Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sam McPheeters's Loom of Ruin tour hits Chicago on Thursday

Posted By on 04.11.12 at 09:38 AM

Sam McPheeters
  • John Michaels
  • Sam McPheeters exhibits an unusual startle response
You might recognize Sam McPheeters's name from his occasional Reader byline—his piece on Articles of Faith is my favorite so far—but it's more likely you've encountered it elsewhere. For nearly two decades he was a musician, zine publisher, and label owner, most famously as cofounder and front man of Born Against. And in fact I first bugged McPheeters about writing for the Reader after seeing an amazing piece of work he'd done for Vice: a profile of former Crucifucks front man Doc Dart, who now calls himself 26, that ran to nearly 8,000 words. Earlier this month Mugger Books published McPheeters's first novel, The Loom of Ruin, and on Thursday he's in town to read from it (at Columbia College) and do some spoken word (at Permanent Records).

I've read The Loom of Ruin twice since asking McPheeters for an advance copy. It's a brisk book—actually I think "pell-mell" might be more apt—with 109 chapters in just 262 pages. The prose is sufficiently direct and unadorned to let those chapters fly by, but it's not so unflashy that it'd be fair to call it utilitarian—practically every time the voice of Satan speaks (more on that in a sec), it's described with a new metaphor. One of my favorites is "like a car engine being dragged across a cold concrete floor."

Driving the story is the impenetrable and imposing figure of Trang Yang, a slightly built, middle-aged Hmong immigrant who owns nine Chevron gas stations in Los Angeles and is "neurologically incapable of any emotion but rage"—the result of a brain injury inflicted by a stray police bullet. (We first encounter him as he matter-of-factly threatens to behead with a machete a man he believes is a corporate spy.) His stations are unaccountably successful, and his bosses' desire to replicate this profitability sets in motion the convoluted series of interlocking events that constitutes the novel's plot.

The cast of characters is dizzyingly large—it reminds me of the huge ensembles in 70s disaster movies, surely not by coincidence—and includes lawyers, cops, FBI agents, a German-American security guard who converts to Islam and hijacks a blimp, a group of struggling rock musicians, two Safeway "fronters," personal shoppers, community activists, President Barack Obama, a former child actor, Chevron employees at all levels, Yang's relatives, and a buffoonish, lovestruck Hungarian man (Nimrod Papp, aka Chad Malta) impersonating a private investigator. As you might imagine, the reader doesn't get to know anyone particularly well, and character development is not among McPheeters's highest priorities.

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What I like best about the book is its absurdity. It's not waka-waka absurdity—it rarely calls attention to itself, and when it does, it does so tactfully. The tone is dark, clipped, and dry, with a cynical bite—the closest thing to a fantastical element is a plot line that to all appearances concerns Satan, who's inadvertently summoned by a harried attorney who runs her microwave empty for two minutes. Most of the craziness on display is decidedly more plausible—a high school honor student driven into a frenzy of despair by a huge RIAA downloading lawsuit, a fraudulent "green" shredding operation run by meth addicts, the CEO of Chevron's phobia of plastic bags, even the existence of McElroyville (a city the size of Baltimore, built 40 miles under the earth's surface "for the preservation of America's political and corporate elite").

This absurdity finds its ultimate expression in Rube Goldberg-style chains of causality, many of which I can't describe without spoiling the ending. Two examples will have to do.

The attorney receives instructions from Satan to infiltrate a Toyota dealership and insert a single comma into the computer code that controls its huge electronic billboard on the highway, transforming its display into a "kaleidoscopic chaos of colors and static" and triggering a behind-the-wheel grand mal seizure in a Gulf War veteran, which in turn sets off a ghastly pileup that briefly reunites four other characters—previously involved in a squabble over an Applebee's gift card—in an explosion of twisted metal and body parts. Several chapters earlier, another enormous traffic accident is caused by one of the aforementioned meth addicts, swerving in an attempt to retrieve that same attorney's discarded iPhone from the roadside—and the wreck liberates from his van a never-to-be-shredded note she'd written mentioning "Broccoli Top," which is not only a nickname for the child actor in the story (later her love interest) but also an alleged FBI code phrase for an atomic detonation. The police pass the note along to the FBI, and the bureau's resulting intervention in Trang's single-minded scheme (about which I must remain silent) is one of many factors that precipitate the novel's catastrophic climax 154 pages later.

The subtext in all this, as I read it, is the failure of agency—none of the characters, with the arguable exception of Trang Yang, actually accomplishes anything by setting out to do so. The reasons that lead to any one outcome instead of another are influenced in so many directions by so many things that it's hubris of the highest order to imagine we can control the process. In the universe of The Loom of Ruin, human society has become a malevolent machine that's not just indifferent to our happiness but actively working to prevent it, as though it had not only become somehow sentient but also discovered that it hated us. I find that the book's title makes a lot more sense read in this light.

McPheeters reads at Columbia at 2:30 PM on Thu 4/12, in the multicultural affairs multipurpose studio on the fourth floor at 618 S. Michigan. His spoken-word performance at Permanent Records (1914 W. Chicago) is at 6 PM, and (at least according to the store's PR) he'll also be signing copies of his novel there.

Both events are free and open to the public, but if you go to the one at Permanent, you probably ought to buy something from the store while you're there.

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