Neutral Evil ))) by Lee Klein

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You know how some books just sell themselves? They have that comfy kind of mass appeal –  a little light and shade, a little wholesome, a character for everyone? Well, how does a work of autofiction with a semi stream-of-consciousness narrative about a doom-drone band, the specifications of guitar amps, edibles, the echo chamber and ways to escape a terrorist attack sound? Yeah. Thought so.

In so many ways, Lee Klein’s novella, narrated by a bearded middle-aged man with a kid, a deep love of experimental metal music and a 140-character president, wasn’t meant for me, a childless twenty-something Englishwoman who, like, went to see Foo Fighters this one time. But a very real marker of its success is – and I mean this sincerely – that the whole experience could, should have been utterly unendurable, but wasn’t even close. In fact, it was quite brilliant.

Neutral Evil ))) is a pithy, nerdy ‘day in the life’ novella which, in little over 100 pages, covers everything from wasted talent to world politics, Proust to public flatulence. It’s set on March 18, 2017, two months after Trump’s inauguration, at a Sunn O))) gig in a converted Spaghetti Warehouse somewhere in Philadelphia. In attendance is our narrator, alone, who has the night off daddy duties before his wife goes away on business and leaves Kali, their kid, in his care. He is worried about Trump and how to get home; he enjoys a pot cookie and types notes on his phone.

Klein’s prose is loose and effortless, a clever, comical game of mental associations combined with incisive social commentary. He likes lists, lots of them, building noun upon noun, adjective upon adjective in a way that is obsessive and relentless; his own words apparently spiralling as he anxiously tries to regain control. Actually, Klein sums up his style better than I can, when, early on, his narrator bemoans (with a hint of pride): “I’m too sincere and sensitive for social media, needing hundreds of thousands of characters to get my point across, to build it up, state it, repeat it, undermine it, evolve it, and associate it with what comes next, following instinct and intuition as it unfurls…”

Yes. This is writing that unfurls itself, like the sails of a ship or, indeed, the trio of closed parentheses in the title, the pleated “)))” spilling out, slotting together. But in reality, they serve a far more important, concrete purpose than that: the closed brackets are a tribute to the band Sunn O))), itself named in tribute to the guitar amp brand, and also a reference to a sign used by anti-Semites to identify Jews on Twitter (then re-appropriated by Jews in defiance against neo-Nazism).

Here, politics and music merge – quite literally – symbolically, forming a central theme in this novella, which is at its heart an homage to the power of sound. At points, the gig itself takes on an overtly topical, ideological dimension. Haunted by the spectre of the Bataclan attack, which took place at an Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris, the narrator spends much time imagining what he would do if confronted by gunmen; at the end of the gig, he says he won’t “raise my fist because I don’t want to be affiliated with white blindness,” before measuring sound on the political spectrum: “On the moral continuum the sound assumes a position toward the right, a touch of evil, an alignment or orientation in sync with the great gods of Rock & Roll but also with the blues before it…” At other moments the music, the spectacle, is less a political act than a political mood: the guitarist’s ritual conveys to the narrator “in jagged distorted frequencies, sights and sounds emblematic of the earlier anxiety, the extra charge through my body that I started to notice about two months before the election”. This underscore of dread plays throughout: “There’s a crushing aspect to the music definitely, the sense of something infinitely heavy coming down on our heads,” he says.

Admittedly, some of the music stuff can be hard work: details of guitars and amps are juicy if you like guitars and amps, dry if you don’t. But for the most part, Klein’s geeky enthusiasm for music translates into writing that is lyrical and evocative. About the band Vetiver, he paints a picture of “such comfortable music, like brushed cotton, the hills and fog along the northern California coast, redwood mulch underfoot transformed into sound reminiscent of the ranch-dust Americana essence of The Byrds and The Dead…”; at the gig, notes emit “sparks like barbed-wire prongs, the overall sound like an electric fence surrounding the amalgamated mayhem of history.”

Mayhem, indeed, but also far from it. The mood of the evening, of the novella itself, is not always so sparky and electric, the drone of the guitar apparently mapped onto the drone of our narrator’s domestic life. For reality is prone to pierce the escapism of Klein’s big night out, the reality of a certain kind of male experience, which is seemingly bleak, boring: the amalgamated tedium of life. Of course, he loves his family, but he has become “so isolated lately, immersed in the family unit, the domestic trio of father, mother and daughter, not to mention cats, houseplants, appliances, books, records” – the list goes on – that he has barely any friends left, his friends having all moved away. He has, at least, taken up running, so his mind benefits from bursts of endorphins that make it possible to “clear the dishes and run the dishwasher and tidy up so I’m not crestfallen by food thrown all over the floor…”

Deftly, honestly, Klein seems to capture the spirit of manhood in modern-day America: taking pains to check his privilege (“I’m aware of the privilege to overemphasize/dramatize constrictions on middle-age white married educated professional fatherhood”), he realises, all the same, the legitimacy of his own grievances: multiple characters from his childhood have developed, or died from, drinking problems; his old friend is “essentially an orphan” due to his brother’s “significant and several times nearly tragic opioid-related issues”.

It’s a depressing, but honest, backdrop to what is ultimately an anxious, angry, energetic novella, sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking in its accuracy. When making his case – in typically painstaking detail – for the adverse effects of social media, the “micro responsibilities, small tasks and repetitive movements” it involves, Klein delivers one, rather poignant closing argument: “Everything reduced, when taken together, amounts to too much,” he says. Happily here, in Klein’s preferred media, we do not have that problem: everything enhanced amounts to more than enough.

Neutral Evil ))) is published by Sagging Meniscus Press and is available here.

Lee Klein

Since graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2006, Lee Klein’s stories, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Harper’s, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. He is the author of The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel (Atticus Books) and Thanks + Sorry + Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox (Barrelhouse Books), and translator of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (New Directions), for which he received a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award. He lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and daughter.

Reviewed by Katherine Cowles


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