- Mix and Match Media
N. J. Campbell
Two Dollar Radio
170 Pages; Print, $15.99
At 80, Tolstoy purportedly remarked on the power of the cinema and how it would impact writing: "You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life—in the life of writers...[a] new form of writing will be necessary." Whether Tolstoy was prescient or overly credulous is debatable—if there has been a revolution, I'd argue that it has been subtle, visible in how pervasive the cutaway is in contemporary fiction and the ease writers have in ending scenes abruptly or jumping from one to the next. And if anything, it's television that has experienced the more recent revolutionary fervor, the best long-form shows taking their cues from serial novels.
That art doesn't progress in a linear way but is recursive, cyclical, and retrospective, is obvious yet worth highlighting. Who would've predicted that the podcast, a hybrid of old-time radio and feature news, storytelling and sampling, would go all sui generis and blow up? N. J. Campbell's debut novel Found Audio feels like it's suffused in podcast aesthetics, built around the rhythms, the found textures and harmonics, and even the ragged, built-in glitchiness that makes podcasts feel organic, that allows us to escape traffic and inhabit them rather than merely throwing them on in the background. Found Audio has the brazenly surreal and bricolage quality of podcast Welcome to Night-vale (2012—), along with the peculiar narrative swerving of a Serial (2014—) or an S-town (2017), where we sense less that we are being propelled forward and more that we are embedded with the narrator as s/he descends into ever-deepening, possibly unfathomable mysteries. And like Radiolab or This American Life, it feels modular—its three individual stories stand on their own, while feeling linked by themes and threads that give it a sense of wholeness. But not perfect wholeness. Like the best podcasts, Found Audio doesn't try to wrap everything up, but makes its lacunae and distortions, its interuptions and corruptions, among its pleasures.
The book opens with a canny frame wherein the transcriber, Amrapali Anna Singh, explains that the stories to follow have been personally delivered to her on analog tapes by one Pierre Cavey under mysterious circumstances. As she puts it, "...I determine the authenticity of source materials and other specialized information in audio formats from earlier time periods." Establishing Singh as a sound geek and also a scientist—not readily rankled, impressed, or bullshat—Campbell ramps up the urgency: She feels the need to get these transcriptions out tell me more. Already weirdness is afoot. She says "That life exists at all is an exceptionally bizarre coincidence." And we get some Borgesian flourishes, like the allusions to her published works, The Sound of Time and The Sound of Temperature among them. Such unsteady ground in the guise of scientific rigor forms the atmosphere for the book as a whole—slippery, ethereal, and immersive.
The bulk of the novel plunges us into tapes themselves, in which an unnamed American journalist with a midwestern accent tells of his travels to the bayou, the Walled City of Kowloon, and finally to Turkey; each location, however, seems to exist in some zone in between reality and dream. The bayou section centers on Otha Johnson, who legend has it "was born on the swamp, raised on the swamp, and hunted the swamp before the legality of who owned the land came into question..." In a story less self-aware, Otha might be a troubling character—his face is described as "blacker than coal...the whites of his eyes...bright ivory," and is said to "look...like one of those pulp magazine covers from Weird Tales;" the resemblance of his name to "other" is no accident. The narrator is there to sound him from his "lowest note to the top of [his] compass," as Hamlet puts it, but Otha challenges him, declaring,
I remembah as a child, a young thing seein' a man come 'round...