Review: No Alternative, by William Dickerson

>>Published: April 2012

>>Finally got around to it: November 2012

In an article Stewart wrote for his college music zine, The Note, he didn’t quite suggest that Cobain was a surrealist, but he did imply that his mere existence, and its place in history, may in fact be surreal. His music brought rock and roll back from the dead. Literally. Rock and roll up until that point was dominated by schlocky, vampiric hair-bands, who for all intents and purposes, resembled the featured extras in a homoerotic remake of Night of the Living Dead. Zombies in tight sparkle pants. And mullets galore.

Cobain made rock real again. He made it tangible. Ironically, he made it just tangible enough to be manufactured in factories worldwide. Stewart theorized that Cobain threw his life away to escape the version of himself that was being packaged and sold for $19.99 in Wal-Mart. Fast-food psychoanalysis, possibly, but a valid point. He did become a pop icon, the voice of a generation, and in the eyes of corporate America, an indispensible cash cow. He wore a ‘Corporate Magazines Suck’ T-shirt on the cover of a corporate magazine, but it was still him wearing that shirt—on that corporate magazine. Until he could eliminate himself from the commercialism that was attached to his hip, it would never be anything more than commercialism. Ergo, the shotgun blast to the head—

By killing himself, he killed corporate America, if only his version of it.

***

Thomas Harrison and his younger sister Bridget are long-suffering teenagers trapped in the hell that was 1994. Long-suffering kids who’ve yet to experience the world, but are already sick of it; they’re tired of corporate greed; of being a half-assed imitation of something instead of simply being one’s self, no matter how tragic or pathetic that self might be; of creative oppression (despite seemingly getting away with everything). The two protagonists of William Dickerson’s debut novel, No Alternative, are endemic of a neither here nor there rage that populated the lost cross section between Generation X and Generation Y—rage rooted in the frustration noted by Tyler Durden in the novel and film Fight Club: they are the middle children of history, with no great wars or oppressors to confront but their own extreme personal and social dissatisfaction.

The novel opens six months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Thomas is a believer—someone who looks to Cobain and his influence, what he stood for and what he fought to represent. His sister, Bridget, is bi-polar, prone to random acts of violence (sometimes verbal, sometimes physical), and sees Cobain’s legacy in a way that diverges from her brother’s; though she’s younger, she seems to understand both the positive aspects to Cobain’s influence, and where he fell short—most notable in how he chose to exit this world. Thomas starts a band with several close friends, doing their grunge-worthy damnedest to live up to the legend and all its perceived ideals; Bridget, meanwhile, dons a gangsta rap persona, Bri-Da-B, and starts performing at open mic nights, keyboard (and inexplicably charming racism) in tow.

Much of one’s enjoyment of No Alternative will stem from one’s allegiance to the message and the music of the time. I was in eighth grade when Cobain put the double barrels of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Neither before, nor after, could I ever comprehend the frustration and anger inherent with Nirvana’s music. To this day I respect their influence, and their place in music history, but at no point have I ever been so miserable or disaffected with life to feel a kinship with that particular style. And I was a pretty fucking depressed teenager, let me tell you… When separated from the music and their desire to express their innermost selves, Thomas and Bridget’s journeys are decidedly light on experiences: a bit of underage sex, a few emotional dust-ups, and some parental run-ins account for the bulk of this title’s conflict and narrative beats. In spite of this, No Alternative is not light on content. In fact, this is one of its key problems.

Narratively speaking, No Alternative is a bit of a lumbering beast. Dickerson’s tone and pacing are undone by a propensity to over-embellish, often to damaging degrees. Whether it is the introduction of Thomas and Bridget’s hot-under-the-collar Supreme Court Justice father, a diversion about ceramic cookware, dissections of the fitting problems surrounding Converse Chuck Taylors, or telling us of the artistic life Maureen gave up so that she wouldn’t be forced to compete with her daughter, the novel dumps an unfortunately large amount of information onto the reader, telling us in plain, overbearing language what it has failed to show—a cardinal sin if there ever was one. Often this information does little except to hammer home the fact that, hey, this book takes place in 1994. There’s little authorial confidence in this title. It’s as if Dickerson didn’t have faith in the readers to simply understand or research possible cultural touchstones on their own merits; instead he introduces each of these elements with an anthropological stance, explaining in too much detail the meaning or purpose behind this or that which was critical at the time. Instead of giving the book a convincing 1994 flavour, it pulls the reader out of the scene, often crashing the narrative’s momentum into a brick wall. In instances like this, and others when the book takes unconventional leaps into the future (such as explaining how Dana Plato would die, and then ten years after her son would follow), it feels a little like Dickerson’s aiming for the multi-personality structure of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, but doesn’t go far enough to give the anthropological asides their due in this regard. And as previously mentioned, they stick out. If there is one narrative lesson to take from this book, it is the age-old show, don’t tell.

There are several other problems with the novel—most of them relatively minor. It’s a self-published work, which carries with it certain drawbacks that are feeling more and more common in self-published works, which are unfortunately saddling the sub-genre (if it can be called such a thing) with possibly unfair expectations. The spelling is pretty on point, but there are frequent problems with grammar—extra spaces at the beginning of each sentence, missing hyphens and inconsistencies with naming conventions. In fact, naming rule of thumb: don’t underline book, film, or album titles. In fact, don’t underline, period. Books, albums, television shows, movies, and video games: italicize. Chapters within books, articles within magazines, songs on albums, or episodes of television shows: place inside quotation marks. Additionally there’s the odd fact-checking error (there are nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno, not seven). But the big thing, the thing that really annoyed me and is an absolute no-no of layout and design, is the frequent problems in hyphenation across two lines or over two pages. Often the hyphen is not at a syllable break, and therefore is a constant trip-up. Worse, however, is the frequency at which single-syllable words are hyphenated across lines and pages. This is absolutely an error and very much affected both my basic reading of the book as well as my enjoyment. It’s the most glaring visual problem with the book, and it is frequent enough that it highlights the fact that this is a self-published title.

The most unforgivable issues, however, are of personal taste and have to do with tone and trickery. Beware, spoilers from this point through to the end of the review.

First, the case of language:

“I know something you can do with those fingers.”

She looks at him reassuringly, then whispers into his ear—

“Rape me.”

She pushes his hand down into her crotch.

“I give you permission.”

Thomas, pulling his hand back, like his elbow is spring-loaded. “Jackie, you can stop coming on so strong. I know you’re not really like this.”

Until this point, Thomas has been presented as having a chip on his shoulder, but still relatively normal—as normal as bitter, grunge-addicted teenagers in 1994 could be. But what she says… the moment she tells him to rape her, that she gives him permission, and he DOESN’T flip his shit and step back, flabbergasted that she’d be absurd enough to say it like that, that he isn’t completely turned off by that, killed his character for me. And that they’re all over one another on the very next page only nailed the lid on his coffin that much tighter.

And then we have the Alex/Jackie affair:

Then, in a strikingly bold maneuver for a girl of such delicate age and pedigree, she takes the remainder of his beer and pours it onto her exposed vagina. She douses herself, marinating her labia with every fermented nuance of the microbrew. Alex’s salivary glands rev into overdrive, enough that he spits a loogie into a puddle of piss that has formed on the floor before diving to his knees and plunging his face into her pungent crotch.

The tone of this encounter, and indeed of all sexual encounters in this book, is overwritten and unnecessarily vulgar. There’s a degree of unbelievable gratuity written into the sexual encounters in this novel that feels forced through an unrealistic lens. Maybe I’ve just led that sheltered a life, but these scenes did nothing for me. Similar to the overwritten accounts of the details and things inherent to the time frame of the novel, these only served to pull me out of the moment, not draw me further in.

And lastly, there is the twist—both in terms of plot and in terms of unmasking the narrator. In short, this was unearned. Without giving everything away, there was not, for me, believable emotional groundwork to make me believe Thomas would do what he did. It felt random and mostly without reason. The few details that had been given to that point—problems with friends, with direction in life, with… well, genital warts—did not warrant or lead to me being anything less than furious at the outcome. Not because I had grown attached to the character or his arc, but because it felt like a betrayal of whatever strength of character he’d shown to that point. And the reveal of the narrator (which had, until that point, not been at all clear—to the point where the breaking of the fourth wall at times throughout the story felt like a mistake or a gratuity that broke form) in the aftermath of the event made me feel as if I’d been tricked, and not in a way that made sense.

Bridget is, without question, the heart, soul, and primary interest of No Alternative. Her character—her arc, her creative exploration—is what grounds the narrative in any way. Without her, it would fall apart entirely. Though the grunge era has a great deal of anger and self-destruction to mine for future narratives, Dickerson’s novel is startlingly light on depth, focusing more on explaining the minutia of the there and then instead of searching the fragile depths of Thomas’s innermost feelings and potentially scarred rationality. Had Thomas and his parents been explored to the same degree as Bridget, with less care paid to hammering home the specifics of the time and the politics behind the grunge movement and what had gotten lost in the space between Lennon and Cobain’s deaths, the novel might have achieved a greater understanding of the period in time to which it pays tribute.

It’s clear that Dickerson has a deep-seated love for the 1990s and the upheavals of the day—emotional, political, and social. The novel, however, could use another pass or two to better enunciate why.

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