Even in a discography as uninviting as that of Swans, Young God—the band’s 1984 EP—is an especially sharp thorn. Notable for providing the name of Swans leader Michael Gira’s record label and for being among Kurt Cobain’s favorite records, Young God strives for the nastiness of repetitive, minimalist noise—an exercise in ugliness (sample song title: “Raping the Slave”). Swans, no doubt, are among America’s essential avant-garde bands, and Michael Gira has spent a lifetime working to squeeze his nastier impulses into the constructs of, you know, songs (a progression that has culminated with 2012’s The Seer and this year’s To Be Kind). Still, Young God proves an interesting early document, a record that’s unapologetically brutal and narrow-minded, yet completely controlled and, at twenty-four minutes in length, relatively brief.
It makes sense that Katherine Faw Morris would choose the title Young God for her debut novel, a blunt and stylistically aggressive book that sometimes feels like the author took Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia and Mike Harvkey’s In the Course of Human Events and defaced them, slicing them into jagged pieces. Nothing breaks this short novel’s grim tone, and although you’ll probably finish Young God in just a couple hours, it’ll feel like time spent while an intense person stares at you, holding out a Ziploc bag full of maggots, urging you to take it.
Morris’ protagonist is Nikki, a thirteen-year-old girl whose mom, “Mama,” has just died in a failed attempt to dive into a river. Nikki first moves in (and has sex) with Wesley, Mama’s ex-boyfriend(ish), but she soon leaves for the trailer where her father—the wonderfully named Coy Hawkins—lives. Coy Hawkins is an amoral and possibly dangerous man who deals in drugs and prostitution while living with a fifteen-year-old girl named Angel. Of course Nikki gets sucked into her father’s violent, depraved world (not that she didn’t already have one foot there). This plot development feels preordained, and will not surprise anyone. But what might surprise you is how Nikki responds and adapts to her new circumstances. This is not a novel about a victimized young girl, but a coming-of-age story by way of Breaking Bad.
Like the Swans EP, little of Young God has personality or flourish in any conventional sense. The language is direct and uninflected, especially (and most chillingly) in Morris’s descriptions of violence, which often feel factual and detached, like a police report. (“Coy Hawkins gets Nikki by the hair. He scrapes her across the courtyard on her hands and knees. He drags her into the apartment.”) Although she focuses on Nikki, Morris rarely accesses her thoughts, which makes the prose feel urgent but distant. Even at her most poetic, Morris turns her eye to the sun rising “over gas stations and drive-thrus,” or to dust that “sometimes looks like spiderwebs and sometimes looks like lace”—in other words, flourishes that illuminate ugliness. This lack of color—a sort of anti-style—is purposeful and well-controlled, but it makes the novel feel like a flat, featureless landscape. The depressing emptiness of these lives is echoed by the blankness of many of Morris’s pages, which proves to be the most alienating of Morris’s tactics. She favors short chapters—few longer than a couple of pages, and the briefest just two words: “Nikki screams”. The ensuing empty space is surely Morris’s attempt to place the reader in some version of Nikki’s world. (“Charged white space” is how Morris describes one of Nikki’s dreams toward the end of the book—a lovely turn of phrase that acknowledges the form without quite explaining it.) These stylistic and formal features add up to a novel that is, ultimately, entirely about its own force—simple, brutal.
What gets lost in this onslaught? I never felt that I understood any of the characters, not in any nuanced way. Nikki’s response to Mama’s death seems intentionally half-formed, and while Morris does a great job of suggesting Mama (in the faded tattoo on Coy Hawkins’s arm, in a leftover bag of Mama’s clothes), this is indicative of how Morris handles characters in general: she doesn’t develop them, but suggests them. Consider the protagonist. Why does Nikki feel instinctively competitive with everyone? Why does everyone keep telling her that she used to be so quiet? Does she want anything other than money, power, etc.? Does anybody in this novel? In fairness, Morris’s project is one of reduction: she has bulldozed everything and refused to build in its place. I understand this project, and I admire it in many ways. But what remains, after all the wreckage gets cleared away, is a novel about flat people written with skillful flatness.
Maybe the extremism of Young God is something that Morris needed to get out of her system; at the very least, it has helped her develop a muscle that she can use to great effect in subsequent novels, just as Michael Gira later used the repetition, minimalism, and brutality of the Young God EP on different—and more musically complex—projects. I have no doubt that Morris is a gifted writer who will do tremendous work. In interviews she says that Young God was once 100,000 words. In its finished form, it can’t be more than 50,000 words. Imagine that! Her willingness to cut exhibits strong nerves and a stomach for writer-ly bloodshed. But a writer can also remove too much of the text and drain its life. By the end of Young God, I felt as if I had walked through a vacant lot, sometimes admiring its desolation, but mostly thinking about what might’ve stood there before.