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'I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both' is a rare, genuinely successful rock novel

Soft Skull

"A girl named Fiona used to send me mail," says Khaki Oliver, the narrator of Mariah Stovall's novel, I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both. "She said she loved me. She left without saying goodbye, but if you were to ask her, she'd say I left her. She would be right. But that was a very long time ago and we are women now."

Her words, readers soon discover, are vintage Khaki: plainspoken and understated, laying things out with a distance that belies the intensity of her emotions. Khaki is a fascinating character, trying, with mixed success, to move on from her troubled past, and Stovall's novel is an impressively strong and inventively structured debut.

Khaki, a millennial woman, works at the reception desk of a museum, having abandoned her plan to become an anthropologist. She lives in a spartan apartment with a stuffed mouse, a record player, and an LP collection she can't bring herself to part with: "Seven hundred and sixty-eight sleeves — I know, it's not much — dusty from years of neglect. Seven years and some months without going to a show, and almost as long without listening to a new release."

Music, specifically punk and emo, are one of the two great loves of her life. (The novel's title shares its name with a track from the hardcore band Jawbreaker.) The other is Fiona, from whom she hasn't heard in years — until she gets an unexpected invitation in the mail, asking her to attend a celebration for the woman's adopted daughter. She eventually reacts to the letter the only way she knows how — by making a series of mixtapes: "I'm here to organize and evoke. To piece my life into a solved puzzle. To see if the soundtrack makes the story or the other way around."

The novel flashes back to Khaki's life in a California college; she has left Fiona behind in the New Jersey suburb where they grew up together. Khaki spends her time in college studying, hanging out with her roommate, an affable stoner named Cameron, and going to punk shows. She also enters into a situationship with a fellow punk named Matty, "short and slender and he was not a menace."

Khaki longs for Fiona to visit her, but she never does. When Khaki's mom reports that Fiona, who, like Khaki, suffers from an eating disorder, looks "healthy," Khaki has "a rush of revelation": "I was fixing Fiona, like no medical professional could. My absence from her life, coupled with the absence of meals from my life, was fixing Fiona. Somehow. We were both better than ever ... I thought this with the resolve of someone who has no idea they've gone insane."

Another flashback explores the origin of Khaki and Fiona's codependent friendship in high school. The two are inseparable, although Fiona is jealous of Khaki's newfound love of music, disapproving of her Bad Religion t-shirt. When Khaki prepares to leave for California, she tells Fiona that "I'd love her forever if I ever loved at all, loved her more than I'd ever loved anyone before, more than I'd love anyone to come. And she had no idea I was just smushing together a couple of songs."

Stovall's novel is a marvel, and much of its strength comes from Khaki, a beautifully drawn character who the author treats with respect and affection. Khaki is prickly, she alternates between terseness and manic loquacity, and is painfully aware of her own mental illness. At one point, she tells Matty, "I promise you I cannot chill out. I don't have an off switch ... Do you have any idea what I would do for one hour of quiet? Is that something you can help me out with? Can you fix my brain?"

The seriousness with which Stovall treats Khaki is refreshing; she never dismisses her troubles as predictable young-adult angst. In one remarkable section, Khaki describes her obsession with counting calories and monitoring her weight; it descends into a jumbled, indecipherable mix of numbers and words that goes on for three pages. It's dissonant and shocking, a considered risk that pays off beautifully.

I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both is a rare thing: a genuinely successful rock novel, which many authors have attempted before, to decidedly mixed results. Stovall doesn't fill the book with name-dropping or long discourses on music; she conveys the essence of punk and emo through the prose itself.

This is an excellent novel, compassionate and filled with a sparkling intelligence about the human condition. It's also a wonderful study of a character who has survived hard times, and isn't quite sure what to do next. As Ramshackle Glory sings on "Vampires Are Poseurs (Song for the Living)," the final track on Khaki's mixtapes, "I don't know how to live, but I'm sick of learning how to die."

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.