be disappointed. While Jeppesen and Cooper share similar transgressive tendencies, they don't really explore the same themes. In terms of prose style, Jeppesen could be the heir apparent to America's finest transgressive author, the late Kathy Acker. Yeah, he's that good--and like Acker, he seems to be totally fearless.

Victims centers around a doomsday cult called the Overcomers. It bears some resemblance to Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate cult, the members of whom committed mass suicide in 1997. Mass suicide is part of the plan for the Overcomers, too, led by the intensely charismatic Martin Jones. The story is told in fragments centering on Tanya, who joined the Overcomers after becoming pregnant as a teenager, and Herbert, an intense young man who leaves the cult and tries to sustain a life on the outside. Herbert befriends two people who may or may not exist; their conversations--and aborted attempts at conversation-- are frequently hilarious in a bizarre existentialist kind of way. At times it reads like a Jean-Paul Sartre screenplay for a Three Stooges movie. And yes, that is a compliment.

Jeppesen's prose is stunning in its originality and power. He has the discipline to rein himself in when he has to--the passages narrated by Tanya echo the unimpressed prose of a teenager, but not in a condescending way. Jeppesen has the good sense not to go over the top with the character of Overcomer leader Jones. The passages written in Jones's voice are scarily believable and familiar, suggesting Jeppesen has an uncanny ear for apocalyptic rhetoric. Jeppesen turns to more experimental prose when following Herbert around, and it's at once absurd and depressingly real, though always musical. Most impressive, though, is the intellectual acuity with which Jeppesen, who is 23, treats the themes that inform the novel--not just victimhood, but desperation, friendship, and the state of American society. It's an amazingly intelligent book for an author of any age.

Victims really is the rarest of things--a novel of ideas. You don't see that much anymore, at least not in the United States, and that's probably for the best. Very few writers can pull it off. You can't say Travis Jeppesen makes it look easy, because nothing about Victims is easy, but he's undoubtedly succeeded where countless other young writers have failed. You can't afford to ignore him.

Victims by Travis Jeppesen
Akashic Books
ISBN: 1888451424
189 Pages