Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
published by Casperian Books, March 2016
I write out alternate variations of the single stroke seven and point to each as I narrate the differences….[my percussion student] points to the clustered single stroke seven at the very bottom of the page and says, “I like this one. They’re all holding on to each other so no one’s lonely.”
And thus the reader learns what a single stroke seven is — a cluster of beats played on the drum. And yet this set of notes perfectly describes the main characters of Ludlow’s sophomore novel: four band mates in their late twenties or early thirties who live like homeless animals in a house (I’m now convinced you can be homeless in a house) that should be condemned. It’s all for the sake of their band of 14 years. But the problem is the band doesn’t rehearse or get gigs, and three of its members have day jobs at which they’re treated as sub-human. The emphasis is on the bad economy in an expensive state: California. Rent is $800 per month per person, the characters are starving, and one guy is on the brink of death from his diabetes and lack of insurance.
One surprising element of Single Stroke Seven is that the narrator is a female drummer named Lilith. The book opens with her in the middle of a gruesome scene: she’s just mutilated a co-worker’s genitals:
Fuck. I can’t get fired, even if I am just a secretarial peon at a bottling plant festering on the lip of the San Francisco Bay like a puss-filled herpes sore. This sweatshop bailed me out of my decade-long gig as a contract janitor, doubled my hourly pay, freed up my nights and weekends, and guaranteed that I’d never have to touch another piss cake or sanitary napkin receptacle again. Four months in, I fuck up by doing something eccentric like hacking off Steve’s balls.
Okay, if that paragraph grossed you out, the whole novel is like this. The writing is hardcore and reminded me of a metal drummer — the beat never slows. When the band is all together, the wit is turned up, even if they’re discussing the grocery list on the fridge:
“Who the hell wrote organic coffee?” Nolan asks. “And what the hell is Wowgreen dish soap? We can’t afford to be pretentiously organic or pointlessly green.”
When the Lilith’s mom stops by to insult everyone, Nolan, without looking up, says, “I thought vampires had to be invited in.” These little moments of wit — a vampire trope, acknowledging the huge effort in the last several years to buy environmentally-friendly products — give the reader and characters an intellectual connection.
But, sometimes, those characters start to sound the same. You could either argue they all sound like Lilith, who tells the story from a first-person perspective, or you could say they all sound like author Lavinia Ludlow. Since other characters are quoted, and thus not what Lilith thinks someone said, the characters shouldn’t all sound like Lilith. Here is an exchange with the four band members present:
“My life is a circular wheel of death and I’m the egg salad sandwich no one buys ’cause it’s gross and soggy. That’s why I can only land champagne room and diet pill skanks.”
“You’re stultifying your narrative voice with inconsistent presentation of detail,” Duncan says.
“Thanks Maxwell Perkins, for your obscure syntax,” Nolan says. “What the hell is a circular wheel of death?”
“Those rotating refrigerating vending machines,” Colt says. “And I am the egg salad sandwich.”
“That is a fantastically depressing analogy,” Duncan says. “You’re rivaling Bukowski.”
“My purpose in society is becoming increasingly ambiguous,” Colt says.
Here, all three characters sound the same. They use larger vocabulary and make scholarly references. If the dialogue tags were removed, I wouldn’t be able to tell one person from another.
The minor characters all speak the same way, too, especially when it comes to the strange insults we use in the United States, which are often made up forms of real words. One of Lilith’s former college professors claims that Gary Busey is “acclaimed for being society’s utmost example of douchebaggery.” Her mother tells her, “You look like a child molester’s fantasy. And Plain Jane called. She wants her washed out face back.” Later, Lilith’s employer’s lawyer tells her she should resign because “there’s less paperwork for those Stretch Armstrong fingers of yours to have to fill out.” While the witty remarks are spot on in some places, when they’re handed over to minor characters, the voices all mesh, and I have a hard time believing the characters when the professionalism is absent from a professor, a psychologist, and a lawyer.
There were other places it was hard to suspend my disbelief. When Lilith is having a bad day, it’s because she’s starving, so she gorges a can of on-sale beef ravioli and then cuts her thumb on the lid of the can. She then ends up throwing up while driving because she ate too fast, causing her to crash her van onto her own front yard, which has a port-a-potty on it, causing feces to fly everywhere. When she gets out of the van to try and push it out of the yard (a fruitless effort; she weighs less than 100 pounds), she burns her face on the grill. Then, she falls in the crap, reaches into the van for a napkin, puts her hand in her own barf, and falls again. Her cut thumb gets infected/full of puss. This whole scene just seemed over-the-top. I understand fiction about rock ‘n’ roll life is mostly hardcore and disgusting, but there weren’t always enough lull moments to make the big gross moments mean something or have an impact on me.
Such catastrophes are describe with streams of hyphenated adjectives: “worlds-cleaner-than-what-I-have-caked-to-my-body clothes” and “driving-under-the-hurling-influence.” It’s just too much at times, like a drummer doing double bass drums for a whole song.
While the book goes at 100mph and doesn’t let up, it’s also relevant to today. Lilith describes the high gas prices, unemployment, rent hikes, stagnant wages, and lack of health insurance that affects her band over the years. At her secretarial job, she is promoted from hourly to salary, which is really a loophole to abuse workers. Lilith is at her job all day and night to accomplish work that’s due, but if she averages out her salary and the time spent at her job, she’s making less than minimum wage. Her boss heaps on new responsibilities without more wages, simply changing Lilith’s job title. She can’t protest, or she’ll be back in janitorial work. Nolan is the one who voices what a stable job actually means:
“I had to lose a great job to realize that I want structure in my life,” he says. “I want to work sixty hours a week, be part of a scrum team, and a victim of office politics and performance reviews. At least I’d know I was suffering in all the right ways….I want to feel protected under the wing of a major corporation. I need that false sense of security more than my next insulin shot.”
Lilith’s a hard to define person; she and her band live like the guys of Jackass fame. You wouldn’t know she’s a woman unless you’re told, which is a quality I like; she’s unique because she doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. The main thing that made me hang on to this story was Lilith’s kindness. She’s always the first one to stop a fight, or volunteer to bail someone out of jail, or pay for Nolan’s COBRA insurance so he can get his insulin. Lilith surprises me.
She’s also susceptible to being used by Duncan. He’s the fourth band member, who is fantastically rich, but pretends he isn’t, and a psychopath, who watches his band mates creep toward death. He spends his days going on “danger missions,” which is how Lilith ends up with missing teeth, infected wounds, and a body ready to disintegrate. He takes Lilith’s last $40, eats her only food (condensed milk + water), and spoons her every night, which is enough love to keep her dangling so that she won’t leave the band, or him, or get a boyfriend. It’s a highly abusive relationship that Lilith returns to repeatedly. She notes that she quit “the San Jose Symphony, San Jose State University alumi band, and San Jose Taiko, even a paid gig with the San Francisco Symphony” as a percussionist to try to enact change with her music. But she admits to herself that she fears that if she leaves her band, Duncan won’t be there anymore, and an ounce of Duncan is worth it to Lilith. This abusive relationship is hard to read. Days after I’ve finished the book, I’m still mad about how sadistic Duncan is, how emotionally abusive to Lilith in a way that gets her to seek more. Lilith’s old college professor tells her she could could make six figures playing the tambourine in a professional orchestra, but she won’t hear of it, despite starvation, infection, abuse from her employer and co-workers, and eventual homelessness.
I want to shake Lilith, tell her to get her shit together and balance her life — money and art — but I have to remember that reading about someone who is unlike me is a good experience, no matter how frustrating. Women don’t need to be likable. Single Stroke Seven has some bumps from trying a bit too hard to be witty and gruesome, but it’s a good read, and I really wanted to know what happened to Lilith and Duncan’s situation, and the band’s, in the end.
Thank you to Lavinia Ludlow for sending me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review. Read more about Ludlow’s work at her Meet the Writer feature!
This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.