I Will Take the Answer
(Graywolf Press, 2020)
The Gnome Stories
(Graywolf Press, 2020)
Ander Monson is many things: a teacher, an essayist, a poet, a novelist, a designer, a Yooper and an Arizonan among them. In total, he is the author of eight books; four of nonfiction, two of poetry and two of fiction. He is known for his innovations in form and some of his earlier works included interactive and supplemental material on his website.
Most writers are delighted to publish a first book and then a few years later a second, and so on and so forth. But Monson, who admittedly is not much like most writers, has taken to publishing two books at a time.
His two latest entries into this already formidable oeuvre include a collection of essays, I Will Take the Answer and a book of short stories, The Gnome Stories. The last time Monson released two books around the same time he said that the books were “intimately and intricately related.” I imagine he would say the same of these two most recent books which are in every sense companion texts with a shared sense of place, and overlapping themes and concerns.
The Gnome Stories was an easier point of entry into his work for me, which wouldn’t surprise Monson. He knows that his reader’s “expectations of, and experiences with, each form” will affect how they receive his work. In that vein, his short stories are mostly what I expect short stories to be. They are adventurous (Monson doesn’t like to be called experimental) but they have the components, the beats, and the pacing that I expect short stories to have. Each one is superbly crafted and a world unto itself, even as all eleven of them interlock and speak to a shared set of questions. His characters are grappling with profound, sometimes grotesque, traumas and losses and because of this are often concerned with the difference between the inside (of an experience, a person, a body, a brain, an owl) and the outside; the surface and subterranean. In a rather ingenious riff on an actual patent that was filed for an animatronic owl, a woman contemplates the difference between a simulacra and the real thing. In another story a man takes a job in the facility where his cryogenically frozen girlfriend is stored and grapples with partial loss; is the frozen body still her?
Monson spends a lot of time in the liminal space between transgressions in the mind and transgressions in the physical world, and it is here that he is at his most potent and most disturbing. There is the team of women who amputate their clients appendages when they fail to uphold their end of an agreement to lose weight (of course it’s a penis that is amputated in the end). And there is the man who begins to break into and masturbate in other people’s homes. Monson begins in the interior contemplation of a transgression that often ends in a real world transgression. When his characters finally crossed the rubicon, moving from thought into action, I had to remind myself to breathe.
Monson also transgresses the fourth wall of the story over and over again. “Will it ever come? That is the problem with rising action,” he tells us just as the action is rising in a story about a stove being delivered in the suburbs. The aforementioned penis amputation is “a metaphor” Monson tells us helpfully in the final paragraph, the gory detail that gives the story legs. In a surreal story in which an amorphous monster attacks a married couple, Monson tells us they have “been reduced and bound to a series of sentences on a page. When you have finished reading it they will be gone.”
The reader feels implicated. No matter how disturbed or sick his characters may be, you are there too, alongside them, having picked up the book and read the words and found something in them to carry you along.
The reader is even more overtly present in the essay collection. “Reading is roleplaying too” Monson tells us in a delightful essay about Renaissance fairs, “For a couple hundred pages, we’re taken over by another.” In this way, he draws you in and out of his prose, reminding you over and over again that you are a reader, holding a book, which is an object, containing words. It is a dynamic that is at once jarring and engrossing. “To resolve the mystery turn to page 169” Monson writes in an essay about margins. Or, “I would understand if you want to check out from this essay now, so I’ll give you a space break in which to decide to do so politely.”
Many of the essays share the short stories’ concern with interiority (Monson writes at length about tunnels and mines, and the inside versus the outside of rivers). But the essays are more varied in form and theme. Some of them make clever use of the physical form of the codex itself. His beautiful, lilting prose poem, “I, River,” considers the form of a river, it’s defining features—the water and the serpentine river bed—even as the text itself flows back and forth across each page. “The white space makes the text an island” Monson writes, leaving the requisite white space around the phrase, “an island.”
Some of them are taxonomical and academic seeming. In “The Sadness of March,” Monson compares sad songs using a bracket (like the brackets used for NCAA basketball tournament predictions) to determine which will be crowned the saddest. The essay begins with a question that is posed and then dismissed by a professor of psychology: “Why listen to sad music if it makes one feel sad?” The professor in question doesn’t believe music carries emotion. Undeterred, Monson writes, “I’ll take the answer, though, even if it’s a counterintuitive one.” What follows is dense and technical and I found myself feeling rather irritated with Monson for insisting upon the validity of his question, and indulging in a rather esoteric exercise. The whole thing is interactive and demands a great deal more attention (and more kinds of attention) than most non-fiction. Monson actually published the sad song brackets online and invited participation in the competition. Even without having participated in the original brackets, the reader feels required to listen to the songs and evaluate them head to head. This, I concluded, was excessive, masturbatory, and wholly unnecessary. And yet, and yet, he is working towards something. “The bracket isn’t a contest, it’s a self-diagnostic tool… a sad song is a door, or maybe a tunnel.” And perhaps, more poignantly still, “Each of us will find and choose our own sadnesses.”
Monson parses the world and its constructs so finely, that anyone could be forgiven for feeling a little out of their depths. A little suspended disbelief may be required and certainly more than one reading, but if you wade deeply into these adventurous exercises the reward is often well worth it, and sometimes the innovation is less cumbersome than it initially appeared.
Still, Monson as his most pedestrian self (at the Renaissance faire, as an arrogant teenager, driving into the mountains with his daughter) made for an easier and more relatable read. When he enters into his own history or writes about his family the slightly effortful feeling of his prose melts away and he is a riveting and idiosyncratic story teller. Those moments gave me the courage to follow him into his more dexterous and esoteric efforts.