hobart logo
William Burroughs and Sheila Heti on a post-harcore band tour bus, Dante as tour manager, Italo Calvino the support band: A review of Geoff Rickly's debut novel  Someone Who Isn't Me  photo

I’m not the type of person who writes a book review. But, as the narrator of Geoff Rickly’s Someone Who Isn’t Me reflects, “Everything becomes possible after it happens, not before.” The reflection follows Geoff’s first band practice, in a sweet but slightly ominous scene (Tetsuooo!) where the new friends watch Akira high on painkillers. “We’re not the type of people who make friends easily or start bands… Until one day, we do, and suddenly, we are.”

Someone Who Isn’t Me is a moving, compelling, and very beautiful novel, based on the author’s experience undergoing ibogaine therapy – a hallucinogenic cure for heroin addiction – at a Mexican clinic called Crossroads. It’s eye-opening, essential reading for anyone who has lost, or felt close to losing, a friend/partner/self to addiction, but also for anyone living with a human brain. “Who doesn’t seek oblivion?” the narrator asks, reflecting on CERN's decision to start up the Hadron Collider even though it could create an Earth-eating black hole.

The narrator recounts how he discovered the phrase “Someone Who Isn’t Me” (in its acronym form “SWIM”) on a drug-user forum; it's what users call themselves in an attempt to avoid self-incrimination. But the phrase also squares with the dissociative way that the narrator delivers the sometimes abject scenes of his scoring and using heroin. Geoff isn’t the type of person to go on drug forums, and he's not the type of person to take heroin… until one day, he does, and suddenly, he is.

The novel’s first lines are wonderful; both captivating and devastating:

No one ever hears music past the first time. Everything after is just a high-fidelity echo, fading already, even in the midst of our own incarnations.

The narrator is searching for “the source”, which for him is the first sound. He’s desperate for there to be a way to “follow an echo backward into an original state of grace”.  An urgency and emotional pitch is set at the beginning of the novel that is maintained throughout. The first direct speech (from the narrator to himself) is “I am going to kill myself.”: the stakes are pretty high.

Part I of the book is titled Forest.  This calls to mind the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, where a spiritually lost Dante is lost in a forest – Rickly has described his novel as a retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy by a junkie walking around New York – but also The Cure song of the same name (The sound is deep in the dark… I’m lost in a forest, all alone… It’s always the same / I’m running towards nothing again and again and again and again). It is in this section that we see how badly entangled Geoff is in his addiction, and how much he and the people close to him are suffering as a result.

Wandering around San Francisco, disillusioned with his music career, Geoff reflects on how he only sometimes found what he was looking for whilst singing on stage: “my mouth would drop open until I was the O in holy,” but the feeling didn’t last long enough, he “couldn’t contain it.

So he looks in books too – poetry, philosophy of architecture, novels, art criticism, but mainly poetry – the narrator carries books with him like talismans. In a funny but despairing scene in the City Lights bookstore, reading a line from Howl, Geoff gets nearly where he wants to get to in his head, but not quite, and in frustration throws the book out of the window. He does believe that Allen Ginsberg found the original music, “But that was such a long time ago”; this is when he turns to heroin.

Part II is the Inferno, where Geoff takes the hallucinogenic cure at the Mexican clinic. A quest to find his true nature, this section offers an enjoyment akin to that of watching an 80s epic kids fantasy film like The NeverEnding Story or Labyrinth, but a more harrowing version for adults, with drugs. Though this section is a trip, a waking dream, it’s always engrossing, never boring, because it’s a trip that has been worked over meticulously by a novelist – there is meaning and mirroring and satisfying symbolism everywhere, and we witness the ibogaine drag Geoff back through his past like a shit-hot, out-of-control therapist. One of the many great scenes here is where the narrator watches his friend Don at work painting Geoff’s difficult memories with a black treatment, some kind of visual representation of repression. Geoff scratches the black away with a razor, as he goes deeper into the quest to get the centre of himself, aiming for the hole in the centre of the vinyl LP he is using as his guide. The 80s kids film feeling peaked for me when the narrator meets himself as a boy: “Overgrown bowl cut hanging down over his trusting blue eyes.” Just before the climax of the trip, little Geoff wonders if he and big Geoff are now inside the tree that is growing through their childhood home, as big Geoff’s feet sink into the rotting wood and an “emptiness opens up inside me” – in Dante’s Inferno, being encased inside a tree is the punishment dealt to those who have committed suicide.

Part III, post-trip, is probing and insightful – Geoff tries to get to the bottom of the source of his pain, or the source of all human pain. He looks to others – to David Lynch, who credits the detonation of the atomic bomb with generating “American trauma”, to earlier history, Petrarch, and the Bible. Nothing rings quite true enough, until in parsing the passage from the Bible, the narrator has a breakthrough: it is conscious thought that is the problem, the source of our pain. This seems about right.

In conversation with Geoff Rickly on the Otherppl podcast, Brad Listi offers his view that Someone Who Isn’t Me is ultimately a love story. But I don’t want it to be, I don’t want the answer – the thing that makes life tolerable – always to be romantic love, and I don’t think it’s what the book is saying. When Geoff tells the nurse at the ibogaine clinic, “I’m doing this for my girl”, the nurse replies: “This is not about other people. You are here to confront yourself. Your true self. This is the equivalent of one thousand hours of therapy.” And, touchingly and refreshingly, the apology and declaration of love that the narrator gives when he returns home from the clinic isn’t spoken to his girlfriend, but to his own reflection. (The character of Geoff’s girlfriend in the book seems more of an ideal, an emotionally stable counterpoint to the narrator. Into self-help, self-care, homemade soup, fruit and flowers, when she does take DMT, the knowledge she comes back with is how much she loves Geoff. She gets to see his true self, not her own: “You were so beautiful – a comet, all made of mirrors.”)

It’s an intense read, but it’s consistently fun, and often funny. I was reminded often of one of my favourite books: Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? where the Sheila character goes on a quest to find her true self too. Sheila is recently divorced, Geoff’s girlfriend has kicked him out. Sheila has just quit writing her play, Geoff’s band has just broken up. She travels to New York to find herself, with a book of Important Artists as her guide, Geoff uses LP sleeve notes as his guide during his Mexican trip. For both narrators, the path to self-knowledge must first pass through abjection, (hers under the control of pervy Israel, his under the control of addiction). Images of the narrator’s degradation involve, in both books, nazis and human shit. I guess that’s just the course of adult life: crises of love, work and home leading to complete abjection, before you start to get a hold on yourself. In an interview in Uproxx, Rickly reveals he set great store by Sheila’s insistence in How Should A Person Be? that in art “you have to know where the funny is… if you know where the funny is, you know everything.” But it's Heti's commitment to addressing the most basic but most important of life’s questions in a surprising and playful way, that the authors’ similarity is most apparent to me, as well as their ability to use the novel as the perfect technology with which to show human consciousness on a page.

During the Otherppl episode, Rickly tells Brad Listi that writing this novel – his first – was the thing that kept him off the street corner and off drugs. Because, he says, “you can lose yourself in writing”. To stay sober, he needed whatever would put him “in that flow state.” Maybe the work of writing the novel was the cure, and the path to self-knowledge, even more so than the ibogaine trip. I hope Geoff the character and Geoff the author feel that they’ve succeeded in following the echo back to an original state of grace by creating this book. I love it when the answer to how to make life bearable is found in the method of the search: making art, making a beautiful book. And it won't be thrown out of a bookshop window any time soon. Maybe just when the next new great writer picks it up in a crisis, and sees that the author found the answer and the right words, but so long ago, that they feel they better start writing themselves, find their own answer.

After reading Someone Who Isn’t Me, I’m returning to a lot of books – Italo Calvino, William Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, Lawrence Ferlinghetti – that were recommended to me 20 or 30 years ago by brilliant boyfriends who are no longer here. I’m getting into Geoff Rickly’s band Thursday, starting with Understanding in a Car Crash, whose lyrics “I don’t want to feel this way forever” are a motif in the novel. It’s led me to remember the hardcore/emo/mathcore albums I loved in my early twenties: Penfold – Amateurs and Professionals, Fabric – Body of Water, the self-titled album by Nub. It feels really good to remember all the different selves I was at different ages in different places, and try to keep them all with me. Like my 17-year-old self waiting for my boyfriend to shoot heroin in his basement bedroom so we could make out, before being driven home by my dad then running straight up to my room to get into bed and read Naked Lunch.

I’ve been finding comfort in Rickly's description of his DMT experience to Brad Listi – how it allowed him to visualise his experiences of pain, how he saw them joining a giant glowing orb that was all of humanity and all of time… how good it was to see that the things about life he’d thought were horrible actually allowed him to be part of existence, which is beautiful.

I’ve been thinking about how Rickly worked on his novel for five hours a day, five days a week, for five years – thinking how good that sounds. It makes me want to slow down and not try to get ahead of myself. I’m remembering a mode of reading and writing I had as a teenager that didn’t have the slightest whiff of careerism or competition creeping anywhere near it. Querying is hard, submitting is hard, and it feels so good to drag yourself back to a state where it was just: I’m writing because I want to, I’m reading because I want to, I’m reading and writing all the time, because I want to, because I’m learning about being human, and because it’s the very best thing.

Someone Who Isn’t Me is published by Rose Books, the new independent press founded by Chelsea Hodson.

Short fiction by Geoff Rickly is featured in the Heartworm Reader Volume 2