reviewed by Tony Mancus
In a year where it might feel most appropriate to attempt to raze everything that’s got us here, it’s a good thing to be able to sit in the headspace that Michelle Dove creates in Radio Cacophony. She’s focused on giving us a clear-eyed view of all the clamor and chaos of coming to an understanding about how a person inhabits their corner of the world. The speaker in these pieces—regardless of what we want to call them: serial prose poems, links in the chain of a flash novel, self-recognition essay snippets—is someone who is thoroughly invested in her job at the college radio station, the music she’s curating there, and the work of uncovering the gears that are whirring beneath her actions.
Dove is very capable of expanding and contracting authorial distance - occasionally pulling back to a much broader timeline from which the speaker is able to reflect on the aftereffects of a handful of events that are presented with laser focus. The events and reflections Dove catalogues cycle around her engagement with her work and relationships (changing position of the “sex couch,” parties thrown, hangovers, hookups, and firings). Though some of the moments can feel minor on their own, they accumulate into what feels like an authentic re-presentation of a life that’s spent grappling with what is essential.
This accumulation and shifting in distance and point of view gives life to the mind of the speaker—someone who feels markedly attached to and apart from others.
We want to please our listeners in the hope that they continue calling us and listening. But more than pleasing them and taking their calls and feeling the heartwarming feeling that is knowing they are listening, what we really want is for them to listen closer.
Like many of us, the speaker is someone who was sometimes overcome and incapacitated by the elements of college, but who also dove headlong into her freedoms. And Dove effectively illuminates a time when defining both aesthetics and other competing motivations could consume a person, and indeed for her proxy in the book, those things should consume a person.
I’ve been friends with Michelle for a handful of years and I’m not going to try and hide that fact. One of the things that I’ve always admired about her writing is her ability to analyze things from within the space she’s created—whether that’s in these small blocks of text or other forms—and to present the reader with both statements and questions without sounding didactic or essentializing. Her wit shines through in moments where she’s building a sort of question call and response that shows how the speaker thinks as well as the hierarchy of value that undergirds that thinking.
That Dove is able to present these things with such immediacy and clarity points to one of the things that I love most about the engine driving much of what I’ve seen of her work. Late in the book, the speaker explains how she’s trying to apply the act of Radio Cacophany to her life. In the confines of the radio station this is the act of layering one record on top of another on top of another until things just become noise, where in the process of accumulation moments of stunning coincidence occur. But at this point, she’s describing applying this same process to the world and her experience in it. And at the end of the piece she comes to this realization:
“It takes many more repeat offenses before I learn why I chose literature over mathematics in the first place: that is, even when the method is the same, it is our expectation for similar results that always lets us down.”
What shines through for me here is Dove’s scientific/mathematical mind being released onto and into the language world.
She sifts through collective and individuated moments that are markedly familiar in their striving for inward and outward understanding. And while drawing us into the immediacy of this past, she simultaneously draws lines around the elements that ought to have lasting impact, but sometimes do not. We’re left uncertain if the essential elements we swear our lives to or bear our lives out by—notions of coolness, ever-present self-doubt, and the music and people we take in to make these moments somehow matter because of their simply being there, bearing us through them—really do lie at the center of our being.
By presenting the content in this bifocal manner, Dove shows how during the formative college years the things that might seem minor in our personal trajectories can actually become emblematic of larger truths about ourselves and these trajectories:
“I take a chance on a record I do not know and cue it without listening to it first. After four years on-air I should know by now that album artwork is not indicative of anything. Is this record a record that I like?...I am left with the surprising sounds that arise only on a first listen--the sounds of exoticism and intrigue and, if I am as lucky as I am patient, belief.”
And oddly, how some of the things that seem like they are essential in the moment can really amount to a side note, or simply become things that get lost along the way:
“Because I’d forgotten this person completely, would I even remember that I’d forgotten him? This is how I know I’m only half-gone...Will I ever know if I cannot remember what it is I have truly forgotten? It is in this unknowing that I am humbled. It is entirely possible that over time I’ve abandoned not only the worst but the best memories of my life—and will never, not ever, get them back.”
All throughout the book she pulls the curtain back on the sub-culture of musically ravenous taste makers who control the kingdom of the college radio station. While the experience of working in a college radio station with a rotating pile of characters who shuffle in and out of a series of fixed roles may be unfamiliar to a good number of readers, the structures of work they’re engaged in or avoiding serves as a totally recognizable backdrop for Dove’s much more familiar and universal movement toward uncovering the things that are at the center of a person and how they came to be there.