WE HAVE MOVED! If you are joining us, please join us at our new home, The Coil, over on Medium.

If you have arrived at a broken link, please go to The Coil and start your search over.


All This Life

Fiction  |  Novel
304 pages
6” x 9” Hardcover
ISBN 978-1593766030
First Edition
Review Copy: Kindle Mobi ARC
Soft Skull Press
Brooklyn, New York
Available HERE
Review by Al Kratz

All This Life by Joshua Mohr kicks off with a typical setting of an angry teenager and his middle-aged-crisis-fighting father stuck in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. By the end of the first chapter, and the end of the lives of a group of bridge jumpers, it’s clear all of this life isn’t going to be typical—it’s going to be complex and heartbreaking.

The 14-year-old boy, Jake, video records a band of musicians walking on the bridge because it’s the only thing for him to do in the bumper-to-bumper malaise. His father, Paul, spaces off to fantasy football daydreams. The mundane ends when, one by one, the band members jump off the bridge. Jake records it all and begins a series of events that will throw a wide set of characters into an unforgettable journey and an inevitable, but well-crafted, convergence.

We also meet Sara and Rodney from a small Nevada desert town. Rodney, a.k.a. Balloon Boy, was a teen who ended up in a stunt ride in a weather balloon that spit him out fifty feet in the air and left him forever a slow speaker with fast and valid thoughts stuck inside his lucky-to-be-alive head. Sara had been his girlfriend at the time of the accident. She later becomes the victim of a different boyfriend sending her sex tape viral, which leads to Sara and Rodney making an escape road trip to look for Rodney’s mother, Kat, who had turned to alcohol after her son’s accident and had run away from him to live in San Francisco.

This may seem like a long list of characters, and I’m not done summarizing them yet. It was the type of book where I wrote down the names and backgrounds of the characters as I went on so I could keep them straight. They are so developed that, by the climax, putting them down feels like watching a large cast of a play come out for curtain call. They seem like friends at that point, to be appreciated and missed after the exit.

There also is a character simply referred to as Noah911. The central themes of the book revolve around us losing our personal identities to our social-media-online-selves. Noah911 is the older brother of one of the bridge jumpers. He’s dealing with the guilt of not knowing what she was headed for. He’s dealing with the pain of seeing Jake’s video of the jump go viral.

Jake’s mom, Kat, is a recovering alcoholic who spends some time with her sponsor and only friend, Deb, a bold tattoo artist. The final main character is Kat’s Craigslist roommate, Wes. Wes is an eccentric scientist of sorts, with unique theories in existential math and a longing to bring back the spirit of Albert Einstein to save the world from its path of disillusionment and unhappiness.

Mohr takes a couple of risks with this cast of characters but manages to get them to work. First, with so many concurrent stories going on, and switching between several characters’ points of view, he risks that the reader won’t like the jumping. The reader may not like some of the characters or their stories as much as others. Yet, the chapters were fairly short, and the plot was in constant movement, so getting back to that favorite character wasn’t ever a long wait. Each time I thought the multiple branches were going to be a problem for me, the sub-story took the right twist to keep it as compelling as the others.

A second risk was that, to explore the themes of the new disillusionment, Mohr had to spend a lot of time inside the characters’ heads. This included nice moments where his characters were escaping their conflicts, like the flashback of Rodney’s escape in the balloon, appreciating the view before the accident:

This must have been what it was like when they realized the earth was round, not flat—to understand that there were no edges to fall from, no end of the world. It would spin and spin forever, and they were all so lucky to be here. Rodney for the first time felt a great appetite to experience life outside of Traurig... All he craved was flight.
(Loc 1484)

A similar moment occurred for Sara when her brother is helping her deal with the news that her sex tape had exploded on the Internet. He’s helping her use her imagination to escape, pretending the broken down pool they are in is still thriving:

Sara can’t get in the pool fast enough, tearing toward it and leaping in. There are a couple inches or so of dust and sand at the bottom. The walls are cracked and puckered. But right now Sara doesn’t see any of that. All she sees is the water and her brother and her parents sitting in chairs on the side, watching them swim.
(Loc 1432)

Sometimes these inner conflicts are explored through beautiful images.

The funeral was a fist. It had tear ducts. The funeral was held in a lung, clammy and loud with mourners plucking clumsy ballads on heartstrings and razor wire. Grief felt tight to the body, like a wetsuit, squeezing Noah911’s anatomy into a tangle of pall and regret.
(Loc 3387)

There were moments when this wasn’t as strong as the external scenes, wasn’t done with imagery, but with the explicit thought that felt more like being in the author’s head than in the character’s. This was particularly true in the Jake and Paul plot line. Sometimes Paul’s thoughts seemed to be more an exposition on the Internet themes than the natural outcome of the problem.

It’s like everything is dammed up behind a wall of worry. Fear, concern for his son. For his whole generation, really. Their crass way of publicizing everything.
(Loc 2023)

Other times, these thoughts were good at capturing the midlife-crisis anxiety:

It all makes Paul feel so old. So irrelevant. He’s sexually irrelevant and emotionally irrelevant and socially irrelevant, and if he keeps pretending that certain advancements in the workplace don’t exist he’ll soon be occupationally irrelevant, and in a few years Jake will go off to college and his wife’s already gone, so Paul will be left familially irrelevant, and that will be the end result of his life.
(Loc 2038)

Mohr paints a vivid picture of the Internet age. How the connected world is more unconnected than ever. How our brains have become tricked-up by over-stimuli. How organic and ridiculous viral events are. My favorite part of his characters’ struggles, though, is how many of these conflicts were as valid in 1950 as they are in 2015. Maybe Sara’s sex tape couldn’t have existed in that era, but sex shaming is certainly not a new social phenomenon. The challenge of happiness and connection isn’t the new problem it sometimes feels like—it’s the same old human problem we’ve always had. That is simultaneously reassuring and scary as hell, and prevalent in Mohr’s book.

One of the sadder story lines was Noah911’s dealing with his self-applied guilt over his sister’s death. He responds by disconnecting. It’s not the viral video of his sister’s suicide that disconnects him. It’s his personal psychological retreat. It reminded me of Into the Wild and the Christopher McCandless story. Every time McCandless had a family, either actual relatives or “his” people he encountered on the road, he pushed them away. It’s not the outside world that does that. It’s the individual. It was Noah911.

My favorite part of the read was feeling the book gain momentum about three-quarters of the way through. By the time the characters were fully established, well on their various journeys, a surprising thing happened: the book moved from a fun cerebral dive into a riveting and urgent suspense story. The result was a pleasing and deserved end, an enjoyable but heartbreaking read, and a memorable story.

Al Kratz is our Fiction Reviewer for The Volt. He is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa, an Assistant Fiction Editor at Pithead Chapel, and is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He has had work featured in Red Savina Review, Wyvern Lit, Flash Flood, Daily Palette, Apeiron Review, Ardor Flash Fiction, 1000words, Gravel, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere, and he is the winner of the 2013 British Fantasy Society Flash Fiction Competition.

• This book was submitted to Alternating Current by the author. The reviewer does not know the author or the publisher and received the book from Alternating Current at random. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

No comments: