Mixtape for the Apocalypse by Jemiah Jefferson
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Judging by the synopsis I didn’t expect Jemiah Jefferson’s Mixtape for the Apocalypse to be an ordinary horror novel. After reading it I’m not sure if it even qualifies as horror at all. To be sure Jefferson is a horror author with her Voices of Blood series, but this work rests somewhere outside relatively limited genre boundaries.
Mixtape is, I’d say, about 20% a Catcher in the Rye journey into misanthropy and 80% lucid stress nightmare. It concerns Squire, an average Oregonian dude in his twenties, looking back on a complete mental breakdown he recently suffered which lost him just about everything—two jobs, future prospects in his career, his girlfriend, his friends, his home. The novel streams through various events in his life, going back and forth between observations he makes post-breakdown and the journal he wrote during it.
Squire’s life during the slow process of breakdown is defined by the many, many ways in which he is unsatisfied. He hates his tech support gig even though it’s his main source of income, hates how underappreciated he is at the small comics publisher he draws for, hates (albeit justifiably) his increasingly antagonistic roommates, hates how his ex looms over his love life (or lack thereof). Now, all this is bad for anything to go through, but Squire isn’t devoid of blame. In fact he’s got a lot of internal problems going against him. He’s not particularly likable from the start. Self-centered, paranoid, lazy, the dude spends most of the novel lounging around, brooding, smoking pot, getting drunk, making people who care about him suffer, being creepy and self-defeating by looking at lewd photos of his 15-year-old penpal at work and risking his jobs by not even pretending to give a shit about them. While much in his life is out of his control, all this helps the reader to recognize that he is complicit within his downward spiral. As a result we readers walk a fine line between loathing and sympathy for the character.
I think that’s the main “theme” of Mixtape—the limits of sympathy. Jefferson’s centering of a white, straight, cisgender protagonist in itself causes the reader to stretch their patience with him. But more than that, it’s about where we draw the line with self-destructive people. Whether or not those self-destructive inclinations are made by choice. This in mind, many characters do or do not choose to work with Squire best they can. Try as we might to appreciate the debilitated mental health angle of Squire’s behavior, it doesn’t excuse his unsavoriness. Even though his mental state clearly spirals out of his control, leading to blackouts and then outlandish, volatile actions, something about the way Squire moved into that state keeps us from being too squared within his corner. Squire, mental illness or not, is still self-centered, still has a victim complex. I certainly struggled with trying to feel for the character while at once being utterly repulsed by him.
At some point halfway through the novel, it takes a much darker turn. It was stressful all the while, but then Squire becomes totally broken. One passage in particular, in which Squire manically scribbles down a series of violent, angry, murderous images concerning his ex-girlfriend and a number of others who’ve wronged him, really got to me. This and other similar sequences turned him from a somewhat mopey, semi-relatable but mostly tiring dude to someone you’d report to the authorities if you could see what was going on in his head (which, with the magic of prose, we as readers pretty much can).
This is where the novel leans toward “horror”, but I still wouldn’t identify it as such. It’s almost even more horrific than anything in the horror genre just because of how realistic and subdued the majority of the novel is. Squire is an exaggerated example of how mentally exhausted and angry one can get, to be sure, but despite his general deporability I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t let life at some point or another get to them like it did him. Squire carries out or visualizes for us the actions dictated by the invasive thoughts and black moods we experience when our outlook is the bleakest. It’s a man-vs-self story, and that’s where the horror lies—no exterior threat, but the aptitude our own minds have for falling apart. And more than that, how we’re responsible for it while and after it’s broken.
- “DAMN IT. I forgot all about the fact that the makers of potato chips are also thwarting my every move […].”
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