Bryan Behrenshausen's public notebook. Updated irregularly.

Review of The Void

(Originally published in Private Suite magazine, issue 6)

The Void is the story you’d get when the kids from “Stranger Things” grow up, start dating, land jobs, and acquire prescription narcotics. Isaiah Laing’s novel tracks nine principal characters (mostly 20-somethings) whose lives crisscross in all-too-convenient ways, each flung from a relatively undifferentiated middle-class existence by the insidious machinations of some imperceptible evil. Unfolding like a VHS supercut of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the book shifts perspectives in two- or three-page beats, whipping readers readers from encounters with the vaguely zombified and sickly tentacled to descriptions of botched hookups and stilted mealtime conversation with blinding speed (Laing positions the work “somewhere between a diary dump and a work of fiction,” and it reads as such). It’s long on premise but short on resolution—though that’s a description of the art that vaporwave fans in particular might expect, even appreciate.

Laing’s world is clearly contemporary (everyone’s got a mobile phone), but the mise-en-scène is oddly late-80s Spielbergian: brown-on-tan suburban landscapes populated with tube TVs and skateboards and record players. Characters spend their time in their parents’ basements, abandoned apartment stores, claustrophobic house parties, fluorescent-flickering laundromats, Japanese-style video arcades, ceramic-tiled pool rooms, glitzy nightclubs, overbright gas stations, dilapidated diners, and even a mansion of “mostly straight lines and rectangular shapes, glossy white walls and massive windows.” Roughly half the book reads in the second-person as a text-based adventure game. The kids have grown up, but apparently they’re content with 30 years of arrested technological and cultural development.

Laing’s prose slipslides unsettlingly between the literal and the metaphorical. Sometimes it’s fascinating. Other times it’s simply frustrating. The book’s eponymous void, however, functions both those ways.

It’s as much a space as anything lacking concrete coordinates can be: a ground that’s “mirror-flat, a strange neon fuchsia” upon which “thin silver lines cross to make large squares on the floor” beneath an atmosphere “of black, speckled with bright white dots,” its only inhabitants “palm trees” and “a strange crackling noise filling the air.” The void is a vaporwave vacuum, the materialization of a sonorial sensibility in which “time [doesn’t] work properly.” It’s actually the kind of place vaporwave die-hards would revel in. But in this void, nothing good ever happens to anyone.

It’s also, however, the most apt descriptor of what sits inside each of the novel’s characters—a personal, emotional vacuity that no one can seem to dislodge. Everyone is missing something (even if by the end of the novel that something is each other). Some lose their minds. Some lose their bodies. Some lose their lives. The novel presents it all so flatly; like the scenes it describes, its affect is muted, distanciated. Characters cry (so much crying), and the text simply says as much. Laing’s occasionally plodding descriptions read like a classic mallsoft anthem: thinned out, shallow, monophonic.

So surprising, then, is the heroes’ ability to vanquish their foe through a kind of emotional heatstroke. In The Void, victorious are those who can cut through the miasma of isolation, loneliness, longing, ennui, and cathode rays to just feel something.

Vaporwave fans will get it.

# April 24, 2019