I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit by Aaron Cometbus
If you grew up in the punk scene in the 90s, chances are you didn’t get very far before you found an issue of Cometbus in your hands. The novella-sized, memoiristic zine, started in 1981 in Berkeley, California, handwritten and Xeroxed by Aaron “Cometbus,” was instrumental in turning me, and a lot of other kids, onto writing and publishing.
Long before the near-universal belief in the Internet’s democratizing effects took hold, long before self-publishing was hotly debated on literary blogs and industry websites, Aaron was showing kids everywhere that they could create their own media. At a time before digital distribution was the norm, before digital publishing was available in every teen’s bedroom, Cometbus showed us that as long as we had a pen, paper, and access to a copier, we could produce our own publication.
Most Cometbus issues are Aaron’s accounts of life on the road with punk bands, living in vans and sleeping on fans’ couches. For those times when he wasn’t on the road, his unconventional home life became the subject of his stories. Over the years the locations varied but the day-to-day remained the same, communal living, social dysfunction, and dumpster diving.
At any given time, in any given city, Aaron had at least one friend suffering from heartbreak, one in a destructive relationship, and another in the throes of a chemical imbalance. His friends reminded me of mine; it was a familiar scene, if only more adventurous. Aaron was an angsty teen’s hero. He was my subculture’s Jack Kerouac.
Aaron’s 2006 novella, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is written in the telltale Cometbus voice: the introspective storyteller electively living a hard life, equal parts amused by and concerned about his friends.
The narrator, a character named Aaron, recently heartbroken, lives in a van parked in his friend’s yard. Laura, the friend, is also recently heartbroken.
By night, the van was an icy tomb. By early afternoon it had turned into a toaster oven … It reminded me of being on tour, with everyone piled on top of each other sleeping and the van broken down on the side of the road, smoking. Those were always my favorite times, traveling. My fondest memories. Now it was like that every day. …
Yes, a broken-down van was the perfect place for a person like me. All the appearance of movement and direction without the threat of actual change.
A certain type of fiction is often accused of being autobiography in disguise and it’s hard not to think of I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit as another installment of Cometbus. Fictional Aaron’s world feels a lot like his well-documented real one, right down to his friends.
When the story opens, the first person we meet is Laura. She’s hurling bricks at a passing armament train, presumably in some anarchist-inspired protest against war. However, it becomes clear that it’s anger and frustration driving her, not some belief in a cause. Reckless melodrama dressed in political theory.
Another character, Jemuel, plays the ambivalent friend, destined to remain exactly where he is.
Part janitor, part manager, that was Jemuel’s job. Come in when everyone else was gone and clean up the store, restock the shelves, pay the bills, and do a little bit of the books. Ideal, really. … Except for one thing: he hated music. Or, rather, he resented it. Was it music itself, or the whole business it had become? Jemuel thought about it for a minute. Both. Then he put on a record.
While reading I couldn’t help but think about my early 20s; just out of college, back living in my hometown, working at a local bookstore, hanging out with friends from high school, doing the same old thing we’d always done, not sure what the next phase of my life would look like, only knowing I didn’t want to dress up and work some temp job. Life was uncertain and what happened next was entirely up to me.
This is precisely where Aaron sits: the crossroads. As with Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 indie sensation Zazen, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit captures a moment in time capable of evoking a visceral reaction.
While one of the dangers of reflecting on an age gone by is devolution into sentimentality, Aaron’s ability to balance the romantic notion of suffering with a pragmatic view of the future helps him sidesteps the nostalgia trap. I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is an honest look at what happens when adulthood creeps in.