blackbirdonline journalFall 2013 Vol. 12 No. 2
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Review | The Listeners, by Leni Zumas
Tin House Books, 2012

spacer The Listeners

Readers who enjoyed Leni Zumas’s collection of short stories, Farewell Navigator (Open City Books, 2008), will recognize her as a talented writer with a gift for vibrant, surprising language. In that collection Zumas channeled a variety of disaffected narrators, among them a child of blind parents, a teenaged resident at a halfway house, and a gargoyle perched atop an apartment building in Brooklyn.

With her new novel, The Listeners, Zumas focuses her sharp, inventive prose (and interest in offbeat characters) on the life of Quinn, an acerbic-witted thirty-something former musician living in Washington, DC, almost making a living from a job at a failing bookstore and barely—just barely—keeping the regrets and ghosts of her past at bay.

Zumas tells her protagonist’s story in a voice entirely Quinn’s own: snow-covered sidewalks are “hard little white seas”; a youngish hipster type is a “calamity-haired baby spark.” Quinn, a vegetarian, describes herself as a “no-flesher,” while another character, Lad, is a “salty rooster [who] had bedded half the young ladies in town.” While one of Zumas’s main concerns as a writer seems to be defamiliarization—that is, describing the familiar in new and unexpected terms—the strangeness of The Listeners is grounded in Quinn’s perspective, in the complexes and hang-ups stemming from the traumas that define her.

Some of this strangeness derives from the fact that Quinn experiences synesthesia—for her, each number, name, and sound has a corresponding color, or even a shape:

The morning bird was rust quivering on a lash. . . . I knew no names, only the colors they made. A cat screaming at night was a fling of red. Cat and bird lived together in the red department. Riley’s name belonged to the blue department; my own belonged to the black. . . . The radio puffed out its tame Sunday smoke—harpsichord, clavier.

Quinn’s synesthesia gives her world color and texture. It also played an important role in her former life as a singer: “It hadn’t just been alcohol I relied on to sing,” she says, “it had been the colors. They’d shown me where to put my voice. I simply had to move it up—or down—to where a certain color was.” Quinn shares her synesthesia with her father, as well as with her late sister—whose accidental death, twenty years in the past, is a defining episode in Quinn’s life, and for this novel.

Quinn’s father, known simply as Fod, explains the colors to his daughters like this: “It came from him, he said, and we would give it to our own children, or else it would skip a generation and our grandchildren would get it.” The elements that unite a family—blood, history, love, fear, anger—lie at the center of Zumas’s novel, and give The Listeners a warmth that Quinn’s voice might otherwise obscure. Quinn and her sisters play macabre, disturbing games, asking each other which bridge they’d rather jump from, or blindfolding their younger brother Riley and leaving him in a closet; yet the sum of Quinn’s recollections of her childhood, the circular, incantatory nature of her associations, is one of complicated tenderness: the three children walking to the library together on bored, lazy days, “squidlings in a row . . . tallest to smallest”; the quiet easy intimacy of the two sisters sharing a bed, on a screened-in sunporch on a too-hot night.

Family constitutes a key concern of Quinn’s, though the reader suspects she might be loath to admit it. Instead we see it in the hazy, intermittent way her memories of childhood impose themselves on her increasingly difficult everyday life: the bookstore closes, leaving Quinn jobless, forcing her to give up her apartment and start sleeping on her younger brother’s couch. Quinn’s ideas about family and intimacy manifest themselves in recollections of her stalled musical career, the years she spent after high school touring with a band:

We were always near each other’s bodies. Bed to bed, couch to floor, front seat to back, sleeping close. We learned each other’s sounds: Mink’s humming, my tooth grinding, Geck’s dream-moans, Cam’s chirrupy snores. Whenever one of us let fly, the smell went straight up the others’ noses.

Being part of a band, for Quinn, signifies a sort of security:

Like having a family better than the one you were born with. I had felt protected in their midst, not because any one of us was especially brave but because together, somehow—if we were together—we would always be okay. Calamity or curse might befall us, but no one would be lost.

The calamities that have befallen both of Quinn’s “families”—her sister’s death in a freak accident involving a stray bullet; the abrupt breakup of the band because of a car wreck under questionable circumstances—are ancient history by the time the novel begins. Through the fragmented snippets of Quinn’s narration, interspersed with old journal entries and fan letters, we get a sense of how the diverse members of these two families are coping with the fallout from sudden tragedy and irreparable loss. Quinn’s parents, for example, refuse to utter their dead daughter’s name. Her former bandmate Geck struggles with addictions, and Quinn herself suffers a variety of psychological issues, not least her inability to grow into anything besides “some mock version of adult.”

These characters inhabit an undeniably broken world. The present of the novel, 2004, is punctuated by mentions of the presidency of George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. Washington, DC, unnamed and barely recognizable here, appears damaged and distraught, as lost as Quinn herself: “The city was a toppled ship, the cathedral its pale prow. Leaden circles broke when they hit the sea floor.” But Zumas’s writing finds beauty amid all this chaos and dysfunction, the strange, lovely music buried in the discordant noise:

From the black of the tunnel I knew it was there above me, my city, tight side streets and soil in squares for trees to come up from and the broad paved spokes running from the circles and the streets after rain with that itchy wet smell, a hard fog rising and gone, and the streets after snow with brown hills crusting and the streets after protests dotted with napkins and bottles and flags.

It’s not that The Listeners covers particularly new thematic terrain. It grapples with the same questions—grief and perseverance, regret and redemption—literature has explored since before the Greeks. To Zumas’s credit, she provides no easy answers. Instead she offers the energy and freshness of her prose, perhaps best evoked in terms Quinn uses to describe what she felt, as a teenager, at the first concert that moved her:

The sounds this band made were torn wings, crusts of glitter hills, valleys of black flame, clouds cut in three by red lightning, bluish brain rising from cankered feet. . . . They were the pilots of the new land, beckoning Over here, over here! and I felt superior to every other kid in the room because I alone (I believed) was having my veins brought to the surface.

Few writers of her generation can duplicate Zumas’s daring with language. Readers interested in exploring this inventive “new land” of fiction owe it to themselves to pick up The Listeners.  end

Leni Zumas is the author of a collection of short stories, Farewell Navigator (Open City Books, 2008), and the novel The Listeners (Tin House Books, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2013 Oregon Book Award. Zumas is an assistant professor of English at Portland State University.

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