Lavinia Ludlow. Casperian Books, $13.60 paperback (188p) ISBN: 9781934081518
There’s a great moment in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons (or The Possessed or The Devils depending on which translation you’ve read) where a group of pseudo-intellectuals and revolutionaries gather to discuss their political activities. The meeting quickly turns into a great comedic set piece (and one of Dostoevsky’s funniest moments), where rather than reaffirming their commitment to the cause, the members of the secret society proceed to bicker over who are the true revolutionaries. In modern language it would read something like, “Yes, yes, we are all nihilists, except for Comrade Petrovich who is not a true nihilist!” Unless someone can cite an earlier case, it seems to be the first modern portrayal of what is common practice in all underground movements: calling out the posers. Campus socialism, black metal, punk rock, evangelical Christianity, and so on and so forth. There’s always some guy who wants to insist he is the purest form of the ideal and can only make the gathered group believe so by hacking another member off at the knees. Often, the hacker is the guy who is overcompensating for some lack of authenticity in their back history.
In Lavinia Ludlow’s Single Stroke Seven, it’s personified by Duncan, a stand-in for all those trust-fund kids playing at being dirty punks. He leads the band at the center of the story and proceeds to adversely impact his fellow bandmates at every turn. If someone doesn’t want to go along with his schemes, they are quickly denounced as being less than true to the cause. No one suffers worse than Lilith, the drummer and only female member of the band, who is perhaps the one person that holds everything together in the first place.
It’s hard to read Single Stroke Seven and not think of it as a sequel to Ludlow’s first novel, alt.punk. The former has Lilith, an emaciated, down-and-out punk rocker struggling to get by on a meager paycheck from a bottling factory, starving on a limited diet of Worcestershire sauce and coffee creamer, whose devotion to the trust-fund train-wreck that is Duncan endlessly leads to scenarios of humiliation and degradation. The latter has Hazel, an emaciated and neurotic germaphobe struggling to get by on a meager paycheck from Safeway, starving herself on a diet of chocolate and potato chips, whose infatuation with the slobbering train-wreck of a punk-rock singer endlessly leads to scenarios of humiliation and degradation. The similarities are obvious, but Ludlow invests a lot of her own experiences in her characters. And she knows that scab patch of Northern California, where tech profits do nothing more than put a false façade over strip malls and run-down towns that seem like an endless series of left-turns to nowhere. There’s a wealth of material to be mined, so Single Stroke Seven never feels like a retread of the alt.punk.
When the novel opens, we join Lilith mid-disaster, having just severed a co-worker’s second and third most important body parts. It’s not spoiling anything that he earned it and that in many ways, this first incident sums up Lilith’s entire experience throughout the book. She will be pushed, shoved, taken advantage of, let down, undermined, and attacked in so many different ways, that it's only when she’s pushed to the point of desperation that she takes drastic measures. She’s devoted, to a fault, and while you root for her to get her shit together and bolt the entire scene, you understand her dedication. A viper of a mother, who used her as a psychological test rat before practically disowning her, didn’t leave Lilith with much of a family. Her band, the horribly named Dissonanz, has become a replacement family. That includes Duncan, who takes unnecessary risks because he has the safety net the other band members do not. With her endless devotion to Duncan, Lilith is the lesser-half of a dysfunctional non-couple. But the twist that Ludlow throws in is that for all his self-centeredness, Duncan needs an audience. Even if Dissonanz hasn’t played a gig in years. Without Lilith, he’s stuck with mirror images of himself such as Lyz, the lead-singer of the all-girl outfit Joan’s Town (now that is a stellar band name).
The writing has a sharp, dry sense of humor, and it shines best when portraying the dynamics of the band. Lilith is dragged through shit, piss, blood, and vomit—literally—but along the way she starts to realize that for all the revolutionary, true-punk-rock bluster, she would rather play with a band that actually has their shit together. She craves the professionalism of a road-tested band, something that runs counter to the punk rock ethos. But it's a struggle all punk bands faced: what happens when you actually start to become good at your craft? Do you sabotage yourself to stay true to an ideal or risk becoming more polished because that is where the art is taking you?
In the end, it's a funny read that moves quickly, but reveals its layers the deeper you go into the story. Bring your own tarp to protect against the bodily fluids… (March 2016)
Purchase Single Stroke Seven HERE.