"Oh, modern life is so mundane" is the thought that introduces Herbert--one of the characters of 23-year-old Travis Jeppesen's debut novel, Victims--to the reader. Modern life is anything but mundane in its pages. The ordinary is spring-loaded with raw emotions and turned over and over by a restless mind, leapfrogging back and forth in time, moving between Herbert and his mother, Tanya.
We meet her as a glue-sniffing repeat eighth-grader who is soon pregnant and running away from home to join a cult, based loosely on Heaven's Gate, called the Overcomers. These chapters are juxtaposed with Herbert years later, living with Tanya at the cult's compound, where he follows in his mother's offhanded rebelliousness by eventually fleeing to a farm where he befriends two motherless men, Ruphis and Howard, the latter of whom is working on a book called Victimology and basing it on Herbert. Their overlapping voices and divergent perspectives give the novel the multiple narrators of Joyce or Faulkner. But any attempts to trace the tributaries of Jeppesen's influences fall away after a dozen pages because his voice is a fiercely independent and fresh one that casts a spell on the reader.
Victims kicks off Akashic Books' Little House on the Bowery series, edited by renowned writer Dennis Cooper, who says it will showcase challenging writers ignored by the mainstream. "I'm drawn to stories that excite me," he says by phone from Los Angeles. It's what drew him to Jeppesen's writing. "I first met him four years ago. He handed me some writing at a reading I gave and I have watched him evolve so much. It's so amazing for such a young writer."
Cooper has given many young writers advice and has promoted their work, most notably JT LeRoy, and he is a voracious reader. Cooper cut his teeth on the contemporary fiction of the late '60s when New Directions and Grove Press were names that guaranteed bold literature. "Everything has gotten more conservative and publishing has followed that," Cooper says of the current state of fiction, where commercial viability and marketing strategies play as big a role in a book's publication as the writing itself.
In his mission statement for the Little House on the Bowery series, Cooper recalls "the innovation and personal vision of contemporary literature" he was introduced to and how that "shaped the expectations of his generation of writers and readers." With Little House on the Bowery, he seems bent on shaping expectations again with young contemporary voices speaking in the deviated tongues found in fugitive journals like Between C&D, published in the East Village in the 1980s, and Cooper's Little Caesar, which was published in the late '70s and early '80s and helped bring authors such as Lynne Tillman, Catherine Texier, and Kathy Acker to readers' attention.
The Little House on the Bowery series will feature two titles a year. The next book, Headless, by Benjamin Weissman, will be published in February 2004. Cooper describes it as "wild and hilarious."
Because of the success of his own transgressive books, Cooper has often been looked to by young writers who see his success as proof that there is a place for their own idiosyncratic stories in the increasingly standardized literary industry. "I'm an anomaly, though," Cooper admits. His frustrated attempts to bring Jeppesen's book to the attention of publishers and literary agents (including his own) provided the impetus for his agreeing to helm the series for maverick small press Akashic.
Victims is a slim book with a lot on its mind. "It's a novel of ideas in the strictest sense of the term, which maybe reveals some deep-seated commitment to modernism, which might mean I'm old-fashioned, although there's a good chance that modernism actually never died, but just evolved," Jeppesen says via e-mail from Eastern Europe, where he is currently traveling. "I wanted to get rid of all the meaningless signs, the excessive garbage that constitutes the bulk of our daily lives, to see what lies underneath all that. This is why, although there's a plot, in a sense nothing happens in this book. And that's one of the things I wanted to explore: what happens when nothing's happening." Modern but not mundane.