Book review of Into the Vortex by Brian Eckert.
Alt-lit is like a rock band’s first album. Brimming with raw energy, uninhibited, ready to take on the world. The band’s second record gets professionally produced and is much more polished – critics usually proclaim the second or third album the best – and yet many fans will declare the initial, rough recording their favourite.
Alt novel Into the Vortex is more like a second album, written in effortless, self-assured prose with nary an awkward simile or clumsy wording as we expect when venturing away from Penguin.
I assumed this was not Brian’s first rodeo but was surprised to see that according to his website, this is his maiden book. Either he has precocious talent or a brilliant editor. Perhaps both.
[Edit: the website seems to have been suspended. Alt cred recognized.]
One could not mistake the novel for mainstream literature very long, however. It’s easier to define ‘mainstream’ than alt because the former is so narrow: a connected author of suitable pedigree spouts the correct narrative using characters that tick the necessary boxes. Take one step out of those tight bounds and your work is unpublishable among the big boys. By the time we get to this novel’s first disgusting sex scene, we know why it’s published by Terror House.
Longish quote from a GQ meeting that sets the scene:
[The CEO’s] beady black eyes showed almost no emotion. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then Pearce appeared not to have one . . .
. . . Taylor Dietra sat to Pearce’s left. Falkenberg had the distinct impression that Dietra hated his guts. She took an intense dislike to any man in whom she sensed weakness. Rumor had it she fucked a lot of black guys.
Sarah Belle . . . looked the part of an MFA major, with a bob haircut and geek-chic glasses. Although possessing a good grasp on public tastes, she seemed constitutionally incapable of uttering a sentence that had not been filtered through HR’s corporate compliance manual. Like most professional creatives, too many years of schooling and office work had bled her of the creative spark.
Earlier in his career, Falkenberg believed that you could “break through” with these sorts of high-achieving people to something more authentic, something less polished and robotic. But he’d learned that there was nothing to break through to. Such people you could not even imagine taking a shit.
Absent from the meeting is writer Zayne Moxley, the archetypal sigma male: emotionally isolationist, aloof, wealthy, attractive. He enjoys the finer things in life and resolutely pursues his own path, to hell with everyone else.
A seemingly impossible disappearance during an assignment is the first hint that his idyllic world may not last for long. The second hint is an unexpected spiritual experience. Events compound and Zayne walks away from his seemingly perfect life at the height of his fame, attracting even more public attention in the process.
The pretentious and meaningless world (our world) painted through its characters seems headed for some sort of reckoning as others follow Zayne, giving themselves up to – what? Nihilism? Hedonism? Some sort of budding spirituality? It’s hard to say, but as in the present many young men decide that there’s no path worth following except for languishing in good-humoured despair and waiting for the end. When it comes, it is strangely cathartic.
Like much that is written by outsiders (and unlike anything mainstream), Into the Vortex is open to multiple interpretations, all the way from Christian to Satanic and everything in between. For me, it’s a highly entertaining and timely kick in the guts to the barren, lame culture of our anointed overlords. We see their selfishness, their mediocrity. And then there’s the goat man. The few among them with a shred of self-reflection are revolted.
I would have liked to read details of the protagonist’s back story for character depth and hints about what drives him.
If you’ve ever thought about trying an alt-lit novel, Into the Vortex would be a good place to start. Professionally written, weird but comprehensible, with a plot that engages to the last page.