Katharine Coldiron Reviews Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel by Julian K. Jarboe

Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel, Julian K. Jarboe (Lethe Press 978-1-59021-692-7, $17.99, 222pp, tp) March 2020.

It’s a pity, but not a surprise, that Julian K. Jerboe’s first book hasn’t been released by the kind of large publishing house that can garner big-name blurbs, a splashy publicity campaign, and inclusion on a jillion lists and roundups. Ev­eryone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel is a strange, limber, febrile collection of prose (with a smatter of poetry), full of surprises and stunners. It roams among voices and tones expertly, containing little dips of self-indulgence and the occasional odd tangent. These, for experienced readers, add color and pep to the book, but do not fit so well in mainstream publishing, which abhors risk. However, brilliance like this cannot be contained for long, and a beginning like this augurs a stellar career for Jarboe.

Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel contains 13 stories, two poems, and one novelette. Nearly all of these works have been published previously in spots like Strange Horizons, Fairy Tale Review, Uncanny Magazine, and Paper Darts. The novelette, from which the collection takes its title, is a notable exception. Perhaps it went unpublished because it employs unusual textual strategies and rambles a lot more than the other stories, or perhaps it didn’t get submitted at all for those reasons. The result feels slightly unfocused, postmodern, with characterization that doesn’t pay off, in conflict and Catch-22s that fail to feel urgent. However, the risks Jarboe takes in the title story are so many and so breathtaking that a sense of their extraordinary capacity as a creator comes clearer here than in the other, more conventional stories. For example:

Yonatan laughs, but what is the joke? Is it them? Maybe everything in the universe is so connected and interdependent that Grace is also infatuation which is also allergies which is also the past, present, and future.

Such a run of (il)logic reads rather like a weed-induced epiphany, but wisdom lies in it, nonetheless – and the question of Grace, in a story informed by Catholicism, has gravitas of which Jarboe takes full advantage, instead of dismissing it as uncool or long settled.

The rest of the stories, which vary in length from regular short stories to flash fiction, are generally written with tremendous economy and a broad imagination. “Self Care”, through an obnoxious narrator, tells a baleful story about the failure of coastal life due to climate change. “Here You Are, Near Me”, tones down Jarboe’s wilder (and more exciting) habits as a writer to explain a simple hu­man crisis, like something out of The New Yorker. “Estranged Children of Storybook Houses” folds fairy tale deftly into LGBTQ+ concerns, turning upon the dual meaning of the word “fairy.” And “I Am a Beautiful Bug!” does Kafka in a semi-pedantic tone at a near-hysterical pace, which sounds nuts but works extremely well.

The strongest characteristic of Jarboe’s work is a kind of deadly serious play. They toy with clichés: “no contribution would go unpunished or some shit,” and “no matter how any of us could muster the will to be the clean dishes we wanted to see in the world,” occur within a couple of paragraphs. They also introduce major ideas in language sprinkled with tics that make Boomers shudder: “[T]his was part of subverting some kind of, like, compulsory social construct thing about couples and nuclear families. Yearning is more radical than having because having is possession and that’s bad, maybe?” The meaning of this passage, that unrequited love could be read as a radical rejection of family values, is a sad excuse for the narrator’s painful crush on his friend, and it’s couched in casualness to make the truth of it hurt less. That’s an intricate set of moves to make in a couple of sentences, but Jarboe accomplishes it by leaning on an unusual complexity of thought and a sense of fearlessness on the page.

Such fearlessness is too rare in big genre pub­lishing, where safety and comfort are more mar­ketable, more sensible choices. Julian K. Jarboe unsettles things, makes them somehow both loose and intense, in a method that in scholarly circles is called “queering.” This doesn’t just mean that a preponderance of Jarboe’s characters are queer or trans (although that is so), but that the whole structure of one of their stories curves and winds differently than usual, that one of their sentences follows a set of rules close to but not quite the same as the standard: “He moved like he didn’t know how much room he took up, or like he might prefer to be a hologram or a laser beam or a little glass bird in a shadow box.” What do these items have in common? It’s imperfectly clear, but the sentence remains exciting, the comparisons vibrant.

The same goes for this collection. It’s rough and risky – imperfect – but also pleasurable and, in moments, quite brilliant. There is no greater joy in genre fiction than finding a book that attempts to tug the status quo toward something new, and Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel is one of those books. Julian K. Jarboe is exactly the voice we need in genre fiction.

Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.

This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.

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