As part of our new review series, Ben Ghan reviews John Elizabeth Stintzi’s My Volcano (Arsenal Pulp Press, & Two Dollar Radio, 2022). Find a copy at your local bookstore, online at Arsenal Pulp Press (Canada), or Two Dollar Radio (U.S).
On June 2, 2016, the skin of the world split. In New York’s central park, a volcano makes itself known, growing until it becomes a massive, looming structure, a shadow to cover the city. It promises death and destruction to those that might remain in its shadow. It promises that the world we thought we knew doesn’t make sense anymore. It threatens, with each moment, to burn. Passers-by take pictures on their phones. They continue to work as usual. Nothing has changed. This is the world of John Elizabeth Stinzi’s My Volcano — as one world becomes many, strange phenomena spinning outwards into parallel timelines and realities shaping themselves around each specific point of view— this is the only universal constant. We have hurt each other, and we have hurt the world.
From this central inexplicable event splinters the many lives of Stintzi’s characters. An unnamed white trans writer struggles with their thesis in the city, an ever-changing science fiction novel. An 8-year-old boy is sent spinning from modern-day Mexico City to the Tenochtitlan of 500 years in the past, where they find themselves possessed by a furious power. An academic studying folklore in Japan keeps up a long-distance relationship with their partner in America, and when he climbs a volcano in Japan with his research assistant, they are struck by a haunted figure who also appears on the other side of the globe. In Mongolia, a shepherd becomes infected by mysterious ecology that spreads outwards, a vast collective consciousness. These characters and others labour against indifference and strangeness, their realities slowly diverging, their destinies balanced by various uncertain futures. In some, the volcano will erupt to coat the eastern seaboard in lava and toxic ash, and in others, nothing. In some worlds, everybody makes it out in time. In others, nobody is left alive.
In 232 chapters, ranging from pages to paragraphs, Stintzi’s prose is a flow of incredible empathy. Reading along is like watching a master painter in progress, as My Volcano is a triumph in every way I can imagine: in form, genre, and prose. If we are lucky, if we live in one of the better timelines of Stinzti’s world, My Volcano will be read and studied for many years to come.
It’s tempting to describe My Volcano as a work that bends/defies genre, but I don't think that’s fair. There is nothing slight or dismissible about the speculative nature of My Volcano. The metaphor is real. The ghosts, the ecological contagions, the magic, the time travel, the violence of the mountain and the lava that might inevitably pour forth are all real and still carry meaning beyond their literal forms.
The lasting trauma of violence, the horrible facts of how many marginalized people have been killed by hate and the state itself remain in view over each chapter. A date, a name/names, how they were killed, and the age of a victim hang centred on the white expanse of pages between different sections of the book, from singular events to the many names of the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, each line of ink hurts. Even if you do not recognize every name, you will recognize enough to know, and you will know enough to feel the emotion of violence all over again and know that for us — like for the characters of Stintzi’s novel— there is a volcano hanging overhead.
We’re just ignoring it.