John Elizabeth Stintzi
Arsenal Pulp Press (CA/ commonwealth), Two Dollar Radio (USA) March 2022
Confronting complex issues head-on is difficult. We often ignore growing problems because facing them can be painful. In John Elizabeth Stintzi’s My Volcano, even a giant volcano penetrating the heart of one of the largest cities in the world isn’t enough to change human nature.
My Volcano begins dormant in 2016, with the peak of a volcano rising slowly from the reservoir in New York City’s Central Park. Like many growing issues in modern society, everyone notices and watches the problem get bigger, but as the days go by, people lose interest, adjusting their lives to the city’s changing landscape. As the volcano grows, so do the novel’s strange cast and dizzying narratives.
Storylines change from chapter to chapter, moving across the world and through time. The stories follow dozens of people’s lives, each more bizarre and unhinged than the last. From a sheep herder’s growing network of living “green” pilgrimaging across Mongolia to a woman trapped inside the body of a giant insect, My Volcano braids together a surrealistic vision of odd happenings while maintaining an enthralling narrative balancing act through hundreds of chapters.
My Volcano spans 347 pages and over 230 chapters, and Stintzi is not shy about throwing traditional structure and narrative away in exchange for a mosaic of stories from all corners of their mind.
In the first 20 pages, we meet the initial four characters that populate the long list of storylines. Stintzi sets a nonstop, jump-rope pace, never following one story longer than a few pages. Jahan, a homeless man living near the looming volcano, comes to possess a stunning and mysterious opal that leads him on a journey to choose what his future holds. Angel, an eight-year-old boy, travels back in time while working with his father in Mexico. Dzhambul, a nomadic Mongolian cattle herder, is stung by the polished purple stinger of a bee while tending to his herd. And Dr. Duncan Olayinka awakens in his apartment in Toshima with hundreds of people watching his every move through the lens of his webcam.
The second novel from the non-binary and trans author, My Volcano, stands out as an exceptional piece of modern fiction pulling surrealistic inspirations from Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut. Stintzi uses strong visual writing techniques and a jarring narrative pace to keep the story moving in every direction all at once.
My Volcano is the follow-up to Stintzi’s debut novel Vanishing Monuments, which made the Amazon Canada First Novel Award shortlist. Vanishing Monuments is the story of a non-binary teacher who returns home to their estranged mother whose dementia has worsened. Like My Volcano, Vanishing Monuments deals with confrontation and the idea that difficult moments are unavoidable. Eventually, all the volcanos growing in our lives will erupt.
While the stories inside My Volcano progress, Stintzi delicately weaves themes of existence and visibility into the novel. Stintzi encourages the reader to reflect on what it is to be seen and belong. Readers are likely to notice similarities between the author and their character the “white trans author” living in New York City, writing their sci-fi epic: “Eventually, sitting down to write the novel felt like sitting down to watch the end of the world. As if they were simply waiting to watch the planet spill its fetid, destructive insides out.”
My Volcano uses grand, sometimes otherworldly concepts to reflect on the basics of human nature, including section breaks grounding the otherwise fantastical novel with the names of real marginalized people who have been killed. Stintzi draws attention to the metaphorical volcano that grows larger every day as oppressed people continue to be murdered and how the world refuses to acknowledge the growing issue.
The surreal storylines of My Volcano will surprise readers, and the constant narrative switch-ups might confuse, but the scope doesn’t care about what is acceptable or expected. It transcends into a new and original event that leaves readers with the feeling that they’re treading water, trying to comprehend what is happening. My Volcano is an open challenge for linear readers to try to follow Stinzi’s masterful blend of surreal fiction, social commentary, and original writing style.
It is best read over a short period of time with a ledger of character names and timelines at the ready. It can be difficult at times, but if you see it through, you will be rewarded with an honest and visceral look into the core of a volcano.