Author Eugene Marten creates desolate landscapes void of, or maybe over saturated with, humanity. In his books he forces his readers to identify and empathize with the detestable. The first work I read of his was 2008’s Waste, a novella that acts as a character study of a pseudo-protagonist, a janitor, who finds the dead body of a former building employee.
Marten’s latest release is actually a reprint of his 2010 book Firework. The reader follows a man know only as Jelonnek as he drifts through what is described by the book’s back cover as “a volatile, early-90’s landscape of apocalyptic race riots and ethnic cleansing.” This world provides the backdrop for a road trip, one that begins on a whim. Jelonnek leaves his monotonous yet comfortable life and decides to help a prostitute and her daughter locate their cousin.
This stays on brand with other titles brought to the world by Marten’s current publisher, Tyrant Books. Tyrant is an independent publisher based between New York City and Rome who recently made obscure literary headlines, as the result of a twitter scandal, centered around their rejection of literary agents. Tyrant stated that agents were the direct cause of disingenuous publishing. "Though the quantity of Tyrant's published works is low (it's essentially a one-man operation, run by Giancarlo DiTrapano), the brand has garnered attention for publishing books and authors of quality, with names such as, Scott McClanahan (The Sarah Book), Marie Calloway (what purpose did i serve in your life), as well as Gordon (White Plains) and Atticus Lish (Preparation for the Next Life). Tyrant’s releases often read like the product of a writers workshop lead by Ernest Hemingway and Tao Lin, ADDD.
Firework is simultaneously a hard and easy read, once you adjust to Martin’s style. Characters exist unnamed and the plot shifts drastically, leaving behind people and locations you’ve become comfortable with, but the pages turn quickly. Marten’s prose offers little glimpses of beauty in the rough terrain of the world he’s created. An example of this is a descriptor line that I find myself coming back to over and over: when introducing a girl Jelonnek is infatuated with, Marten writes that “light avoided her, it could not do her justice.” In my opinion this is a description that could hold its own against a Shakespearean Sonnet or any ee cummings creation.
The complexity of Marten’s prose and plot is balanced by the inclusion of the familiar, He makes you feel at home in his pages. The novel is, in many ways, a classic road trip story, one that reminds you of 100 towns you’ve been through and forgotten. Except every time you feel at home and safe, you’re thrown to a place more jarring than the last. Novelist Sam Lipsyte refers to the writing as a “controlled burn” and, personally, I cannot think of a more accurate description. At points I wanted nothing more than to jump onto the page and slap everyone, but as a reader I was helpless, aware of the spiral yet unable to stop it.
The book is not one that’s over at the final sentence. It’s not over a week or two later, either. It is one of those books that sticks with you, that your brain will remember at random. The themes relevant now, upon original release, and forever, just like Marten writes: “The past is never complete. You just rewind it while you get another beer, then start over again.”
Thanks to Tyrant Books who supplied me with an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book.