In her debut novel “Fireflies and Zeroes,” Liz Larson, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student, shares the shimmering firefly-like charm of Charlottesville alongside the city’s flaws and complex history.
Staged six months after the “Unite the Right” rally shook Charlottesville in August 2017, the novel follows fictional Charlottesville-born band The Generation as they reunite after a one-year hiatus. Jason — the band’s guitarist — is still recovering from the hatred brought to his hometown, wanting to prove even to his drummer Tara that Charlottesville is so much more than the headlines it brought that summer. Similarly, he wishes Tara would understand Max, their mastermind songwriter who disappeared for a year, as more than his failure to show up.
“Fireflies and Zeroes” is truly a piece of pop-punk fiction, as proclaimed by Larson herself. She keeps music at the heart of her story, just as Charlottesville does, by not only centering her story around a pop-punk band but also by maintaining themes inspired by her favorite pop-punk music.
“Each novel that I’ve written has one or two albums at its core…and for this book, it was Green Day’s ‘Revolution Radio,’” Larson said. “[The album] was a big part of my getting through August of 2017.”
Like the songs Max writes for The Generation, “Revolution Radio” contains notes of punk anti-establishment views and the youthfully energetic fight for justice.
As a life-long writer, Larson also captures her literary inspirations in her novel. Jason’s journey to learning how to love an imperfect hometown pays homage to William Faulkner’s short story “Mississippi.” Like Larson, Faulkner grapples with a love for his home despite its flaws through his characters.
“[Faulkner]’s reflecting on the fact that…to love a place is to actually see all of it, so that really resonated with me of being true of Charlottesville as well,” Larson said.
Thus, Jason learns to see past his denial of his hometown’s flaws by looking at the city through the eyes of the underrepresented. Larson skillfully weaves in the perspectives of women, people of color, immigrants, queer people and other outsiders in Charlottesville, carefully considering how their experiences changed after August 2017.
Jason finally listens to Tara as she discusses how she feels about being in Charlottesville as a Black woman and a city girl at heart. Her seeming disdain for Charlottesville’s small city ways stems from the constant reminders of Virginia’s plantation past, and August 2017 appears to be a reminder that parts of the country are still intolerant to difference.
However, Charlottesville has made headway in recent decades, welcoming many minority groups and making conscious efforts to improve the community within the city and at the University. Even Alex, Max’s younger brother and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, is able to feel like Charlottesville is his home.
Larson includes elements of what makes Charlottesville home, referencing landmarks like Emmet Street and classics like Bodo’s Bagels. Another part of “Fireflies and Zeroes” that makes the novel feel so uniquely Charlottesville is Larson’s focus on honoring victims. When Max goes missing, criminals and police appear in the story, but Larson deliberately avoids naming these individuals to keep the attention on Max and The Generation’s story.
“There’s so many times when something awful happens…and we’re all sort of in the headlines, forced to remember the name of the person who did it,” Larson said.
Larson wanted to echo the spirit of the Charlottesville community when remembering Heather Heyer, whose life was taken in a car attack during the “Unite the Right” rally.
“The names that we should remember are the people whose story this is, who were trying to live their lives, trying to find their joy,” Larson said.
As Larson releases her novel about Charlottesville, she encourages others to share their Charlottesville stories as well.
“[Charlottesville] got brutally introduced to the nation with a really unfortunate set of headlines that needed to be put out there…but there’s so much more to say about Charlottesville,” Larson said. “We need more voices, and I hope we hear more.”
“Fireflies and Zeroes” is truly a ballad for Charlottesville, a home that persists out of love for its people and people who persist out of love for their city. The novel is on sale now online.