How do you review a book that can’t hold still? This has been my dilemma this morning. I’ve already tried four or five times to write this review, and each time I’ve written about two hundred words before the inkwells of my brain dry up and my fingers stop typing. Part of me, the half prone to guilt and other matters of the spirit, blames my struggle on the fact that I started it Sunday morning when I had more important things I needed to be doing, like reading my scriptures or listening to conference talks. The rest of me blames it on the book itself. Why else would I be wrestling to get words on the page. It’s not like I’ve never written a book review before.
I guess part of me also wants to throw in the towel, forget all of the analytic crap that goes with being a critic, and write what I want to say: THIS BOOK IS HILARIOUS! READ IT, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! READ IT!! READ IT!!! YOU WON’T REGRET IT! IT’S FANTASTIC!!!
But that wouldn’t really preserve that cool objective tone I like to use so much.
And I hate when people write in all caps. It’s so tacky.
Anyway, the book is Byuck (Strange Violin Editions, 2013), Theric Jepson’s debut novel about two college roomates, David Them and Curses Olai, who resist the thrall of matrimony and adult responsibility by writing Byuck, a rock opera about resisting the thrall of matrimony and adult responsibility. If that sounds like a screwy premise, it’s because it is. Byuck follows in the long tradition of Mormon screwball comedy. Like the films Napoleon Dynamite and Unicorn City, as well as David Clark’s recent novel The Death of a Disco Dancer, it orbits around the antics of a likable loser—in this case, Dave—whose ill-fit in the world prods him ever onward toward the ridiculous and absurd. If you like any of these comedies, you’ll like Byuck.
But it’s worth mentioning that Byuck isn’t just another instance of Mormon screwball realism, which is basically a genre that tends to hide its Mormonness as much as it flaunts it. For one thing, it’s more kinetic, more flighty than these other works. Rather than staying more or less grounded in the oddities of this world—which is essentially what Napoleon Dynamite, Unicorn City, and Disco Dancer do—Byuck is frequently interrupted by scraps of English major Dave’s idiosyncratic writings: lousy rock opera scenes, short stories, numbered lists, and short autobiographies of his friends. These interchapters, which seems the best word for them, compliment the main narrative and offer a much-needed window into the psyche of Dave, who isn’t the most self-aware character in Mormon fiction. They are also pretty fun. Like “The Mysterious Game,” the short story Dave writes about a game female BYU students play with the ward directory. It’s chuckle-worthy, like practically everything else in the novel.
Have I made my point yet? You need to read Byuck. You need to stop reading this review right now and buy the book. Or borrow it from someone else who has already read it. Because you need to read it.
Do I need to bring out the caps?
Like Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell, Byuck isn’t your parents’ Mormon novel. For instance, you can see the influence of postmodernism on it–yet Jepson never lets the novel feel like some rerun from the tail end of the twentieth century—which is remarkable considering how important nostalgia for that era is for Byuck and its characters. (Fans of Billy Joel and long-distance calling cards might shed tears for days gone by.) I prefer to call it (let’s aim high here) paradoxical realism—nay, Mormon Paradoxical Realism—for the way it constantly tries to undercut and contradict itself. Byuck, after all, is absurd realism, a celebratory critique of Mormon sexual mores. It champions artistic creation with a crappy rock opera. It parades as light reading in order to posture as literary fiction.
Dave is a Byronic hero without any shred of Byron to his name. (Or soul? Byron resides in the soul, right?)
Which brings me to the next thing I wanted to bring up about Byuck. There’s a great scene where Dave, Curses, and Ref—Dave’s sort-of love interest and friend since childhood—attend an MFA opening at the HFAC. At the opening, the central piece is a giant painting of a thumbtack entitled Of International Significance #45, which meets Dave’s bare minimum standard for good art—it features “neither eye trauma nor naked people”—yet “[does] nothing for him.” It is another painting—a “triptych of Washington, Lincoln, and a jack-in-the-milk-jug”—that he prefers. “Not only was it kind of funny,” we learn, “but the strength of the colors made it rise above the silly.” I like the scene because it explains what’s great about Byuck. So much of what tries to pass as significant art is…
Maybe I’m trying too hard with this review. Byuck is simply a great book. A pleasure to read. It might even be the funniest novel about Mormons writing a rock opera that you will read this year. Unless teenagers start writing Byuck fan fiction that’s better than the original. Which isn’t likely since Byuck is nothing like Twilight.
Put simply: Byuck is its own review. In fact, it wrote its own review. You can find it (according to my Kindle) 5% of your way into the book:
“It’s like BYU, only it’s Byuck.”
“I don’t get it.”
Dave looked at Curses and Curses shrugged. “No one does,” said Dave.
“Then why are you calling it something no one gets?”
Dave opened his mouth a few times. Finally he said, “Simple faith.”