Ex-Members is the story of a fictional turn of the century Jersey hardcore band, Alphanumeric Murders, and it’s so much more as Tobias Carroll takes us on a deep dive into the scene from which the band emerged.
Among other things, Ex-Members is a novel-length love letter to punk culture. It’s reverent, candid, and nuanced, a stirring blend of folk art and fine art. The DIY underground deserves this kind of treatment more often. I didn’t want Ex-Members to end. I dreaded watching the bookmark approach the final chapters not so much because I wanted to continue inhabiting the world itself—Jersey hardcore was never my bag—but because I relished inhabiting a world developed with such passion and precision.
Like a graphic novelist who designs eye-popping panels, composes pages that flow, and weaves them into a great comic, Carroll works on multiple levels. His sentences can zoom in on the depths of a character’s internal monologue or capture the most subtle of scenic details. I usually lose patience with such writing. Too often it seems like parlor tricks more suited to impressing a professor than engaging a reader. Carroll’s details and wordsmithing are really satisfying. They also yield chapters that could stand alone and a compelling story.
I love how Carroll shifts perspectives and storytelling devices. Ex-Members opens with alternating third person perspectives. Virgil and Åsa watching music, Dean performing. Then we flashback to learn about Virgil’s dad and Dean’s mom. (Åsa’s father comes later.) There’s also an oral history of Alphanumeric Murders and reprints of zine interviews. In lesser hands such shifts could be jarring and/or tangled. But here the contrast among chapters heightens their appeal. I understand the band, their scene, and their town better because of the time spent with the previous generation. Meanwhile, all those changes in voice and narrative technique serve the big picture as Carroll slowly builds a backdrop that ultimately surges to the foreground—the small moments were accumulating more than I realized. Who organized the oral history? What’s up with those recordings Dean used during his live performance? They didn’t seem ominous at first.
And I’ve just scratched the surface of Carroll’s symbolism. What to make of the failed train project Dean’s mom worked on? How about her coworker’s unpublished novel scrawled on the walls of the unfinished tower that “stood tall near the banks of the Delaware, its simpatico skeleton birthed from the dream of a hotel”? To what extent do their kids reject or continue their legacies?
Ex-Members is gorgeously rendered, a book that hits with the immediacy of punk and, if you want to dig deeper, offers boundless ideas to contemplate long after you’ve put it down. I look forward to reading it again. Please reach out if you give Ex-Members a try. I’d love to compare notes. –Mike Faloon (Astrophil Press at University of South Dakota, Department of English, 414 East Clark St., Vermillion, SD 57069, astrophilpress.com)