atomik aztex

‘Atomik’ Ages
Sesshu Foster’s first novel takes a surreal jaunt through alternate histories
By Anthony Miller

Welcome to a strange new world where deities called Huitzi-lopochtli and Tezkatlipoka have been known to channel Lenin and Marx. Where “literary critik Ramon Mercader” splits “legendary detective novelist Leon Trotsky’s skull open.” Where a Mayan pop singer named Juan Lennon croons “Instant Karma” and a leather-jacketed “Isaak” Babel drives through on his motorcycle. In his novel Atomik Aztex, Alhambra-based writer Sesshu Foster envisages all of these things within an alternative universe in which the Aztecs conquer the conquistadors, escape genocide, and establish themselves as a world power known as “Anahuak, the Aztek Socialist Imperium.”

The story of this world is narrated by Zenzontli, “Keeper of the House of Darkness of the Azteks,” a warrior who is sent through time and who informs us that we may be acquainted with “stupider realities amongst alternate universes offered by the ever-expanding omniverse, in which the Aztek civilization was ‘destroyed.'” Zenzontli himself suffers from visions of a divergent existence. In the other reality, Zenzón labors on the killing floor in the Farmer John’s Meat Company and has similarly named family and friends in “some 3rd-class city called Los Angeles.” Clan elders are counseling Zenzontli to go in for some Aztec-style brain surgery and have a few holes bored into his skull to alleviate his visions. “The Wurlitzer of the Universe is packed with 78 rpm realities side by side,” explains Zenzontli, “Get ready to drop your dime.”

The narrative fluctuates between these two worlds, and they begin to resonate with one another. Zenzón’s evisceration of the animals in the Farmer John slaughterhouse is mirrored in Zenzontli’s reality by the acts of bloody human sacrifice from the conquered lands of the “Europians” and other nations which lie at the “heart” of the Aztec world. “And after the Spanish fell to our advance forces, who was gonna stop us?” asks Zenzontli. “The Italians? Come on! They don’t even make the second round of the World Cup.” As Foster is no doubt aware, the genre of “alternative reality” always involves some measure of the morality tale, and Atomik Aztex addresses the problems of violence that surround the construction of any social or cultural history.

Whether in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, a good number of “alternative histories” seem to involve Nazis; in Atomik Aztex, the Aztecs fight side by side with the Russians in a “suicide mission” aimed at harvesting the hearts of the Nazis at Stalingrad. Herman Goering is seen being put to death in a viciously amusing bloodletting at the Great Pyramid at Teknotitlán, the capital of the “teknospiritual” Aztec realm. Characters are visited by revenants from the world wars. At the mid-point of the novel, Zenzontli recites a poem entitled “Stalingrad, 1942,” a mad amalgamation and reworking of lines from W.B. Yeats that have been “changed, changed utterly” with the (second) coming of the Aztec culture. The poem’s title might also refer distantly to Foster’s own prose poem “Life Magazine, December, 1941,” his commentary on American racism toward the Japanese during World War II. Given the book’s exploration “throughout overlapping levels of reality and akross chronologies,” it’s no accident that “1942” is also an inversion or transposition of “1492,” the date of another significant incursion into a new world.

Author of the 1996 poetry collection City Terrace Field Manual and a teacher at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet School, Foster underscores a few points about the problems of commerce and the eradication of culture both local and global. The idea of “history” is determined not only by the victor but also specifically by the teller of each tale. Zenzontli refers to his account at one point as the True History of the Konquest of Europa, an otherworldly variation on Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s famous chronicle. He concludes one chapter by making an important correction to an account of a ritual that ends with his own sacrifice: “That might have happened on some alternate reality when I wuzn’t looking, some fucking Other World when they didn’t let me get my two cents in. But it didn’t happen this time. Cuz I didn’t let it happen. I had to make my move sooner, at some previous point in History so that could never occur.” This description also reveals a glimpse into the reality of the writer, able to alter the story at any juncture according to how it mutates in the mind or the page, and to reserve the right to revise and revisit events to compose an entirely different history.

The language of Atomik Aztex is even more unsettling, surreal, and outrageous than the events and states of mind it describes. Fashioned from various dialects and street vernaculars and employing unusual spellings and peculiar orthography – particularly the preponderance of the letter k – it propels the reader more swiftly into the new worlds of the novel. Atomik Aztex’s movement through time, space, and history brings to mind the novels of William Burroughs and more than a little of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. At some moments, the prose careens across the page seemingly freed from the spell of its own story, but it is always enthralling. There is almost no genre from which the novel does not borrow: Elements of noir, science fiction, Beat monologue, comic books, horror, and barrio reportage abound.

An absolutely incandescent work of imagination, Foster’s first novel meshes the cosmological and the quotidian, the conundrums of the nature of time and history as well as the dilemmas of daily life in East L.A. “Persons attempting to find a plot in this book should read Huck Finn,” forewarns Foster in his opening “Note.” But, in fact, we find that the novel concerns one of the oldest and grandest plots of all: that of the recurring cycle of vengeance and violence lurking within any history, whether real or imagined. When Zenzón describes his crossing to L.A., as he puts it, “skirting secret borders of forgotten history & identity,” he states: “There are secret worlds hidden in the air, secret possibilities that can keep you alive in the worst of situations.” This novel’s delirious, hideous, and hilarious journey through two secret worlds is more than a bizarre fantasy, it’s a manifesto in fiction. Crack open Atomik Aztex and drink deep from its potent mytho-political brew.

from Los Angeles CityBeat, January 12, 2006