“Podcast Meander”: Finding The Hyper-Real in the Semi-Surreal

Podcast Meander is a “50% fictional” podcast that aggressively fights against a concise explanation or label; to start, here’s the description from the show’s website:

One day, an American twenty-something set his life on fire.

With no explanation, he left his job, gathered his savings, packed his musical equipment into his 2002 Subaru Forester and started driving. Beginning in Thompson, CT. and heading west – with absolutely no plan and absolutely no destination.

Podcast Meander is a semi-fictional travelogue documenting his frantic wanderings across the United States, the people he meets along the way, and the slow reveal of what he’s truly running away from.

In the spirit of travel, the show features an ever-evolving format; from musical journalism, to political docufiction, to debauched autobiography, to outright lies.

I was introduced to Podcast Meander in an unconventional way, which now seems like foreshadowing to the experience of listening. My conversation about The Polybius ConspiracyWar of the Worlds, and hoax fiction had just been released on Radio Drama Revival. I opened my inbox to see an email about a podcast called Podcast Meander, which I was told I might genuinely hate. Usually, I like to be very formal about review requests, but this didn’t seem to be quite that–and I’ve always liked a challenge.

And a challenge it was. When I started Podcast Meander, I had no idea whether or not I hated it. It had all the trappings of something I’d hate: an air of both self-importance and self-deprecation, an almost desperate need to be controversial, a blend of fact and fiction that seemed absolutely manipulative. But I kept listening. I couldn’t stop listening. I couldn’t get away from the fact that Podcast Meander was something unique, something ambitious, and really, something hauntingly beautiful–not even in spite of those things I should have hated, but because of them.

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Podcast Meander follows Dan Leone as he roadtrips across the country in the midst of the 2016 election. Along the way, Leone interviews people he comes across–a typical setup for a podcast with similar ostensible theming. Where Podcast Meander takes a sharp left turn is in its host and its format. Leone is not Ira Glass, curious and affable in his quest for answers; Leone is worrying, confrontational. As the podcast progresses, Leone’s mental health does the opposite, and the production of the podcast changes and shifts to reflect this. Podcast Meander starts sounding and feeling less like nonfiction and more like an audio drama. The sound design becomes immersive and lush. It wants to put you directly into the scene, whether or not you want to be there. The narrative, too, starts unraveling: sometimes there’s a guardian angel, and sometimes there’s a fake Donald Trump, sometimes there’s an ex who may or may not be played by an actor. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the line between Dan Leone the living person and Dan Leone the fictional-ish character, if the line exists at all.

What I initially perceived as self-importance and self-deprecation eventually felt more like a need to be understood accurately, even–or especially–when the self to understand is unglamorous. Podcast Meander isn’t about a roadtrip, really, and it isn’t about music, really, either. It’s about living with mental illness that demands to be acknowledged while refusing to acknowledge it. That quest is deeply important, and hinged on an unflinching view of the self, as Leone has conveyed here. The need to be controversial ties directly into the struggles with mental health, and that becomes understandably and realistically heightened as the national political situation becomes more and more dire.

And while the blend of fact and fiction may still be manipulative, it’s manipulative by necessity. Being unable to draw the line between fact and fiction is integral to the meaning of the podcast as a whole–something similarly true for The Polybius Conspiracy, which I’ve criticized in the past, but Podcast Meander pulls off more elegantly. Podcast Meander makes it clear that it blends fiction and nonfiction upfront, and given it’s produced by one person documenting his own life, worrying over other maybe-fictional characters isn’t much at play here. The blend of fact and fiction also doesn’t exist to trick the listener; it exists to convey a more accurate emotional truth. Podcast Meander is at its core a true story, but it weaves in and out of borderline magical realism to convey what it feels like to be in Leone’s mind. The surrealism of the podcast helps express a hyper-real accuracy, leaving the listener with a visceral feeling that could not have been achieved through simply telling a story in facts.

Podcast Meander is not a pleasant listen outside of its sound design. It is an uncomfortable listen. It is a graphic listen. It’s a podcast that infuriated me, made me anxious, made me unnerved. It’s a work that I saw myself in far more than I wanted to, and I am sure countless listeners will as well. It’s one of the most ambitious, strange, and haunting podcasts I’ve ever listened to. When I recommend Podcast Meander, I do so like I would with A Clockwork Orange: it’s a piece that has a steep learning curve that’s massively divisive, but will leave you thinking either way–something I wish more nonfiction and fiction, delineation sometimes apparently be damned, would do.

You can listen to Podcast Meander in full on any podcatcher or on its website.

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