Over the past three years, the word “unprecedented” has been given a real workout. One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the global coronavirus was characterized as “unprecedented but expected”; as recently as January, the Omicron variant surge was being called unprecedented. Just last month the global economic shock from the pandemic was described using the same word. Throughout his four years in power, Donald Trump’s presidency was repeatedly called unprecedented for its flagrant violations of the liberal democratic rules-based order. The so-called Freedom Convoy that occupied the Canadian capital of Ottawa for three weeks in February was an “unprecedented disruption,” with the city’s then police chief calling the protests “unprecedented” and “intolerable.” Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine was unprecedented and prompted an unprecedented response from NATO allied countries. It’s enough to make someone trying to parse the daily news long for something – anything – precedented.
Readers driven by the yearning for something comfortably familiar in troubling times are advised to give My Volcano, the sophomore novel by Ontario-born, Kansas City–based multidisciplinary artist John Elizabeth Stintzi, a wide berth. More adventurous readers – those who feel that unprecedented times require a commensurate renovation of conventional artistic approaches to address the challenges and contours of our present moment – will find much to engage with in this strange, allegorical, confrontational book about the follies of humanity and the existential dangers posed by climate change.
Of course, very few subjects in our society merit the term unprecedented more urgently than the threat of a rapidly warming planet. But while commentators have not been stingy about throwing around the word to describe the Earth’s current situation, none has gone so far as to imagine the precipitating incident in Stintzi’s novel: a 3,500-foot active volcano that appears without warning or explanation in the middle of New York City’s Central Park. The volcano first manifests in the early hours of June 2, 2016, causing massive earthquakes that result in casualties and a humanitarian refugee crisis as the expanding base swallows up much of Manhattan. It eventually grows to resemble Japan’s storied Mount Fuji, so much so that it becomes colloquially known as Fuji 2.
The Central Park volcano serves as a leitmotif binding together a disparate cast of characters. Jahan is an unhoused New Yorker who witnesses the volcano’s growth; when he is gifted a valuable opal, an elderly Persian pawnbroker leads him to a mysterious Black woman who lives in a tent built on octopus legs that transports them to the summit of the new outcropping. Duncan Olayinka, an academic in Tokyo who specializes in Japanese folklore, awakens to find his girlfriend, Aithne Elgin, has left for America to help study the volcano.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, an eight-year-old named Angel is transported back to the 16th century where he attracts the attention of Moctezuma II and witnesses the downfall of the Aztec empire. A New York advertising executive named Ash (the moniker is a bit too on the nose) discovers he has a double living at his parents’ place in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. A white trans writer – who is only ever identified as “the white trans writer” – abandons a science fiction work about a character on the planet VULCA-9d in favour of a memoir about “growing up in middle-of-nowhere Canada between two brothers.”
And if that weren’t enough, a Mongolian named Dzhambul falls victim to a bizarre bee sting that turns him and his horse, Od, into part of a metastasizing floral network known as “the green,” while a woman in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky finds herself navigating the world from inside the carapace of a giant insect.
If the chime with Kafka feels similarly too on the nose, it is also somewhat misleading. Stintzi’s novel has less in common with the bureaucratic paranoia of Kafka than with the fabulism of Haruki Murakami or Julio Cortázar. Structurally, the novel is broken down into four parts containing 232 short sections that float back and forth in time, space, and point of view. The novel begins on June 2 and ends on August 17, with three different potential versions of how the various stories conclude. At least two of these involve wanton death and destruction as a result of the volcano; in the third, and most hopeful, ending, a kind of continental drift in reverse returns the world’s landmasses to a modern-day Pangea.
All of this sounds like a lot for a single novel, and it is. But one gets the feeling that Stintzi is used to this complaint, and has a rejoinder ready. When the white trans writer decides to combine the stories of VULCA-9d and their own personal history into one manuscript, their thesis adviser responds by suggesting there is “too much going on” in the narrative. She tells the white trans writer that the science fiction is “the more interesting, fully lived story,” while the more quotidian coming-of-age tale – that is, the writer’s own childhood experience – “complicated the project.” The white trans writer takes this criticism as a virtually existential rebuke before heading out into the streets where they encounter the Central Park volcano, which provides a kind of solace: “It soothed them, soothed the despair at knowing there was no end to their struggles, there was no shape the jagged truths of their life could find to create some usable meaning.”
The overlapping phantasmagoria in Stintzi’s novel is a means of reckoning with the idea that nothing in the muddiness of the known world might be sufficient to counter the struggles individuals face or the complicated impulse to create some usable meaning out of an essentially absurd universe. Stintzi allegorizes these struggles, counterpointing what appears to be the essential benevolence of the green with a marauding, headless stone golem that flattens whole cities. These competing forces serve as dual potentialities in our current struggle to recognize the toll rampant climate change might have on the globe. The most potent single symbol of this folly is of course the volcano at the novel’s centre – the concrete manifestation of all our unchecked faults and gluttonous desires.
Equally profound in the novel is a collision between fluidity and rigidity, culminating in the notion that received wisdom disallows people from understanding the imminence of peril even when it takes such an obviously menacing form as a volcano growing in the middle of Central Park. When an alien violet light touches down in Antarctica, eventually splitting off into the colours of the rainbow (flag), we are told that the sentience fans out across the surface of the planet, “scanning for signs of life … worth emulating.” The invocation of queerness here is also a plea for connection between and among different modes of living that are currently thrown into violent conflict by ideologies unable to accept the essential interconnectedness of everything on Earth. This motif is extended in the character of Mykayla, who possesses a ceramic lemon that gives her the ability to enter other people’s consciousnesses in her dreams. (There are future theses to be written on the collision of organic and manufactured elements in the narrative.)
For the white trans writer, salvation appears, coutnerintuitively, in the form of the volcano that is a source of unease and danger for others. The writer, who feels equally rejected by their thesis adviser and elements of their own queer community, finds unexpected comfort in the uniqueness and strangeness of the Central Park volcano, which they come to adopt as “their volcano.” If the white trans writer is correct in assuming no end to their struggles in the world as it is constituted, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a purgative eruption that might reset things more equitably.
The notion of finding whatever consolation possible in an inimical world is profound throughout My Volcano, as is the idea of mutability. Numerous characters undergo physical or temporal changes that expand the horizons of their worldview to encompass far greater empathy and understanding than would have been possible prior to their respective metamorphoses.
Stintzi employs aspects of surrealism – including a house that walks on lizard’s legs and feline limbs that spontaneously sprout from the white trans writer’s body – to counterpoint the banal violence embedded in interstitial references to acts of anti-Black and anti-queer violence that took place during the period in which the novel is set. By exaggerating the fantastical elements in the novel, Stintzi forces us into a confrontation with the cavalier depredations that we have inflicted on the planet and on each other. The trio of potential endings offers the slim possibility that, in the face of volcanic odds, we may still have a chance to turn things around before it is too late.