By Leni Zumas
Tin House, $15.95, 352 pages
Fractured and clattering, Leni Zumas’s heroine Quinn crashes onto the page in The Listeners. In her life, reality is an ephemeral, to-be-avoided-thing, a fact Zumas accentuates with tiny short burst chapters that flash between past and present. We are teased, back and forth, with the bits and pieces of Quinn’s life in all its harshness. From her haunted house mind we see her unusual childhood, her sister’s tragic death, her ability to see numbers as colors, and her belief that a bloodworm lives inside her. In the half-life after her sister’s death, when self-mutilation is her greatest form of expression, she is certain her sister wants her dead so she will have company in the afterlife. Into this world comes music, which provides a release, until her career as a punk rock singer is cut short through an accident and a decision that becomes one more part of the past that cannot be acknowledged. She approaches her mid-thirties as an unemployed, borderline alcoholic with no home but the couch in her brother’s apartment.
Too much crazy can make for unpleasant reading but while The Listeners is intense Zumas’s harsh staccato prose also illuminates Quinn’s humanity and desire to exorcise the past. In her coping efforts (counting bites of food, snapping a rubber band against her wrist) and wry humor we see a woman who is not doomed but struggling and we want her to prevail. This is not a book that reads lightly but once started it won’t let you go. A compelling debut.