» Book Review
Forthward: Guy Psycho and the Contemporary Epic
Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame by John King
Beating Windward Press, 2019
Paperback, 206 pages, $17
Epic heroes are traditionally paragons of the societies that invent them, extolling the virtues that those societies find most desirable. Guy Psycho, aging rock star and titular hero of John King’s debut novel, Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame, is no exception in that regard. He’s a hero for the postmodern era, and so he’s somewhat different from his classical counterparts: He’s tall and thin, in black lipstick and eye makeup. He wears Wayfarers and wingtips (size 14). He has a surgically implanted voicebox that occasionally goes on the fritz, causing him to blat certain syllables with a tinny, synthesized version of his otherwise golden pipes. And, far from being the sole agent of fulfilling his quest, he gets through most of his adventure due to the unfailing support of his band mates: from the musicians, to the discretely differentiated backup-dancing Postmodernaires, to the band’s new manager and accountant. Their adventure, like their professional lives, is something that they all do together.
The book doesn’t only evoke epic literature stylistically and thematically, but literally. The story itself is a wild romp through the tablets described in The Epic of Gilgamesh, as Guy and the crew are plunged into a dreamlike prehistory in search of the lost thirteenth tablet, which they have to find before an angry Ishtar and the other Sumerian gods destroy the world. King lovingly deconstructs the larger-than-life deeds of the original Gilgamesh and gives us a different, almost surreal reinterpretation—or, really, a reiteration—of them.
Along the way, he relies on several distinct elements of each character that quickly become their own sort of nods to traditional heroic epithets: Guy Psycho of the size-14 wingtips and Gaultier gauze, Lulu of the auburn hair and motorcycle boots, Trudy of the black ringlets and silver-ruffled party dress. This also helps further differentiate the various characters (there are eighteen) in a relatively short amount of time, as all of them are far more complex and interesting than they initially appear—the musicians are more than the instruments they play, and every single one of the Postmodernaires has something more than mere dance steps that informs their voices and characterization.
Despite the book’s clear love for the classics, the rest of its presentation is a playful, joyful rejection of convention, as King enjoins the text itself to participate in the narrative. Pages go black as characters are plunged into darkness, punctuated on the next page by cones of onomatopoeic flashlight. Lines of narration from characters lost in a maze spiral around the page in neat right angles, helping drive home the sense of uncanny disorientation. Far from seeming distracting or gimmicky, this quintessentially postmodern acknowledgement of the text as an ontologically distinct artifact reminds the reader to enjoy not just the book, but the experience of reading the book. King includes small moments of explicit and implicit intertextuality, as well, that drive home the point that the book doesn’t exist in a vacuum; the astute reader is rewarded for Googling the serial number on the otherwise nondescript crate in Mr. Youngerman’s curio collection, for example, or for noting the title of the book one of the guests at the Bull of Heaven’s party is reading (which, with any luck, is the tacit promise of a sequel).
The language, too, at the sentence level, is a melodic free-form jazz of excellent description, fluid and rich in metaphor, that whisks the reader effortlessly along through the book’s two-hundred-or-so pages. For example, during a reminiscence, Lulu, a Postmodernaire with a background in archaeology who helps guide the crew through ancient Mesopotamia, reflects on when she hit rock bottom:
Lulu remembered, in a single flash, a time when her face was mashing her nose down against a tabletop, her sweaty, auburn hair crawling with sticky airs, in some murmuring necropolis of a bar in the underside of Tangiers. . . [H]ere she was, across the globe, a cipher in a ledger that no one would ever read, an empty egg cracking in the back of the fridge.
The visceral detail, the vibrant verbs, the fresh and interesting figurative language—all are typical of King’s prose throughout the novel.
In addition to the quality of the language, the passage above also illustrates one of the things that makes the novel work so well: while it never loses its spirit of fun and adventure, King isn’t afraid to treat his characters seriously, to let the reader in on their doubts and vulnerabilities. The nagging problem with many of the ancient epic heroes is that they were portrayed with precious few real faults, few true weaknesses, save a near-ubiquitous hubris. This worked for the societies who birthed them, who seemed to desire these larger-than-life supermen. Guy Psycho and his coterie, however, are products of the contemporary (or postmodern) age, so a big part of their heroic nature comes from their courage in the face of their own faults and personal tragedies. The result is a story that not only has a harmonic resonance with the ancient adventure tales—in a way, the forebears of the craft of fiction itself—but a story that still has a melody all its own, that doesn’t hesitate to march “Forthward!” in an attempt to excavate a new niche in the bedrock of myth—and turn it into a rock-and-roll stage.