Lavinia Ludlow's alt.punk: A Review by Sara Thomas

Lavinia Ludlow’s novel alt.punk(Casperian) concerns Hazel, a thirty year old Safeway manager with a cleanliness obsession, writing habit and layabout actor boyfriend. After the latter’s stray pubes eventually get too much for her, she meets the somewhat unstable Otis, lead singer in a band whose exact punk sub-genre remains as hazy as the fog of drugs, alcohol and general excess which follows, as Hazel attempts to free herself from a life she hates.

Told from Hazel’s perspective, the story of the band on tour provides a faint backdrop for her narrative, and the volatile dynamic which exists between her and Otis. She’s possessed of a vampiric fear of sunlight (in case of skin cancer) and has an allergy to garlic – conforming to stereotype after stereotype, but not finding one that fits. Everything in her life is overwrought: there is no love except obsession, no worry except paralysing anxiety, no boredom but numbness, and no rock n roll glamour except stinking tour buses and a suicidal artist who pukes and pisses on himself with a regularity enforced by a touring schedule:

“…it’s become a routine to simply endure his freak-outs, then pull him from the motel bathtub or corner of the tour bus, then put him to bed in his moldy smelling bunk that reeks of toenail fungus and pump him full of Xanax and liquor […] Most nights he’ll pass out at the venue and we’ll have to carry him out while he pukes. Just follow the Hansel and Gretel trail of chunks and we’ll be at the end […] Last night I pulled a silver-dollar-sized dead roach from his tangled locks, although it may have crawled in alive.”

Recognising all of the CDs depicted on the cover art (and having seen most of them live) I want to like this book. The themes are familiar and fitting for the subjectivity that Ludlow depicts. The concern with infection and authenticity and dirt and self-worth; it’s all perfect for the subject matter. The piercing of the backstage bubble is welcome. But it’s a more difficult read than I think it should be: contamination and contagion run through the text like an infestation. I thought that I’d power through it in a couple of sittings at most, but I found as I turned the pages that I wanted to read in shorter bursts; I felt irritated by the constant reminders of Hazel’s obsession with infection (herpes, in particular) and the descriptors are laid on too thick, too frequently. It’s not wholly unlike the way a perfectly good angst-ridden rock song isn’t supposed to explicitly mention self-harm, or parental divorce, or depression. Allusion is fine.

Except that it kind of works. The constant reminders fit the manner in which the OCD or germ-phobia – or however you’d diagnose Hazel’s problem – take over her life. The relentless Clorox bleach sanitisation, the scrubbing and the Listerine, the blisters and the cracked hand, the bubble of anxiety that excludes perspective on the wider world:

“I’m drunk, and I know I’m drunk because I can make out with him and not fixate on the thought of him injecting biohazardous saliva in my throat, or the thousands of herpes germs possibly colonizing in my lip tissue.”

Hazel is in many ways the worried well, the angst-ridden middle class, alienated to the point of being wilfully fucked-up and inhabiting a subject position informed by desired damage. She is possessed, in the main, of an ersatz psychosis – something that’s highlighted in the difference between her and Otis’ attitude toward antidepressant medication. I’ve met this grrl more than once in more than one rock bar – as have I Otis, and his brother Landon: the latter’s fierce working class anger, his assertions as to what constitutes “proper” music, the cruelty of his banter, the desire for the authentic and the assertion of what he is by distancing himself from what he is not. They are not perhaps wholly representative of the scene, but they are most certainly recognisable.

And in that respect, Ludlow gets it spot on.

alt.punk is published by Casperian.

Sara Thomas writes poetry and short stories, and has a PhD in American Popular Metal. Follow her on Twitter @lirazelf