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Hypnotic and profoundly disquieting, The Listeners explores a far-out world where a patchwork of memory, sensation, and imagination maps the flickering presence of ghosts.
This is the story of a woman whose life is shaped by tragedy. Quinn is thirtysomething, a survivor of a fractured and eccentric childhood marred by the death of her younger sister. Twenty years later, she is in the midst of a decade-long slide down the other side of punk-rock stardom after her successful music career was abruptly halted. Sassy and smart, tough but broken, Quinn is at loose ends. She develops unique strategies for coping, but no matter what twisted tactic Quinn conjures to keep her psyche intact, she cannot keep the past away. The Listeners is about what lurks in the shadows and what happens when what's lurking insists on being seen.
Leni Zumas portrays a world twisted on its axis by loss, in all its grotesque beauty. From the first line the prose is glorious: pricklingly honest and hallucinatory, a lucid dream world realized. The Listeners marks the debut of a major American writer.
"Throughout, Zumas mixes up language like Quinn mixes up senses, and the effect is sublime. Quinn observes 'spruce girls with calamity cuts' and describes two other characters 'chattering like teeth in love.' She classifies herself as 'the boyest' among her siblings, and remembers playing to a crowd 'bred in the suburbs but wild to catch a plague of streets.' The energy of these phrases lend a vital spark to the story as Quinn weaves dizzily between past and present. There's a twisted sort of hope in there, too, among the pain and loss. But should you pick up The Listeners (and you should!), expect both a wrenched gut and a rent heart." —Shelf Awareness
"Leni Zumas [is]...a formidable, idiosyncratic new voice in American fiction. The Listeners...feel like flashes of illumination...The prose is beautiful."—Portland Monthly
"Zumas' debut reads a bit like Faulkner. . . . Readers looking for gritty experimental fiction in the manner of the late Gilbert Sorrentino will find The Listeners whetting their appetites for more from this promising new author."—Booklist
"Zumas’ fiction captures tactile experience much like vinyl captures sound: pure and full. Her words are never simply words. They are imprints of beat, tone, color, body, and texture." —Flaunt
". . . The Listeners is a well-imagined and convincing example of the spiraling of pain and loss and memory. The grief that comes back to haunt. The joys, too. The creativity that burns out against the grief. It tells of how the impact of violent death and injury are recursive, that the traces found everywhere, even if the origins seldom named. That the world is full of these sorts of present absences. And it does it in an unflinching way. Without having read this, I would still have known these things, but I would not have known them quite so vividly, viscerally, behind my blurring eyes. A good book that fizzed in the blood."
"Zumas has already proven herself a remarkable maker of short stories. Now she has sustained and heightened the exhilaration of her writing in this striking novel."—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask
"Leni Zumas's visceral debut novel is a darkly funny and disturbing rager. Weaving a dreamlike coming-of-age story with the melancholic tales of a rock band self-destructing and a family's loss, Zumas's deft language careens through the lives of her characters with killer sentence after killer sentence. It's a crushing, dazzling performance."—Kevin Sampsell, author of A Common Pornography
"Zumas's debut novel comes at the reader in over a hundred self-contained, lucid pieces....creating a compelling build-it-yourself tapestry of cherished memories and open wounds."—Publishers Weekly
INTERVIEW with LENI ZUMAS
TH: There's a death that takes places early on in The Listeners; to say it's striking and unexpected is an understatement, but it's handled with such authority that a reader would never question it. I wonder how you came up with something so remarkable, and so disturbing.
LZ: When my father was six years old, his brother was shot to death next to him. They were asleep on a summer night in a small Utah town, and the tavern next door was robbed. In the exchange of gunfire, a bullet went through the boys’ open window and into my uncle’s head. The next morning, my grandmother came in to wake them up, but Uncle Tony wouldn’t wake up.
I have always wondered what it was like to be the child who didn’t die—who could so easily have died, if their places in bed had been reversed, but did not. What if my dad had insisted, the night before, on taking his favorite side? What if the brothers had, in fact, traded places before falling asleep? What would that kind of guilt feel like? My novel imagines a family in a different time and place from my father’s, but with the same tragedy at its center.
TH: Quinn's background as a member of a successful DC punk band plays a big part in the novel. Growing up in the area, what was your experience with the local music scene?
LZ: In high school I started going to punk shows and wearing Cleopatra eyeliner and chasing the dark knowledge that the kids at shows seemed to possess. I was also a nerdy, meek girl who liked school—it wasn’t until college that I mustered the courage to start playing in a band myself. High school was more about waiting in the audience. This was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, when the DC music scene was at the tail end of its legendary heyday (Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi, etc.). I was too young to see some of the bands that would become my favorites (like Rites of Spring) but I still got to see a lot of great shows. There was huge local pride and energy in that scene, and it was very political, politicizing.
The novel’s setting is Washington DC—but also isn’t. I never name the city. The more recognizable or storied a backdrop, the more associative freight readers will bring with them into the book. DC’s not as “known” a place as, say, New York City, but people still have associations. And I wanted The Listeners to occupy its own off-kilter, untethered little world.
TH: Several members of Quinn's family have synesthesia (in their case, letters and numbers and certain sounds are perceived as inherently colored). Do you feel that being a synesthete impacted the way the characters saw the world?
LZ: Absolutely! Quinn and her sister, both synesthetic, have opposite reactions to the condition: Quinn doesn’t like seeing colors—they irritate and scare her—whereas her sister loves them, because they make her powerful. In either case, the synesthetic experience positions these girls, as they grow, a little apart from other people. A little outside. Quinn learns to use the colors (for instance, they “show her where to sing,” they organize her understanding of musical notes) but she never enjoys them.
Many synesthetes have exceptionally good memories. Quinn’s sharp memory afflicts her, often keeps her from fully inhabiting the present moment.
Synesthesia is believed to result from “cross-activation” in the brain, whereby different sites of perception or cognition get triggered together. It’s a compelling example of what happens when the membrane between experiences is punctured—when there’s slippage, transversal, contamination. This happens all the time with the past and the present. I’m really interested in this leakage from one experience into another, across time and space—or, in the case of synesthetes, across the wrinkles of the brain itself.
1. Quinn’s narration switches frequently—sometimes abruptly—from present to past and back again. How do these shifts shape your understanding of her character?
2. What kind of resemblance exists between the two major losses in Quinn’s life? How do these losses mirror or echo one another?
3. By the end of the novel, what has changed about Quinn’s relationship with her brother?
4. In what ways does Quinn defy conventional expectations of a female character?
5. What is the significance in The Listeners of the unsaid, the unseen, and the barely-looked-at?
6. What is the “bloodworm” and why does Quinn fear it?
7. How are universal themes (death, love, family tension, coming of age) made singular by the novel’s prose style?
8. “Archival” documents are embedded throughout the novel—diary entries, fan letters, radio announcements, scraps from a childhood notebook, etc. How do these fragments serve the larger story?