Hello! I’m here today to talk to you endlessly about Jeanne Thornton. She is the author, most recently and transcendently, of THE BLACK EMERALD, a short story collection published this September by Instar Books (their launch title) and the novel THE DREAM OF DOCTOR BANTAM. Her books have the best titles!
I love Jeanne Thornton’s writing, in part, because she allows her characters to be mean, contradictory, arbitrary, and trivial, all of which is extremely important to me. And because, perhaps equally important, all of her characters have meticulous bedrooms, and in my opinion, if you know your characters well enough to describe, exhaustively, what is on the walls, shelves, and carpets of the room in which they sleep, then you have pretty much risen above any critique that could be leveled against you as a writer.
“The Black Emerald” (the titular novella), basically astounding for these reasons:
- begins with an extremely thorough description of watching a movie/being in love, a movie that I assume to be invented, but whose explanation is so spookily detailed that I have to believe it’s real;
- has one of the most perfectly-described and casually menacing fathers I’ve yet read; he only appears in like three scenes but they are all shockingly, almost criminally good. Here’s a smidgen:
“She woke up to the sound of her father knocking on her door. She could imagine him there: short, balding, eyes big and brown and vulnerable. In one of her cartoons he would be the screaming victim of a titanic monster, the kind of uniquely ugly face that it’s too complicated to draw episode after episode, so it’s best to have the character killed early. It’s more convenient for everyone."
“And it was true; he would do it; he would wait here as long as she and her bad nature let him. He was stronger than her, larger than her; she would die first when they ran out of food and water; he would be here long after she was gone. She was weaker than him. She was weak and she let him do this to her. There was nothing she could do but do the Right Thing, which was shut up, sit as still as she could, leave three fingers pressed to the throb on the side of her skull, try to wait until her feeling got cold enough for her to be the adult in the situation.”
- speaking of cartoons as per the first excerpt, this novella also includes the most vividly imaginable depictions of artwork and its creation (like, can you conjure a picture of a house sketched in “clean lines, romantic manga lines, lots of white space and thick cartoon contours”? of course you can);
- Jeanne writes about magical happenings absolutely straight;
- Lava Caves Road;
- happens to be one of the best and most convincing high school/teenage stories I’ve ever read (I have read a lot of high school stories), for the following undebatable reasons (a sublist):
- aforementioned bedroom phenomenon;
- I imagine this as exactly my high school, a southern Ohio to The Black Emerald’s Austin, right down to Miss Stevens, the kindly and sensitive art teacher;
- the following
“She wished she was an orphan. No, she didn’t. That was a fucked up thing to think. She didn’t want to think fucked up things about the world. The world was a really great place, really, if you just understood why everything happened the way it did, like God could probably."
- a guidance counselor is impeccably described;
- this passage
about ‘love for real’:
“And Josephine would have to look at her classy art project every day: something she’d have loved to have done, something far beyond anything she could do for herself. Eventually this would lead to them getting back together and being in love for real. There was no better use for school than promoting love for real. The whole institution ought to be burned down to the extent that it failed to promote love for real. That was what her stupid peers could never understand, but Josephine might be made to.”
(When I was in high school art class probably my junior year (I think, by turns, both the least-alienating and most-alienating part of all high school) I remember one of the girls at my table (on whom I had a pretty large crush at the time) asked me (sad, lumpish) playfully if I’d ever been in love, and I teetered for a while until giving a noncommittal answer while knowing that the proper thing to do would be to shout “YES I AM IN LOVE WITH YOU,” in any case)
And that’s just the opening novella! Later on, “Chairs” is basically a great, unsettling aspect story (even though it includes sexually entitled college males, which are probably my least-regarded figures in life); it has an exceptional room and here is one part of a perfect paragraph:
“He walked her home after the movie and kissed her on the cheek in the laundry-smelling hallway outside her dorm room, impetuously, like a darting mongoose. Afterward she touched the hot place where his outsider's lips had been while she looked at herself in the mirror, and she wondered at how suddenly that square inch of her body had been taken over, how flagrantly he had colonized it, overturned its old codes. She found it charming, in a mildly disapproving, indulgent manner.”Like a darting mongoose! The remapped body! Isn’t it great??? [I had long sentence about mixing the corporality of the 1st sentence with the broader metaphorical colonization of the 2nd sentence which I’ve deleted out of mercy. Isn’t it great???]
Basically, The Black Emerald as a whole has just like an unstoppable fountain of magical talent and technique going for it that I am still in the midst of processing, so, yes, check it out and then try to write a room again, I dare you.
As I mentioned, this book is also the launch title from Instar Books, a VERY snazzy new publishing venture with new and varied forms of their books that ‘unlock’ as each title reaches various sales benchmarks. (Right now it’s in ebook format, which means you can have it instantly, so that’s motivation, and don’t you want to feel responsible for making that counter crack 100?)
THE DREAM OF DOCTOR BANTAM
I can’t talk about Jeanne Thornton without also talking about The Dream of Doctor Bantam (OR Books, 2012), which I think was my favorite novel that I read this year. I’ve talked about it (somewhat obliquely) in another blog-post, but I’ll echo what I said there and say that this is a book I love dearly, find to be shamelessly honest, and would recommend to basically any reader. It has A LOT of heart and its cultishness is described in such an attentive and detailed way that it becomes almost tender and inviting, as well as sinister?
I know less than nothing about Scientology (meaning that in my first read I analyzed the “Scientology-like cult” of Doctor Bantam much as I did the “Scientology-like cult” of The Master, which is I guess like any cult with strange machines), but since I read this novel I have been paying A LOT of attention to the construction of the new Scientology center on 125th street in East Harlem near my apartment, to the chagrin of some who know me (it’s between the public library/’Demolition Depot’ and appears to be permanently in its final stages of renovation). This is exclusively because of this book.
Incidentally I was poking around on Amazon and I found this sentence in the blurb: “In Julie Thatch you cannot help but see shades of Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander.” I have no idea who wrote this sentence but I guess the idea is that they’re both punk-y young non-heteronormative women? Maybe young female punks in literature are so rare but I don’t think so; in any case if you do like punk-y books of any variety this is certainly one of them and don’t let Stieg Larsson trick you. DON’T LET HIM.
Finally: being a writer of the internet means there is quite a bit of stuff ‘freely available’ across these digital spaces, but I would STRONGLY recommend that you check out ‘Abjuration Club,' a monthly Patreon zine by Jeanne (rhymes) in which you get comics, fictions, random writings, paraphernalia, and excerpts from SUMMER FUN. SUMMER FUN is a novel-in-progress that Jeanne is writing about Brian Wilson/the Beach Boys, but rather than explicitly about the Beach Boys the novel is about the Get Happies (their proxy, much like the 1980 Elvis Costello album), and IT IS WONDERFUL. Specifically, spread throughout the last four abjuration clubs, here are some further excellent reasons to be involved:
- very vivid description of desert witch-practice by the narrator;
- impractical artist business cards;
- striptease toothbrushing;
- a monopoly game with Brian Wilson’s proxy-father that GETS DRAMATIC;
If you’re appropriately intrigued, you can download the first issue of Abjuration Club **for free** here, in which can be found not only an excerpt of Summer Fun (about sadness and paintings and Brian Wilson’s mama), but ALSO a background/history of The Black Emerald, which will perhaps lead you into additional, darker forays. You can download basically any amount each month and in return get all of these prizes!
I cannot wait to read SUMMER FUN. It’s going to be phenomenal. I could revel in Jeanne’s writing for days, and maybe someday you will too?
Until next time,