Metatron Prize


for Rising Authors

 

 

 

Dave Robb

Easy Listening

 

 

 

 

Who are you?

I’m a 33 year-old writer, originally from the north of England. I recently moved back to London after living in Montreal for 3 years.


 

What is your book about?

I didn’t really want it to be about anything, but that’s easier said than done. When I was writing it, I was living alone in a small apartment with thin walls, and there were quite a lot of unwelcome sounds. I was also listening to podcasts a lot, and developing these strange one-way parasocial relationships with the voices of complete strangers. I think I was trying to understand why we choose to pay attention to some things instead of others, and how much control we can have over our lives. There’s a good line in the film Adaptation, which is originally from Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, where she says that being passionate or having an obsession with something might just be a way of narrowing the world down to a more manageable size. We pick a thing to drown out everything else, and it doesn’t really matter what it is. I think the story is also about language, memory, friendship, and death, and how the internet has affected all those things.


 

Could you tell us a bit about the process of writing this book?

I wrote most of it in about two weeks during the second lockdown at the start of 2021, then spent a long time editing. I’ve got harsh Montreal winters and a global pandemic to thank for encouraging me to write.


 

What are some books you’ve read and enjoyed lately and/or books that influenced the writing in your submitted work?

Around the time of writing this story, I’d recently read A Mercy by Toni Morrison, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I think it has quite a bit of Murakami and Paul Auster in it, and I’ve always been inspired by Actual Air, a collection of poems by the late David Berman.


 

How would you describe your book using emojis only? 

😢😶🥶🍆

 

   

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

EASY

LISTENING

[EXCERPT]

 

 

Everything was ambience then. For example: during the day, while she was working, Kim loved to hear stories about people dying at the hands of other people. Complete strangers (to her, often not to each other). Someone had called it “true” crime, maybe because we’d learned that most crimes were imaginary. It was a guarantee, and Kim liked to know where her produce was coming from. She wanted it as grisly as possible, though she probably wouldn’t have said that out loud. And this was her at her meekest, at her most humble. She knew she could be so aloof sometimes.
 
Between the end of her college years and her arrival in Montreal, there had been a time when Kim found herself able to acknowledge her own limitations. She’d lost her father to a premature heart attack, and had stayed home with her mother in Pittsburgh for as long as she felt her presence was needed there. Days of busying around their two-bed bungalow, rattling pans in the kitchen and singing, crafting little anecdotes out of nothing, all to fill up the quiet that had been left behind. Nights in her adolescent bed, sleeping with strange comfort, tucked into the slight dip that her own body had hollowed out over half her life. Kim was tired a lot back then, as her younger petulance and political fervor had been weakened by a tragedy so discordant. There were no categories that it could be slotted into, no critiques to be leveled at it. Just the truth of life and its ungracious proximity to death. And this didn’t feel like something she’d learned, so much as something that she remembered. It was like hearing a nursery rhyme from childhood, one that had suddenly revealed its long-slumbering significance.
 
After just under two years back home, Kim headed north of the border, which was an idea that she’d been toying with since before she graduated. The timing was a little unfortunate, as her own country was then going through what felt like a dangerous political upheaval, and “Moving to Canada” online memes were at the peak of their popularity. Many of her least interesting college friends had been loudly declaring their intention to relocate, with a kind of whimsical defeatism. If she’d still had the snotty attitude that her father’s passing mostly took away, Kim might have just recoiled from the whole enterprise, writing it off as an embarrassing cliché.
 
A few acquaintances had told her that rents were cheap in Montreal, and initially she wasn’t put off by the language barrier. She’d been there for about three months when she found a job that didn't require her to speak any French at all, handling accounts for a tiny publishing firm. Soon she was also entrusted with recruitment and marketing tasks, and she was happy to be of use. But Kim was the only employee who wasn’t bilingual, and her position in the office always seemed precarious. When her colleagues needed her to chase something up urgently, there was something about the speed with which they’d switch into their clean, purposeful English that made her feel estranged from even her own mother tongue. The only language that belonged to her was now omnipotent and oppressive, and she had nowhere to hide from it. Her voice would crack sometimes when she answered the phone.
 
Although she’d lost a lot of her certainties, Kim had retained most of the persuasive powers that once accompanied them. She eventually convinced her boss to let her work from home, insisting that she’d be so much more productive in her own space. And that turned out to be the truth. She would sit at her antique trestle desk and work comfortably for eight or nine hours a day, with her murder stories for company. A chorus of voices recounting absurdly heinous acts through her laptop speakers, now uninterrupted by inane meetings, the office playlist, and nagging small talk that she couldn’t quite comprehend. These voices were always gentle and welcoming. It was a virtual lingua franca, built around familiar binaries. Crime and investigation. Right and wrong. Alive or not. Transmissions from what felt like a bygone era, when death was still anomalous, still something to be solved. The delicately-woven fabric of these tales smothered her stubborn intellect in a way that she craved, tamping down its killjoy insistence that most evil is actually done by social structures, that the police are just servants of capital, and (when it was at its most prickly) that all lives eventually end in one way or another, so it doesn’t really make a difference how you go.
 
One of her favourite cases was an obscure serial killer known as the Pennsylvania Poisoner, or “the Greengrocer” (some people preferred “Fruitman”). You’ve probably never heard of him. He would break into people’s houses and use a syringe to inject their fruit with huge doses of homemade poisons. Then he’d hide out nearby, and return later to watch his victims die. Usually, single women who lived alone, but he was getting braver and taking out whole families before he suddenly stopped in the early 2000s.  Little to no information about this creep. DNA samples from hair and skin cells, but no matches on any database. Some syringes were found and traced to the same supplier, but their records were too disorganized to offer any leads. A few photofits and sketches of suspicious characters seen in the area - uniformly gnarly-looking, but in subtly different ways. Almost definitely a psychopath. Probably a thrill-seeker type, possibly highly intelligent with a science background. Some suggested he might be an anti-vaxxer or maybe a pro-lifer, one with a penchant for crude, mostly incoherent political commentary. Kim wondered how it would feel to have the responsibility he’d had, to dictate the terms of another person’s life and to carry the burden of knowing where it would all lead. She would think about that while she made herself a tea, seeing her face misshapen in the soft curves of her copper kettle. But she never pictured anyone poisoning her fruit. Every Sunday afternoon she’d unpack apples and oranges and peaches serenely from a beige tote bag, after visiting the farmer’s market. They didn’t even have pesticides.
 
Sometimes she had worries of another kind, though. Kim knew that all the victims she heard about were real people, who had valued their privacy just as she did. Maybe they deserved “some bloody peace”, as her older sister Alyson would say with exaggerated earnestness when she fretted about celebrities being hunted by paparazzi (the British affectation could be traced back to their mother’s obsession with Princess Diana, something her eldest daughter inherited in a slightly more self-aware form). Although Kim refused to see her own rubbernecking as anything like complicity, there was always a little unsettled residue left behind after one of her stories wrapped up. An uneasy bloating, from trying to take in all this indigestible trauma, all this waste.
 
But it was an appetite that she shared with Alyson, and with so many other women. Because it was their right, she thought. These were so often their stories. Kim’s life could also be taken away, without warning, by some faceless man with facile pathologies borrowed verbatim from her undergrad psychology course. It could happen to any of them. But it hadn’t happened to her. And if it did, at least she already knew how awful it would be. And other women would hear about it eventually, and she’d be in such good company. What was the internet for, if not sharing yourself at your most helpless? Whether she believed in it or not, this whole rationalization of hers had been rehearsed to perfection. She could run through it in her mind like a jazz musician, improvising ever-looser themes around a well-worn melody. Just feeling out the tension between what she ought to be doing and what she could let herself get away with.
 
So Kim was able to offset the numbing monotony of emails and invoices with the details of other people’s violent deaths. Labeling items by priority level, scheduling auto-replies. An ice pick to the skull in a dimly-lit garage. Budget analysis, key performance indicators, bite marks on a severed arm found under a boxwood hedge in the suburbs. Spending most of her day organising and deferring things to a later date, she was transfixed by these past events that couldn’t ever occur in quite the same way again, as they receded towards an unspeakable vanishing point. There were patterns, of course - cycles of abuse, institutional failures, all kinds of compounded losses - but each incident was unique in its specific grotesquerie, which sealed it up and kept it separate from all the others. They were discrete, inaccessible, and there was nothing to be learned from them. Or at least, nothing actionable.