What’s it like to be a loser? The Hollywood/mainstream conception of loserdom—being a drug addict or in a shitty band—doesn’t work at all. Everyone knows drugs are fun despite all the Puritan propaganda, and even crappy musicians in crappy bands get laid more often than the average cubicle drone. A loser is someone who lacks the basic necessities to be accepted in society; money, status, sex. True loserdom by definition is something that’s scarce in fiction because it’s so mundane, and no sane person wants to read a book that will, to some degree, reflect his wretched existence.
I must be insane then, because I loved The Talkative Corpse.
The latest release from NVSQVAM (Nowhere) author Ann Sterzinger, The Talkative Corpse is a paean to the modern American loser. The kind of loser we see every day and have possibly been at some point. The kind of loser no one wants to acknowledge, because his mere existence puts a blowtorch to the lies of mainstream culture. And Sterzinger’s portrait of modern American loserdom is so bitingly funny that it’s a must-read.
The Talkative Corpse actually begins as a frame story, an expansion upon the footnotes used in NVSQVAM (Nowhere). Set in the far future after the collapse of America, the book is the diary of one “John Jaggo,” presented with “translator’s notes” and footnotes much in the same way that we read ancient Greek or Roman texts like the Odyssey:
The author of the John Jaggo manuscript is self-described (although not in quite so few words) as an ordinary member of the educated laboring caste except for his psychological non-standardness. Nonetheless he records his experience in the years 2011-2012 CE as the life of one who could still, despite any enlightenment depicted in this fascinating people’s art and religion, be thoughtlessly cast aside precisely because he was an obscure and economically embarrassed freak—apparently without anyone else’s being ethically bothered. He also seems to have been, at least in his own tacit estimation—since why else would he have bothered to create such a deliberate artifact out of his own story?—a clever-worthy.
John Jaggo is, by any reasonable definition, a loser. Forty years old, he’s employed at an embarrassingly low level for his age: making minimum wage at a pizza joint. His co-workers and boss routinely belittle him and denigrate his masculinity. He has few friends and no social life, spending his nights hammering away at his diary and drinking away his meager paychecks. He has no love life, fantasizing about beating his ex-girlfriend in lengthy digressions that are side-splittingly hilarious:
Her name was Kat. I want to stomp on little Kat’s hauntingly beautiful face. I want to smash her fucking skull in to end all the dismissive thoughts she now has about me that make a mockery of the spontaneous poetry that used to come out of her mouth. I won’t tell you what she said, because I was a shameful fool for believing such rot. Such lying scum rot. I want to shove her pretty nose back into her brain and crush her arm bones slowly and tie her to the railroad tracks, to throw her in the river and heave her in a quarry and strap her to a bomb and fill her drink with cyanide and giggle as the maggots crawl from the exploded dead bags of what once were her creamy perfect breasts.
As you can tell, this is the same territory that NVSQVAM (Nowhere) covered, but The Talkative Corpse is less stridently anti-natalist and morbid than that book. Then again, Lester Reichartsen had more going for him than John Jaggo, so that might be incidental; when you’re a penniless, single, forty-year old “phone girl,” there’s nowhere to go but up. Sterzinger propels the story forward with her violently descriptive prose, making it impossible to put down.
Jaggo stumbles through the first half of the book in a depressive rage; after managing to score a decent job as a graphic designer, he promptly loses it when he gets mugged and thrown in the hospital with broken wrists. Destitute and desperate, he comes home after a night of drinking at the gay bar (what is it with Sterzinger and straight male protagonists who frequent gay bars?) and inadvertently summons a demon—er, I mean manifestation—who makes Jaggo an offer he can’t refuse:
“The usual little-shit request. ‘REVENGE,’ you skronked, just after stumbling through an incantation and just before falling over like a sequoia, dressed just as you are.” He yanked on the sleeve of my dirty white “pirate” shirt. “You also spoketh the name ‘Kat.’ So all I have to do is find this Kat chick and kill her, and then I don’t have to live in this shithole apartment with you anymore or look at your face, with which I am already frankly sick to my already-tricky bowels.” Bertram grimaced; a long dollop of wax drooped from his ear canal to rest on his cheek.
There’s a catch, however: as payment for killing his worst enemy, Bertram will also kill the person Jaggo loves the most. This sets up a gruesome Sword of Damocles scenario for the book’s second half, as Jaggo gets back on his feet, finds a new job, and gets a new girlfriend, all while contending with Bertram threatening to tear his life apart:
I know I’m supposed to be protecting May’s privacy. But, Future, I really need to underline what my girl does for a living to make it clear exactly how much and why I hate Prick: She’s an administrative assistant. You know, the sort of, and I quote, “INCOMPETENT STALLING ASSHOLE!” that I have to listen to Rick screech at all day. And I can’t put on headphones to drown him out. And his volume knob is broken. Basically, he might as well peel back my eyelids à la Clockwork Orange and force me to watch him rape my girl all day. I just want to grab that secretary under the crook of my arm like a princess in a video game and run out of here crying at the top of my lungs. Or worse. Sometimes the violent fantasies make it hard to concentrate. Thank God I’ve got Bertram, I catch myself thinking sometimes. But old Bertie has nothing to do with any sky god, I’m afraid, and I’m pretty sure that in the end he’ll be the one who gets my princess.
And the ending… I won’t spoil it, but it had my jaw hanging, mainly because it’s a happy ending (by Sterzinger’s standards anyway).
The Talkative Corpse succeeds because it’s honest, brutally honest. John Jaggo is, on the surface, a repugnant person; in addition to being a complete failure in life, he’s an impotent crybaby who spends most of his time whining into his journal with the distant hope that someone in the far future will give a crap about him. At the same time, his struggles with his rich-boy boss (who he charmingly nicknames “Prick”), his dalliances with the sad-sack secretary May, and his errand-running for the drunkard Bertram are touching in their hilarity.
John Jaggo is a character that most of us, man or woman, young or old, can relate to. He’s the perfect representative of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain, where personal and professional failures combine with an already antisocial personality to create a monster. if you’ve ever worked a demeaning retail job, you can relate to John Jaggo. If you’ve ever been treated cruelly by a domineering ex-girlfriend, you can relate to John Jaggo.
If you’ve never been one of the beautiful people, you can relate to John Jaggo.
True loserdom isn’t your rich daddy sending you to rehab after one too many speedballs. It’s living paycheck to paycheck due to a rigged, failed economy. It’s being ritualistically humiliated day after day by your boss, who does it for no other reason than because she can. It’s being emasculated and dumped by your girlfriend of six years, then spending the next half-decade without so much as a kiss from another girl.
And true loserdom sure isn’t celebrated by the fucking mainstream media.
If I can criticize The Talkative Corpse for something, it’s that thematically, it’s somewhat of a retread of NVSQVAM (Nowhere). I’m not going to judge Sterzinger particularly harshly for this seeing as this is only her third book (as of this writing I have yet to read Girl Detectives, her debut), but I can see her falling into something of a rut. Again, though, this is just me.
The simple fact is that The Talkative Corpse is one of the best novels of the past year (admittedly not a huge accomplishment) and a great introduction to Sterzinger’s work.
Click here to buy The Talkative Corpse: A Love Letter.
Read Next: NVSQVAM (Nowhere) by Ann Sterzinger