Parts of Heiko Julien’s I Am Ready to Die a Violent Death read like Weird Twitter, parts like something you dreamed you read ten pages deep into the comments on a HuffPo article, and parts like the fragile perspective of the hypersensitive narrators of Veins or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Julien acknowledges this changing perspective in one of the many straightforward reflections that pepper the book: “’I am always starting over,’” he says.
The collection contains mini narratives, affirmations, lists, clip art, emoticons, and poetry, some of which were previously published in n+1 and Thought Catalog. While the sections vary wildly in tone and subject, Julien’s writing is consistently extraordinary. “Stick with me and I’ll show you everything I know about how to make cool jpgs on the computer and also true love,” he says. And I believe him.
I believe him because each sentences feels authentic; it is one of the few books set now that actually feels like now. In Julien’s stories, characters use Gmail and Kickstarter, talk about love through the lens of Photoshop filters, and bemoan the guy who makes you watch a YouTube video with him and then “keeps looking over at me and laughing in my direction even harder during the parts that seem like they’d be the funniest.”
This specificity in terms of technology and time is a bold choice. References like these age fast, and literary fiction writers tend to stay away from stories that take place behind a computer screen. They also denote that an author is young, and young writers are easy to dismiss. After all, this is the age of think pieces denouncing Millennials as self-centered and entitled, eschewing personal connection for digital ones.
Julien, who was born in 1986, faces this critique head on. He drops references to “Disney Feminism,” The Oregon Trail, and Mean Girls. Meanwhile, the strength of his prose validates his characters, as if to say: look, these experiences matter. Midway through the book, he digs further: “My dad wears a hat all the time because he’s bald and his head gets cold. That’s the kind of integrity my generation is sorely lacking.”
The main character in Violent Death is nebulous: some stories connect logically to each other, referencing past events, but others seem to sit in their own universe. “True Story,” one says, “My wife left me for a finely crafted grilled vegetable artisan sandwich.” Later, he says he became the world’s youngest father at age nine. The breaks in consistency are jarring but welcome—they make the reader stop worrying whether or not this confessional first-person narrative is autobiographical. Reality is less important than perception, this says. Pay attention to the details that matter.
In keeping with its name, the book takes on themes of dying and finality, but its most engaging parts are the ones about love and growing up. Julien uses a fresh voice of modern masculinity, articulating his desire to be “less of a Fucker and more of a Lover,” the appeal of the “Buff Bro,” and his preparation for the future by watching “an underground VHS tape I purchased online called Greatest Underground Husband Tantrums 8.” His narrator wants to be a Good Man, and although he isn’t completely sure what that entails, he doesn’t stray into the clichés of the oblivious Nice Guy.
Julien’s depiction of growing up, and the simultaneous artist’s dilemma of the fear of selling out versus the need to make a living, is similarly fresh. In one of the tightest, and longest-titled, chapters (“Heads Up, Dipshit: A Bowl of Cheerios is Just Hard Bread Circles in Milk. That’s Right, I’m Breaking Things Down One By One and Getting Major Results”), he describes his early realization that he was not unique in feeling nostalgic during springtime. Years later, he says, he has given up childlike wonder in exchange for the chance to check out new restaurants with the money he’s earned: “This is my reward. I played by the rules and now I get to eat different kinds of meals outside of my house.” This realization is met without bitterness but with the same humorous/Zen analysis that permeates the rest of the book.
It is this tone that allows the reader to navigate so smoothly through Violent Death even as the voice, structure, and topics change. Julien’s ability to take apart experiences and lovingly pick through the pieces creates a gratifying experience throughout. It’s an unusual collection, reckless and jarring by turns, but even in the strangest sections, Julien never loses the reader’s trust. This panache, combined with his striking prose, creates a satisfying and bold book that reads fresh from start to finish.