D. FOY’S debut novel Made to Break opens as five Bay Area friends (three men and two women) speed toward a cabin near Lake Tahoe on the day before New Year’s Eve, 1996. On their way up the snowy two-lane road, through a “strobic land of bugaboos dreamed and real,” they spin out in a mudslide, encountering for the first time the massive storm that’ll dog them all through the coming night.
Like Jeff Jackson’s fantastic Mira Corpora from last fall, Made to Break is published by Two Dollar Radio, an Ohio-based small press that puts out striking, deckle-edged paperbacks with extra thick pages and vividly dark writing. Both novels develop their own idiosyncratic lore and symbolism, finding terror and pathos in stories of men grasping in the dark for a handle on their lives.
Trapped in the cabin while one of their number dies from injuries sustained in the car accident, space closes in around narrator AJ and his three remaining friends who are, as he says, “the only people I’d ever truly known and who for that reason were strangers.” Unable to do much but wait for morning, they begin to retrace the steps that brought them here, back along a “trail of liquor-store bumblings and sunrise guilt.” These people have made a habit of hiding from themselves and one another, but tonight the storm offers no alternative to facing the debts they’ve racked up on their way toward middle age.
For his part, AJ tunnels into himself, searching for a key to release him from his dread. “If in that moment a single word could’ve peeled away all the pretense and falsity behind which our lives had till then squirmed,” he declares, “I would’ve said that word, and said that word, and said that word again.” There is no such word, as he well knows, but all the words of the novel strain in concert to peel away as much pretense as possible.
More than the revelation of any particular truth behind this pretense, however, Foy is interested in the language and mood of nights like this, when accumulated guilt and despair boil over into a kind of total spiritual reckoning. This process of inward descent takes AJ beneath the story of his life, all the way down to confront the alien and indescribable self he actually is, and has always been.
Made to Break turns strange and freewheeling as the night goes on, forsaking plot in favor of something much more cerebral and immediate. Rather than dramatize the angst of a character trying to process and straighten out a tangled past, Foy draws us into that tangle in its own right.
Like Jeff Jackson’s narrator (named Jeff Jackson), Foy’s AJ think-speaks in a memoiristic first person, sounding very much like the author of the book rather than a character playing a scripted part. Whether or not his story and perspective actually resemble Foy’s, his voice feels conspiratorial, sharing a direct and private wavelength with the reader.
As the storm becomes a raging Flood and the old year prepares to give way to the new, AJ sweats through his dark night of the soul, stoned, drunk, and increasingly paranoid. Though he believes there’s a chance he’ll die before morning — “Maybe this is it … where I’ll see the face no one but the dead have ever seen” — he comes ever more alive the deeper in he goes. Looping and repeating with the urgency of prayer, scenes from his past (the death of his father, sexual mishaps in the San Francisco night, etc.) keep cropping up, but they bleed together instead of developing individually. This creates a charged atmosphere that’s somehow both manic and stately, as his soul writhes in the terror of the moment while also bearing witness to the slower, sadder facts of a lifetime.
Part of any such reckoning is a reckoning with the language you use to tell yourself who you are. Made to Break works its English over, coining fresh and sometimes unapologetically awkward phrases to milk out something strange and animate.
Foy’s descriptions of the actual past, as AJ reminisces on his formative days, tend toward gutter-punk grit: “I was sixteen years old…a gawky, graceless runt, for sure, in size five-and-a-half waffle stompers and a Gore-Tex parka stuffed with paraphernalia and drugs, and long, greasy hair, and zits the size of gumballs.” But when AJ’s reckoning veers away from memory and into fantasy and delirium, Foy’s language turns wet and numinous. He gives up describing concrete things, aspiring to evoke the pure frenzy of thought: “The spirit of the underground man had crept into my head, through the porch of my sleeping ear,” AJ thinks, while proposing a toast to one of the friends who’s just taken a corporate job, trading her wayward youth for some deeper adult malignancy. Then he collapses into “an apparent fit of speaking in tongues.” Elsewhere, Foy describes a creepy local man as having been “seized by some grotesque rash of meaning, a thing with talons and fangs, whose sole purpose was to hurl us through the void.”
The conflation of Foy the author and AJ the narrator works here because the writing, even at its most feverish, is clearly the product of many years of refinement, just as AJ’s thoughts feel like they’re hatching in real-time after years of incubation in his inner dark. In this way, Foy shows the sudden eruption of alien language that extreme inwardness unleashes: AJ beholds Dinky on his deathbed and thinks, “A person could’ve slapped his face with a skunk or crammed his ass full of melon, he wouldn’t have squawked a peep.” This line is pure Foy; it feels like a spurt of language that even AJ couldn’t have accessed until the instant in which he does, in a state where he can no longer distinguish between external stimulus and internal chaos.
Perhaps all trapped-in-a-cabin horror stories are dramatizations of psychologically trapped people unpacking their own baggage, but Foy makes this theme explicit rather than burying it under a surface story of actual violence. Horror hangs over the reckoning, as Foy plays up all the tropes of isolation and strange sounds in the night: the friends peer “out the windows, looking for shapes, a car, a ghost, whatever,” certain that “something was out there, in the wallows beneath the deck,” about to materialize murderously from the night’s “uncanny sense of possibilities imminent.” Despite all that, what this incestuous group really has to fear has come with them from the coast. Indeed, Foy ratchets up the internal pressure to the point where the arrival of a knife-wielding madman would be a relief.
And, as in many psychedelic experiences, the horror of staring down the singularity of death and terminal insanity clashes with teeming grotesquerie, a mental freak world that’s too alive, overfull with visions of “bearded women … barkers and trolls … geeks and elves and clowns,” backed by “circus-music … the mongoloid glee of pots and pans, and marimbas, and accordions, and guitars that wouldn’t tune …” These figments serve as a chorus behind and beneath the reckoning, spurring it on.
A less ambitious novel might have built toward the revelation of a particular traumatic memory or misdeed on some character’s part, clearing the air by bringing it to light. But Foy knows that real reckonings don’t work this way. It’s not scary to be or have done one thing or another; it’s scary just to be — because, short of suicide, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Though these five friends are separated by death and joined by marriage before the last page, their bonds remain nebulous, equally impossible to dissolve and to clarify. Companionship is crucial, but it does nothing to bolster the self against a reckoning like this one. You can forestall it for years by drinking and talking and sleeping around but, when it gets a chance, it finds you and only you, and the only language you can use to mediate it is one you cannot share and didn’t know you possessed.