A Book Review: “Someone Who Isn’t Me” by Geoff Rickly

This summer, I didn’t do a whole ton other than go to work and go to sleep. In my precious free waking moments, however–and more than a few moments at work, but don’t snitch–I did a lot of reading.

I made my way through part of my stack of books-I-own-but-haven’t-read, as well as some old favorites. If you haven’t read “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” what are you doing?

By far my favorite book I read this summer was a brand new July 2023 release, “Someone Who Isn’t Me” by Geoff Rickly.

You might recognize that name as belonging to the legendary frontman of the band Thursday, or the producer of My Chemical Romance’s first album, and you would be right. Someone Who Isn’t Me is that very same Geoff Rickly’s debut novel, and boy is it one hell of a debut.

Described by Gerard Way as “a spiral staircase in a burning building,” and by me as “like getting beaten to death with a metal baseball bat,” this book takes you on the journey of a heroin addict at rock bottom who travels to Mexico for experimental ibogaine treatment as a last resort.

Based on Rickly’s own personal experiences with said treatment, the book follows the main character, Geoff, through a dizzying journey into his own mind. However, the book is not an autobiography or a memoir.

It’s a work of autofiction, an emerging genre that meshes the seemingly antithetical genres of autobiography and fiction in an altered account of the author’s life. Geoff the character and Geoff the author, while sharing some things, are not the same person.

Rickly has stated in interviews that, when writing, he sometimes had to keep himself from having Character Geoff react to things the way that Author Geoff would because it would be inconsistent with his character who he’s described as starting the story as a sort of oblivious, Don Quixote-style adventurer.

Ibogaine is one of the most powerful naturally occurring psychedelics found on earth, derived from the root of the iboga shrub and classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the United States. However, it’s developing something of a reputation as an effective method for treating opioid addiction.

An ibogaine trip is said to take you back through your whole life and show you your true self, exactly as you are; even the ugliest parts, and the things you didn’t even know you remembered. But with a 1 in 300 chance of never waking up from an ibogaine trip and no legal way to take it in the United States, there isn’t a lot of official data.

People who want to experiment with ibogaine in an at least somewhat safe medical setting have to travel to places like the clinic in Mexico that Geoff visited, but anecdotal evidence gives the treatment a 50 to 80 percent success rate in kicking opioid addictions. 

This book is exactly as disorienting as you would expect a story about a hallucinogenic time-travel journey to the center of one’s mind to be, but at the same time, I never felt like I had lost my place. I read the same scenes over and over again, echoing back slightly differently each time. The story flies through time and setting seemingly willy-nilly, but the book always rights itself by coming back to these few key events.

The recurring scenes, snippets of dialogue, and stylistic choices – like terse lists of cities Thursday churns their way through on tour – all create a feeling of being both unmoored and perfectly tethered at once, floating through the sea of a trip yet anchored at all times back to these pivotal moments.

The book has no chapter titles or numbers, and no table of contents. It’s only split into three sections, with the middle section — “Inferno”cut into three smaller parts. There are pages that are clearly formatted as a new chapter would begin, but they aren’t labeled as such, only pulling the reader seamlessly further in. 

However, don’t let the spaghetti-style story deter you. I was hesitant when I ordered the book, afraid it would be over my head, but to my delight, “Someone Who Isn’t Me” is also extremely accessible. The plot is all stuffed inside the container of a retelling of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy,” which is kind of trippy on its own, but the structure actually lends itself very well to this kind of story. 

The resulting novel is easy to read and beautifully written in a way that reminds me of poetry rather than prose – which makes sense, given that Rickly had (and still has) a highly successful career as a lyricist before even touching novel-writing. 

The writing is very sensorily-oriented, with images and sounds that keep coming back, like the ca-chic-ca-chic-shhhhhh at the end of a vinyl record, or the actual image of a record itself. In “Inferno,” the circular hell of Geoff’s own mind is one enormous record, with the grooves where music belongs shaping themselves into cities and stories.

Geoff has to make his way to the center of the record and the center of his own self, before his physical body sustains permanent brain damage, as he is helpfully reminded every so often by his guide.

In the first few pages, Rickly muses about music and echoes and sound, his character flipping through a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. He posits that no one ever really hears music after the first time and wonders, in his numb and dissociated state, if he’ll ever hear true sound again, like Ginsberg’s “crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.”  

I’ll be honest: I was hooked on this book just from the summary, but when you give me the chance to cross-reference “Howl” on page five, in addition to the visceral emotions the first paragraph alone summoned at seven o’clock in the morning? Well. Let’s just say I’m already on my third re-read and I haven’t even had it for two weeks.

Much like my parents showing me “Pride and Prejudice” as a toddler, I’m sure when my brain has developed more I’ll read back “Someone Who Isn’t Me” and uncover whole new layers, but it already was a fascinating read that resonated deeply with me in my current life as a teenage girl.

In case you were never a twenty-year-old teenage girl, right now life feels kind of like God put me in a snow globe and then kicked it across a football field. Nothing is coherent, I’m hormone soup–as my high-school chemistry teacher would say–and all I know for sure about myself is that I don’t quite know her.

This book, while being an incredible work of fiction in its own right, also perfectly captures that snowglobe sort of feeling even if I’m just doing normal, college-style self-discovery instead of journeying through the infinite void of consciousness to relive my past.

I finished “Someone Who Isn’t Me” feeling like I’d just stepped inside a work of art, but also like maybe I’m going to be just fine. Although intense and unflinching, “Someone Who Isn’t Me” isn’t just about facing yourself and seeing your deepest flaws. It’s also about connection, self-compassion, and all-reaching love.

After the ibogaine trip, Geoff is talking to another patient about the experience and what he learned about his true self. The other patient reveals that she found deep down she was Cleopatra, but when asked who he was, Geoff responds, “Don’t know. I thought I was Hitler or the Devil or something terrible like that… But I could just be a lonely little kid.”

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