Sparknotes for Judson Merrill’s UPSIDE THE HEAD
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
My literary career is young but it’s never too early to begin recording shows onto the DVR of posterity. For the benefit of scholars and fans alike, I will use this space on The Outlet, on a semi-regular basis, to release a selection of my correspondence and other papers. Enjoy. (Universities interested in acquiring the complete Judson Merrill archive should contact me through my web site.)
Born in the late twentieth century, Judson Merrill’s young adult life was marked by scandal and disaster. It has long been hinted that he had an affair with a former First Lady and was framed for murder by the Secret Service. This difficult period served as fodder for his very-likely-best-selling but never-released-because-of-institutional-cowardice memoir, Federal Passions, Federal Crimes. Merrill followed that book with a series of groundbreaking novels. His influence on twenty-first century letters is difficult to calculate.
After being driven from his home by his harpy of a wife, Jeronas Hectus is struck in the back of the head by a small meteorite. The experience rattles Jeronas. He sets off on a search for life’s meaning, first checking with a series of prostitutes to see if enlightenment can be found in the throes of paid-for ecstasy. This highly erotic section of the book is a must-read, but leaves Jeronas devoid of meaning and riddled with social diseases. After consulting a series of spiritual advisors, none of whom provide clarity, Jeronas experiments with increasingly potent drugs that send his first-person account into a hundred-page, semi-lucid rant. (Charges that this section is pointless and incoherent reveal flaws in the reader, not the author.) Finally, Jeronas crushes the meteor and snorts it. An angel descends from heaven and reveals unspeakable truths to Jeronas. Divine revelation or spacerock-induced hallucination? Either way, the sex Jeronas then has with the angel is ridiculously hot.
*Jeronas Hectus — Our good-looking and clever protagonist.
*Donna McNaggs — Jeronas’s wife, a fairly portrayed character who will not shut up. One of the book’s rich ironies is that we all wish she would get hit in the head with a rock.
*Cheri — A prostitute who allegedly bears a resemblance to Merrill’s sister-in-law, but his wife just needs to get over it.
*Mari — An insanely hot prostitute, who looks like an old co-worker of Merrill’s.
*Terri — Another, just insanely hot prostitute.
*Billy the Priest — A priest.
*Hyram — A monk who seeks God through near-constant drug use.
*Staci — An angel who has a taste for revealing celestial wisdom. And human men.
Themes and Motifs
*Prostitution — Several readers have complained that prostitution is not portrayed accurately in the book. To those readers: this is art, not an HBO documentary. As the author’s wife never lets him forget, he has more experience with prostitution than her.
*Meteorites — The book constantly questions and challenges our assumptions about spacerocks. The central meteorite in the book serves alternately as a catalyst for the action, a symbol of divine wrath, a mirror held up to society and prostitutes, and a crazy powerful drug.
*Religion — There’s a bunch of it in the book. It’s very controversial. Those easily outraged should read the book and then discuss its various blasphemies on major television networks.
Important Quotations Explained
*“Tumbling out of the ionosphere, a hunk of calcite dropped through the sky, fell from the air and knocked Jeronas Hectus upside the head.” — Possibly one of the greatest opening lines in literary history. How great is it when the title is right in the first sentence? It spares you that annoying thing where some book has a weird title and you’re like, “What? When is this going to be explained. I can’t even focus on all the amazingly hot sex in this book.” Incidentally, that’s also an important quotation found in chapter seven.
*“Can you snort it?” — The deceptively straightforward question about Jeronas’s meteor that sets off the book’s denouement.
*This novel was extensively researched, mostly in and around the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
*If you had to write this novel could you do half as good of a job as Merrill? If not, why not? Explain in a strongly worded letter to the book critic for your local paper.
*What are we to make of the claims that the book is openly misogynistic? Are they ludicrous or just misguided? How could a story so full of love between men and women possibly be about hating women? Defend the book in 1000 words. Email your essay to Merrill’s wife.
*Can you imagine how great the book’s story would be if it really happened to you? Explain, in a five-paragraph essay, how stoked you would be to have angel sex.
* * *
The full Judson Merrill archives can be found here.
–Judson Merrill lives and writes in Brooklyn. Some of his work, including his e-novella The Pool, can be found at judsonmerrill.com.
Image from http://www.nightskynation.com/