Sunshine on an Open Tomb Tim Kinsella
Tim Kinsella, indie/emo/punk experimentalist behind bands like Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, and Good Fuck, has gained a loyal following and irritated critics in the punk world for decades. Innovator to some, pretentious art-troll to others, Kinsella’s work usually elicits strong responses either way. In his new novel, Sunshine on an Open Tomb, Kinsella applies the same left-field energy, and dare I say, pretension in a work that will probably not gain him new fans but is rewarding to the committed.
The novel follows the unnamed son/black sheep of a very prominent American political family (essentially the Bush dynasty with names slightly changed) as his father prepares to run for president in a divisive 1980s United States. Our protagonist is kept out of the spotlight so as to prevent any embarrassment to the Family, members of an elite Blood Line (capitalizations Kinsella’s) that reaches back centuries. He retreats to live among the Barbarians, America’s non-elite, who are kept satiated with highly censored 24-hour news and are reminiscent of Orwell’s proles. He spends his days hanging with his buddies, eating at a particular diner every night, and pining after his regular waitress.
This is where the story becomes much more interesting, and much more strange. To contradict a recent autobiography by his politically ascendant brother, Junior (a bumbling George W. Bush), our narrator begins telling his side of the Family’s history that is so entangled with major 20th Century events that it almost comes across like a whistle-blowing confession of America’s super elite. The Family has had hands in many different pots, the most important one being Big Oil. They make important strategic friendships with the Saudi kingdom, get uncomfortably close to JFK’s assassination (referred to as “King Arthur’s very public skull-chipping”), have ties to wars in developing countries, etc., and it seems way more than coincidental. He builds such a case through a quick survey of backstage US leadership, secret society influence, and long-term hegemonic influence by a powerful few that Kinsella almost had me reaching for the tinfoil to make a new hat. It is compelling reading the connections relayed so casually, as if the tip top of the 1% is spilling the beans to spite his own insular world.
The novel’s other conflict is within our protagonist’s own self, as he tries to obliterate his obligation to The Family and become as useless and secluded as possible. It reaches a point where he creates the titular tomb out of soup cans in a basement-bunker and plans to stay there forever. Coming to terms with the societal expectations and philosophical framework that comprise the Self isn’t easy, and our narrator seeks to destroy them and start fresh, just as his tell-all is finished. Whether or not you find a character of extreme privilege bemoaning the futile nature of life interesting is up to you, but there is some universality to his personal dilemmas. The desire to sever ties with overbearing families, to bite the hand that feeds (in one scene, literally) is not a new concept, and Kinsella claims that humans (“we dimly sentient blobs on this mysterious and watery poisoned orb”) share many existential crises regardless of birthright or social standing when he says, “everyone struggles with interiority.”
Defying standard, linear plot conventions (the novel occasionally drifts into fantasy sequences, daydreams, and Big Question ruminations), Kinsella also experiments with language that lands it somewhere between Joseph Heller’s repetitive verbal gymnastics in Catch-22 and Anthony Burgess’ pidgin language in A Clockwork Orange. Kinsella essentially eliminates all dialogue from our narrator in a way I have never seen before, negating the importance of spoken language in a story that has more to do with interior character struggles anyway.
“Duh, unga-bunga.” My pleading tone stunned me. I cleared my throat. “Duh, unga-bunga.”
“This is my fault?”
She turned away from me again, shaking her head. “So, what are you doing?”
“Duh, unga-bunga,” I said, aware that I sounded like a whiny little kid.
This runs for the entire novel. For a story as complex as this one, having the main character’s voice reduced to caveman-speak was a bold choice. It was also very off-putting at first until I became used to the rhythm of the story-telling. This kind of deconstructive whimsy took some patience and honestly tested my willingness to continue reading, so it might not be for everyone. However for those patient readers ready for a conspiracy-riddled tale of ego-death and organized crime in the White House, Sunshine on an Open Tomb is worth your time.