Ander Monson - Hypnotic, poetic radio static of boredom, restlessness, and loss as seen by electricity

Ander Monson, Other Electricities, Sarabande Books, 2005.

«Like Franklin's discovery of the electricity we do know, Monson's luminous, galvanized book represents a paradigm shift. The frequencies of the novel have been scrambled and redefined by this elegant experiment. Other Electricities is a new physics of prose, a lyric string theory of charged and sparkling sentences. What a kite! What a key!» - Michael Martone

“In an exceptionally poetic fiction debut, Monson charts the losses and grief of a small Upper Michigan Peninsula community, an icily beautiful and pitiless place where boredom is as fatal as the blizzards... This cathartic scrapbook ultimately records a constellation of deaths... all linked by the tender musings of Monson’s melancholy and thoughtful central narrator... By finding poetry in electricity, radio waves, and weather, Monson illuminates the power that drives people to acts both deadly and life affirming.” —Donna Seaman

“In spite of this desolate landscape, Monson’s stories possess a spectral beauty. His lyric prose exists in the energized synapse between fiction and poetry and inhabits a place not yet defined, between the overcrowded modern world and the small town. Electrified and awkward, often incandescent, ‘It’s a perfect kind of silence. So much snow coming down.’” —Martha Kinney
«Meet "Yr Protagonist": radio amateur, sometime vandal and "at times, perhaps the author" of Monson's category-defying collection:
I know about phones. While our dad was upstairs broadcasting something to the world, and we were listening in, or trying to find his frequency and listen to his voice... we would give up and go out in the snow with a phone rigged with alligator clips so we could listen in on others' conversations. There's something nearly sexual about this, hearing what other people are saying to their lovers, children, cousins, psychics, pastors.
The cumulative effect of this stunningly original collection seems to work on the reader in the same way-we follow glimpses of dispossessed lives in the snow-buried reaches of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, where nearly everyone seems to be slipping away under the ice to disappear forever. Through an unsettling, almost crazed gestalt of sketches, short stories, lists, indices and radio schematics, Monson presents a world where weather, landscape, radio waves and electricity are characters in themselves, affecting a community held together by the memoriesof those they have lost.»

«Monson's interconnected vignettes flash across a region that is "now in some ways a place only for ghosts and tourists," revealing a smalltown cast of characters defined by shared loss. The ice-frosting the roads, crusting Lake Superior-exerts an inexorable pull on these people, spinning their minivans, swallowing their snowmobiles, claiming young and old and drunk and sober. While they mourn the disappeared and deceased, their self-destructive impulses battle deeply rooted survival instincts that flourish despite impoverished and circumscribed lives. Artful metaphors resonate throughout: snow is sustenance and death. Radio waves displace language and imply an unbridgeable gap between people. Liz, a drowned high school student, embodies needlessly lost youth. Monson alternates more narrative pieces with second-person instructive messages, such as "Instructions for Divers: On Retrieval," about extracting wrecks from the lake, that evoke with immediacy a harsh existence. In "The Big 32," a catalogue of descending temperatures and their corresponding events, Monson writes that at -11 degrees, "tears freeze complete, nosehairs froze twenty degrees ago; so crying will get you nowhere." Monson's is an original new voice, and this poignant, lyrical collection conjures a powerful sense of place. - Publishers Weekly

«It is obvious the reader is in for a rough time when Monson opens with a diagram of "Characters and Their Relationships Therein," followed by "A Helpful Guide to the Characters and their Relationship to Danger, and an Explanation of Some Symbols Commonly Found Therein." The latter includes such entries as "RADIO: means love & loss & pine-away & frequency." In addition, "A Table of Contents Provided for Your Convenience" includes "Brief Keyword Index and Identification of Speakers/Main Characters, As Appropriate." Only then does the actual reading begin. The core trauma of the volume is described in the first offering, "Death Messages: Instructions for the Officer," a brief second-person sketch describing the snowy night on which a police officer delivers to parents the bad news that their daughter Elizabeth has gone through the ice and drowned. In the title story, we learn that the protagonist's father has stopped working, moved into the attic and become obsessed with being a Radio Amateur. The protagonist learns about radio himself, takes his younger brother in search of the mysterious Paulding Light and wonders how anything holds together. Radio schematics pop up throughout; midway through, they gather captions that appear to be from the protagonist's mother, who has gone away. The protagonist finally begins to peek through all the artifice in the last two tales, "I Am Getting Comfortable With My Grief" and "The Sudden Possibility of Nakedness." His school has been destroyed, his friends are getting married, and his psychologist suggests that he go to the wedding and begin to talk about his mother. But just as he begins to seem interesting, it's over.» - Kirkus Reviews

«It doesn't take more than a glance at Monson's debut work of fiction to see that its structure is progressive, ambitious. With its various charts, lists, and drawings, a quick flip through this slim volume will have you thinking of novels like Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves or Richard Grossman's Book of Lazarus. In between, however, you'll find something more like Winesburg, Ohio; that is, if Sherwood Anderson's seminal short-story cycle were written almost a century later in a setting about 700 miles north. Monson's narratives are set in a remote, snowbound community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This backdrop very much defines the characters of his stories, all of whom try to cope with the boredom, restlessness, and loss brought on by a barren, isolated environment. Our narrator's father has permanently retreated to the attic to be a ham radio operator; a diver finds reprieve from his young family in the freezing waters as he tags the various cars and snowmobiles that have inevitably fallen through the ice; our narrator himself taps into local phone lines to listen in on other people's conversations.
These stories can stand on their own - indeed, most of them were previously published - but the narrator holds them together. Other Electricities, as a collection, is a general lamentation about the narrator's community, but, moreover, it's about dealing with his own losses: the passing of his mother (to illness), his "X," Liz (herself a victim to thin ice), and his friend's sister (raped and murdered). Somehow, these stories aren't nearly as dark as they could be, given the subject matter. Monson provides levity with a wry wit and incredibly poetic, effectual prose style. His stories are so localized, both geographically and personally, that it's hard to imagine what his next endeavor will be - but a writer this talented and inventive is sure to endure, just as his hardened characters have in this stunning first effort.» - Chris Paddock

«Interspersed throughout Other Electricities are a series of radio schematics, black and white diagrams of nodes and connections. Next to them, Ander Monson has written what at first appear to be impenetrable captions: “Dear, some distances are accidental”; “Dear, distance is a constellation, dead light from distant stars"; “Dear, this distance is now all I have, a wine-dark sea, a solo moan, a haunting." There’s no terminal punctuation; the sentences just hang there in midair, a lot like a radio transmission that suddenly goes dead. There’s a growing sense of desperation in the messages as the book progresses, and it ends with a final one-line transmission that somehow both ties everything together and busts it apart. If that sounds vague, it’s because Other Electricities affects you on an ethereal level -- it’s angelic and musical, and more than anything I’ve read recently, it begs to be experienced and not just read.
Monson’s book is subtitled “Stories,” but that might be a feint. It reads like a novel, or, more specifically, like a novel that reads like a collection of short stories. Set in a small part of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, the stories follow an unnamed teenaged narrator who is “at times perhaps the author,” according to a chart in the front of the book. (It’s a chart documenting the characters and their relationships to one another - the living in white, the dead in gray. It might sound gimmicky; it’s actually not at all.) The narrator’s father is an emotionally dead recluse who is able to maintain interest in his ham radio; his brother is disabled and unable, or unwilling, to speak. There’s a series of friends, a couple of teachers, and there’s Liz, “the central X,” the object of his devotion, killed when the car she was in breaks through a frozen lake on prom night. The narrator’s love for Liz is declaimed even in the index, where an entry reads “Liz:... Liz my X, Liz my X my only X; Liz my unknown quotient, my lonely roamer. Liz my rune... Liz, still life under ice; Liz who I had wanted for a long time...” It’s breathtaking, both in the quality of the prose and the fiercely real emotion behind it. And that’s the index.
The stories, individually, are unfailingly excellent and frequently brilliant. The first is six paragraphs about a police officer assigned to tell a girl’s parents that she was killed in a car accident. It’s unadorned, written in effortless second person, and it’s gripping. Some stories are presented as instructional: “Instructions for Divers: On Retrieval” and “To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder,” which is one of the most haunting, deeply unsettling stories I’ve ever read. Some are nominally mathematical and scientific: “Subtraction Is The Only Worthwhile Operation” and “Consideration of the Force Required to Break an Arm.” Monson is at his best when he inhabits the voice of the narrator -- the one who may sometimes be him - in stories like “We Are Going to See the Oracle of Apollo in Tapiola, Michigan.” Monson has a startlingly unique ability to conflate the forces of nature with the forces of human frailty, and he does it in “Tapiola” with passages like: “Besides electricity, other things can move us. Gasoline for one, or loyalty, or fire. Fire that comes from anything that is a burst a birth a burning bush that will soon go out in snow. Fire that is a way of loving property. Fire that is my cousin Ben when he stayed with us, out until too late doing God Knows What in Michigan then returning with his boots loud on the floor of the house... I have told Liz some of this, a little bit at a time. She knows what fire is to me.” It’s possible to just get lost in Monson’s prose, which is, at its best, hypnotic and songlike. In the acknowledgments, Monson thanks the indie rock/slowcore band Low “for providing a kind of soundtrack to this book (certainly to the writing of the book).” It’s hard to think of a more apt comparison - the Duluth-based Low aren’t far geographically from Monson’s Keweenaw Peninsula, and they’re not far in tone, voice and spirit.
There’s a good reason that the reading public is skeptical of prose that gets referred to as “experimental” - it’s often long-winded, impenetrable and painfully self-indulgent. There are some elements of the experimental in Other Electricities, but they’re pulled off with an almost superhuman confidence and intelligence. Monson manages to be both oblique and accessible, and the care he takes with his prose is refreshingly evident. This is the kind of book that’s too brave and honest for New York publishers. (Cheers to Kentucky-based Sarabande Books to bringing it to our attention.) I can promise you’ve never read anything like it, and you’re not likely to again. It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which Ander Monson does not become a vital, profound and essential voice in American fiction.» - Michael Schaub

«Other Electricities is like no other book I’ve ever read. It’s labeled stories, but reads like a novel in that there is a somewhat omniscient narrator, a steady location and a group of recurring characters. However, unlike a novel, you can pretty much read Monson’s book in short pieces, or stories, in any order you see fit. Monson has also infused his work with diagrams, a character guide, and even an index.
The work is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, home of long winters, dilapidated copper mines, and amateur radio operators. The landscape is just as much a character in Monson’s work as any of the individual people he writes of. None of the individual works within the book are more than 14 pages in length, and in fact, a number of them are under 5 pages long.
Monson throws just about everything up against the wall in Other Electricities and the impressive thing is just how much of it actually sticks. Be it Dream Obits For Carrie H., a slightly longer than two page piece that has 20 sentence/paragraphs, 19 of which begin with the word Though, or the two separate sections of The Organization and Formation of Blizzards as Seen by Satellites (A-M, and N-Z) in which sentences throughout the story begin with words starting first with the letter a and continuing to the end with words starting with the letter z, or even in the more straightforward pieces like Get Started or Freda Thinks Spring.
Monson uses repetition the way many authors use metaphors – it focuses the reader on details and helps propel the stories, and book as a whole, forward. The radios, their waves, the snow, ice, certain songs, and words continue to pop up throughout the collection, bringing images to the reader over and over again. It casts a haze at times, lulling the reader into a sense of déjà vu, bringing said reader into a feeling of having been in similar situations as the characters –which isn’t truly the case for most beyond those that have spent time in isolated, wintry areas.
Other Electricities is like no other book I’ve ever read, but I hope that Monson continues to write many more just like it.» - http://emergingwriters.typepad.com
Ander Monson, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, Graywolf Press, 2010.

«Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
In contemporary America, land of tell-all memoirs and endless reality television, what kind of person denies the opportunity to present himself in his own voice, to lead with “I”? How many layers of a life can be peeled back before the self vanishes?
In this provocative, witty series of meditations, Ander Monson faces down the idea of memoir, grappling with the lure of selfinterest and self-presentation. While setting out to describe the experience of serving as head juror at the trial of Michael Antwone Jordan, he can’t help veering off into an examination of his own transgressions, inadvertent and otherwise. He scrutinizes his private experience of the public funeral ceremony for Gerald R. Ford. He considers his addiction to chemically concocted Doritos and disappointment in the plain, natural corn chip, and finds that the manufactured, considered form, at least in snacks, is ultimately a more rewarding experience than the “truth.” So why is America so crazy about accurately confessional memoirs?
With Vanishing Point, Monson delivers on the promise shown in Neck Deep, which introduced his winning voice and ability to redefine the essay and “puts most memoirs to shame”.»

«A freewheeling assortment of essays that bring surprising weight to ephemera like Dungeon & Dragons, Doritos and household repair. Monson loosely conceives the book as a commentary on memoir and how the act of storytelling permits writers to carefully structure their identities. The author deploys a number of metatextual flourishes to get that idea across. He places passages from dozens of memoirs together to undercut their claims of unique emotional experience, runs the text of one essay without margins to show how strictly framed many stories are and opens an essay on solipsism by filling two pages with the word "me." Moreover, certain keywords are flagged as subjects for further discussion on his website, otherelectricities.com, implying that any statements made between the covers is unstable. Monson earns the right to much of his gamesmanship, bringing a sharp humor and intellectual rigor to his essays. In "Voir Dire," a piece about his experience as a jury foreman, he performs a close study of how trials are similar to stories, and how we apply our own experiences to others' in the courtroom. "Transubstantiation" opens with an appreciation of snack chips; instead of slipping into the self-obsession he dreads, the author provides genuine insight into the distinction between real and fake, both in Doritos and in personalities. Not all of Monson's pieces reflect such ingenuity. The text is littered with paragraph-long scraps of analysis of memoirs that seem ripe for either expansion or removal. Though the essay on bad pop songs sung by collegiate a cappella groups is good for a good laughs, Monson fails to spin the piece into a largerstatement. Role-playing games are right in his wheelhouse, though, and he successfully uses the 2008 death of Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax to consider the nature of obsession with creating "other" selves, and how easily we snap into those roles. An imperfect grab-bag of ruminations that reflect a likable nerdy enthusiasm." - Kirkus Reviews

Ander Monson, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments: Essays, Graywolf Press, 2007.

«An innovative and engaging nonfiction debut, Ander Monson uses unexpectedly nonliterary forms—the index, the Harvard Outline, the mathematical proof—to delve into an equally surprising mix of obsessions: disc golf, the history of mining in northern Michigan, car washes, topology, and more. He reflects on his outsider experience at an exclusive Detroit-area boarding school in the form of a criminal history and invents a new form as he meditates on snow.»

«This esoteric collection, awarded the second annual Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, is described by contest judge Robert Polito as "astonishing," a "dismantling and reinvention of the essay as an instrument for thought." Readers are bound to agree; in his first nonfiction book, poet and novelist Monson offers a parade of quirky, at times avant-garde methods for exploring his obsessions with everything from Frisbee golf ("The Long Crush") to car washes ("The Big and Sometimes Colored Foam: Four Annotated Car Washes") to the lost art of sending telegrams ("Afterword: Elegy for Telegram and Starflight"). He pits working-class values against those of Michigan's suburban upper crust-grappling with his own point throughout-in "Cranbrook Schools: Adventures in Bourgeois Topologies," an ironic, seminostalgic look at his preexpulsion years in an elite boarding school. In "Outline Toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline," a well-crafted outline unpacks the history of mining in northern Michigan. "Index for X and the Origin of Fires" is perhaps the best of the bunch; Monson explains it in his notes as "the original index to my novel, Other Electricities, before it was trimmed out and became this something else. One hopes it still refers to a (or the) recognizable world." Wonderfully recondite and cunningly executed, Monson's work will make a brilliant discovery for open-minded fans of narrative nonfiction.» - Publishers Weekly

«First, a disclaimer: I think that it would be almost impossible for me to dislike Ander Monson. The author of excellent Other Electricities and Vacationland, Monson's only a few years older than me, he's from my home state of Michigan, and he has the uncanny ability to render literary many of the places of my youth (especially those I lived in when visiting my mother's family in the Upper Penninsula). He also shares a variety of obsessions with me, from his fear of dentists and tooth decay, his appreciation for technology, and even his more scholarly musings about form, a subject I've only just begun to explore in my own work but am beginning to find limitless in it's possibilities.
That said, it's also hard not to like a guy who uses the Questions page on the Neck Deep website to put forth the self-deprecating question, "Monson kind of seems like a douchebag, don’t you think?"
Luckily, I didn't have to worry too hard about going into Neck Deep biased, because after reading the book I know I would have liked it either way. Neck Deep contains twelve essays about subjects as wide-ranging as disc golf, mining in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, car washes, snow, juvenile criminal activity, the end of telegram service, and classic video games. At the same time, each of the essays is also about form, an idea reflected both in the varied forms the text is written in and during explicit discussion of it in several of the essays. Monson frames his topics and writings in terms of topology, which he defines as "about electricity or water or anything that flows equally throughout a form, that moves through channels." It is with the creation of forms and channels that he controls his subjects, giving him an angle to consider them from while at the same time changing them slightly. Applying the Harvard outline to an essay about mining in the Upper Peninsula and his family's involvement in the industry (in "Outline Toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline") might seem gimmicky at first, but actually allows Monson to organize and rank the information he's providing. Digressions slip to the right of the page, indented into the essay, while main points and emotional stand outs anchor the left side of the page, gathering the smaller details beneath them. It also provides an interesting way to read the essay, taking in as little or as much information as possible: Try reading only the main ideas (I, II, etc.), then read it again adding in the concrete details, then the smaller subsections. Reading this way lets the essay grow and shrink in a way that illuminates Monson's thoughts and thought process in a way a traditional essay might not.
Other essays use form to illuminate their subjects, or to obscure them. In "I Have Been Thinking About Snow," the page is filled with rows of periods which both simulate the essay's snow and also serves to obscure the missing connections between the bits of found text (in this case from the Oxford English Dictionary) and the various sections of Monson's essay. "Fragments: On Dentistry" is, as the title suggests, an essay in which fragmentary mini-essays add up to a whole, or nearly one, minus a chipped tooth or two. Here's one such fragment:
I have relied on my teeth, have taken them for granted. I mash popcorn kernels with my molars as I watch the television. I flash them at my animals to indicate aggression. Their presence is comforting on Thanksgiving when confronted with the scads of food that my wife’s (Midwestern, if that helps) family traditionally serves up. Most of the food is soft, but still requires mastication to go down. The problem with her family is that after we eat Thanksgiving dinner (usually at two or three in the afternoon), a completely different meal is served at six, being an actual supper (as opposed to dinner, which was earlier), consisting of entirely new dishes. This is needlessly ridiculous. But still I enjoy—am even consumed by—this consumption. And my teeth are there to aid me, there to smash whatever down to paste and down my throat into the digestive mechanics of the body.
And another, completely different one:
In the mouth, food is broken down into bites, crushed into a paste, so it can be massaged down the esophagus and into all that gastric action.
Analogy, maybe: the mouth is to food as the mind is to language.
The various fragments - anecdotal, factual, and sometimes metaphysical--all add up to create an effect bigger than any one part might suggest. Likewise, all of these essays take what might be a gimmick in a lesser writer's hands and defy it's limitations to make the form inseparable from the topic. These essays could not be written in any other way, could not exist if separated from their outlines, indexes, proofs, and rows and rows of dots.
Much of my curiosity over Neck Deep's effect comes from the way in which Monson uses these various forms to allow himself to write clearly not only about his surface subject but also the idea of form. It seems obvious that whatever form he chooses suits the subject, but it also seems inevitable that the chosen form changes what he can write about that subject. It expands possibilities but also contracts them. This too is part of the argument of the book: Monson both praises form and fights it. The same man who constricts himself to writing an essay as an index was once a teenager who couldn't play within the rules of the smaller society of a private school or the larger society that surrounded it (at least according to the criminal history of "Cranbrook Schools: Adventures in Bourgeois Topologies"). Although Monson does not answer the question here, it is easy to hear one being asked, over and over again like a refrain: Are we freed by form, or are we imprisoned by it?
This is an intriguing and difficult question, and it is perhaps enough to have it asked so lucidly in this collection. Of course, all this talk about form is not to suggest that Neck Deep is dry, technical, or academic. In actuality, Monson's essays are incredibly witty and fun, especially when discussing topics which remain sources of pure joy for him, such as disc golf or the classic computer game Starflight (which brought me back to the joys of my childhood full of pirated games on 5.25" floppies). He's also a master of the elegy, a literary form that underlies nearly all of his writing. There's equal parts regret and joy, obsession and carefree appreciation, all adding up to a great book of essays and one of the early highlights of 2007.» - Matt Bell

«In a course at the New College of Florida which dedicates its reading to literature of this emerging genre, the so-called Lyric Essay, I recently taught Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and Other Predicaments and found myself surprised by my students’ reaction that the book was nothing but a series of unrelated essays about a person’s experience of living in his world. Now, in general, I admit that the undergraduate reader can be a lazy reader and that most of my students want to be wooed or wowed, that they judge a book solely by whether or not they enjoyed the experience of reading it. But when I did a little research as to how the book was received by more notable critics, I was equally surprised by what I would call a shallowness of creative intellect. Sarah Porter in the West End Word argues that the book is a series of unrelated essays and accuses Monson for never sticking to a particular subject for very long. Matt Bell in his blog argues that Monson’s book is only about form and our way of fitting knowledge within its constructs. The Kirkus Review argued that the book is merely collection of eccentric, idiosyncratic essays on wide-ranging topics without motivation or narrative. In the end, I was disappointed not only with my undergraduate students, but in the readership at large. What does it mean when we can’t even take the author’s hint as to what a book is truly about?
In the first essay, “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline,” Monson very pointedly directs the reader to his reason for writing. In talking about his family’s history in Michigan mining, he directs us to question the conflation of writing an essay with mining the mine (both the physical mine and the possessive mine), “for there is something beautiful, nearly unbearable, about a hole in the earth.” More importantly, in this very first essay, he articulates that the aboutness of the book might have to do with his ability to fit himself into his mother’s death, how the death of his mother shaped his life.
iii. perhaps it’s a womb 1. and this then has to do with my mother’s death 2. a protective sheath, a comfort zone iv. or it could be a shell b. an attempt for rigor as some buffer or protection
Here, Monson articulates in a very feminine way, using “perhaps” and therefore indicating the feminine possibility, instead of masculine finality, that the essays will explore the way his mother’s death at his small seven years shaped and continues to shape his life.
The book thereafter doesn’t deviate from this declaration. In “I’ve Been Thinking About Snow,” Monson depicts a scene he repeated as a child in which his brother would inter him in snow and pelt him with ice until he got cold enough that he couldn’t “tell the difference between outside and in.” He describes his excavation from the snow as an unburial from the deadly ice-cold of the womb-world. The snow leads him to feel “Such... isolation” seemingly from words, from context, from meaning, which is the why essay is written in serial periods that emulate snow and the space it expands. Monson here admits that he’s waiting for a revelation (a relevation? a resurrection?). He’s waiting for something to manifest and transform him.
In “Cranbrook Schools,” he recalls his introduction to topology, a subject he quotes as being “a geometry without shape or measurement.” But the term topology is also used to refer to a structure imposed on something else, a structure which essentially shapes a topological space, and can be used as a metaphor for the things that have shaped Monson’s malleable or unmalleable form, in the same way that snow might be seen to change the shape of the landscape, or the shape of child neck deep and motherless. Monson was expelled from Cranbrook. In other words, he suffered expulsion, he was forcibly ejected, the way Adam and Eve are expelled from the womb of Eden, and he admits to the confusion of things that shaped him, while he blames the crimes that that cause his expulsion on the problem of his mother’s death. “Crime can be an aesthetic performance – a press against the boundaries we set for ourselves,” and those boundaries that are set for us.
In “Index for X” two new female deaths takes center-stage: Crisco’s sister who was raped and stabbed, and Liz was driven seemingly into a semi-frozen lake, as I read it, either by vehicular accident or by double suicide. Regardless, Liz is depicted as “a symbol for, as sum or projection of, as repository for many things... still life under ice... [while] long tongs of snow constantly [descend],” and one could easily add to that image, “until she couldn’t tell the difference between outside and in.”
Also in this essay, Monson indexes a vivid memory of an event involving his mother that his father denies ever occurring, and somehow that seemed another one of the most critical moments of the book. If the form of essay is supposed to be a container for things true, for the things real, how is the essay supposed to deal with those memories that are false?
“Fragments: On Dentistry” might seem immediately like a playful romp through the playful antics of fluoride and false teeth, but I read this as a far more serious essay about decay. And what is a cavity if it’s not the hole a child digs in the snow all the while resisting his need for excavation, for unburial? Resisting the need to remove himself from the womb-world where you can’t tell the difference between outside and in? And what is a child’s mold of a mouth if it’s not what identifies and forms and shapes the child? It’s the child Monson identifies that is the body decaying in the excavated snow mold. And while the incantation of “vagina dentata” might altogether be too silly to take seriously, I would argue that the fear and awe of the feminine snow mold ice body teeth bite is in fact shaping and forming his decay.
In “Subject to Wave Action,” Monson depicts his desire for a heroic voyage, a departure from things past, something that allow the snow to melt into the very geological lakes that boats can conquer: “Notes from the voyage out, in which our protagonist sets sail fro the first time since he was very small and contemplates various sorts of gaps and emptinesses and finds out if he is susceptible to seasickness or not...” In other words, the ice melts, and Monson goes boating, allowing both the stillness and the flow of the water to shape his voyage. “The lake is calm, the sky clean, like a marble counter, like an operating table... I am... about to be unmoored [unburied, unstuck] from the dock and my life on dry land.”
In “Failure: A Meditation,” Monson meditates on the dead media that host the dead archives where the dead may live on, messages in bottles that float over the empty oceans.
oh come on . you’ve taken it too far . whatever pain you have is not worth . all this: leave it, let it list and drift just, out . into open space . or subsist if it must . and go down . in a cloud of doubt .
And in “After Form and Formlessness,” Monson quotes the both New Testament and Ulysses, “This is my body,” while he bathes in a bath like Leopold Bloom, melting the ice of the frozen world, becoming awed by water, “The form of it – so flexible. Powerful. An ultimate formlesses – it takes on borrowed shapes. It fills basins, pitchers, pools and water towers, everything. Buries it. Water as both (re)birthing and scourge of the earth,” while in the same essay, he draws the fixity of the shape of his mother’s body. “This is my mother’s body, a topic I do not often write about but always write around. It is like a white taped-off form on the floor of my mind, if my mind can be said to have a floor. It is photographed and filed away back there.” Later in the same essay, “Cancer provokes a dread in me that has no form, though it has a root in my genetics, in my mother’s final story.”
But there’s more. After all, in “The Long Crush,” what is “Disc Golf” mean except the desire to fit the form of the disc into the form of a hole? In “The Big and Sometimes Colored Foam,” what is a carwash but a perpendicular hole in which its brushes and water conform to and cleanse the car? In the “Afterword,” what does it mean Monson admits that his track of thought for the collection of essays is “a hole, a drain that I could circle forever, a planet I could orbit slowly...” And in the “Appendix,” how are we to interpret that he loves comfort, “the form of my body nestling perfectly into an enclosing form.” I’m sorry, but this is anything but a collection of eccentric and idiosyncratic essays. This is a carefully crafted collection outlining the ways that the grief topologically shapes our interpretation of quotidian things.
A while ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I read books the way that some people would read astrology charts. What he meant was that I read texts as if they define the writer, as if books are divinatory entries into the life of another. And it’s true, I think, that I never read for pleasure. That I don’t “like” or “dislike” a book. And in saying that, I mean that Monson’s book is not necessarily one that I liked or disliked. I think, in fact, that there are flaws, and the biggest flaw is probably its failure to disclose the motivation of the book in a way that’s more heartfelt, closer to the bone. But then, perhaps it’s the book’s biggest irony that the form of the essay itself that prevents truthful excavation. That lies can be closer to the truth than the truth can ever be. After all, Monson admits that throughout. Regardless, while my students can be temporarily excused for not divining the rhetoric of the book, Neck Deep should not be treated like a mixture, a medley, like a bag of mixed nuts. It is, like I said, a very careful collection of essays which explore the manner in which grief shapes even our most quotidian moments.» - Sandy Florian

«Ander Monson has a unique manner of writing in his fiction, and poetry, and with this collection of his essays, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that this uniqueness has infused itself in his non-fiction writing as well. The twelve pieces throughout this work don’t only utilize words and language to get their points across, but form as well. In fact, it might be arguable that without the specific forms each essay is written in, the essay would not be read the same.
It would be a horrible mistake however, to claim that Monson’s work is only amazing because of the form and playfulness with language that he employs. In fact, even with this form and playfulness, the fact that there are people with emotions, needs, feelings and beliefs comes through loud and clear. For a writer with fewer skills than Monson, such strong inclusion of form into play would probably lessen the effects of the topic of the essay itself.
The opening essay, “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline,” starts things off with a bang – as it is written completely in the Harvard Outline format:
I. a. b.
The essay is about Monson’s family and the mining industry in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (which, readers of Monson’s Other Electricities or Vacationland will not be surprised to see within these covers). As Monson goes through the outline stages (I to a to 1 etc.) the information distributed to the reader gets diluted to a further level. But, again, the essay isn’t just flash – there are things within that readers will be hard-pressed to forget – Monson’s comparison that for him this mining industry is the ghost to his writing that slavery seems the ghost of so many Southern writers.
The following essay, “I Have Been Thinking about Snow,” also uses form, this time possibly even more, to enhance the writing. Many sections of the writing appear as such: “……………….”, where these sections represent the snow Monson writes of. Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, snow was overly pervasive in Monson’s youth. When he went to school in Alabama, it was something he missed, going to the extent of asking his father to put some in a Ziploc bag and Fed-Ex it to him. The snow sections all slide into play very nicely – creating some distance from section to section of text, in places that distance is needed. A two page splash in particular shows the form to work devastatingly well as the only word on one page, approximately 1/5 of the way from the top is “Such” and about ½ way down the following page is the word “isolation.” Everything else on these two pages is the “………………….” and there is absolutely a feeling of isolation for the reader at that moment.
There are other great essays within this collection, really only one or two didn’t resonate with me, and to be honest, I feel I should go back and re-read them based on Monson’s success rate with me as a reader in all other aspects. He has the ability to write about the Telegram and the video game Starflight in a single beautiful essay, while also spending over nine pages on the single topic of Disc Golf (nee Frisbee Golf) in a manner that holds the attention of even those who’ve not had the pleasure of playing the sport. That particular essay, “The Long Crush,” ends:
You can feel blood and adrenaline, feel your hopes rising as you listen for the sound of disc on chain, and then the cheer. Now that is something to remember, and a reason to keep playing whatever it is you play.” With Monson, hopefully the rave reviews he keeps receiving are comparable to those cheers he writes of, and that he continues to keep playing at this writing game – he’s serving his readers ace after ace.» - http://emergingwriters.typepad.com
Ander Monson, Vacationland, Tupelo Press, 2005.

«Vacationland reads like Monson’s poetic companion book to his prose, Other Electricities. Like that other work, published nearly at the same time as this collection of poems, Vacationland finds itself meandering across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It too peers down old copper mine shafts, and slides along the ice covered lakes and rivers.
This of course, isn’t to say that the book does not stand alone without Other Electricities propping it up. Without knowledge of this additional work, one would have to be impressed with Monson’s use of language, his use of repetition of sounds and words throughout the collection, not to mention his ability to set up the feeling of winter through his words.
Winter takes up half the year in the Upper Peninsula, if not a little more than that, and the importance of it isn’t lost on Monson. The very first poem in the collection, Salt, is an ode to that mineral that those in the U.P. are used to seeing on and alongside the road. The salt that combats the snow and ice on the roads also sticks to the tires and shoes and pantlegs of those driving and walking through the salt melted sites. It is prevalent in the area and Monson makes sure his readers are aware of this fact by putting it right up front.
The middle section of the collection, just under 20 poems long, is dedicated to Liz, a young woman who died at the hands of winter. Her car crashed over a bridge and through the ice cover over a river. It is a person, and an event, that Monson returns to frequently in his writing. These poems, sometimes seemingly just lists, describe what was found at the dive site of the accident, and the images do nothing to lighten up the reading.
That’s not to say the book is a downer. For all of the winter, snow, and ice, and the isolation that it brings, not to mention Liz’s death and the mourning of it, Monson infuses the poems with bits and pieces of black humor throughout. He also plays with style throughout the collection, not that it detracts from the experience of reading it. There are sonnets and elegies and throughout, Monson keeps up the emotional feeling he has built the reader up with.
As I said, it can be enjoyed alone, but I’d recommend picking up a copy of Monson’s Other Electricities and enjoy them together as it appears they were meant to be.» - Dan Wickett

«Ander Monson grew up in remote, grim northern Michigan and (if we trust the poems) lost at least two of his closest friends before they had finished high school. Or, if you prefer: Ander Monson has breathed life into a fictive northern Michigan townscape where two teenagers have died in an auto accident before finishing high school, and a third narrates poems about them. The loss of Jesse, a childhood friend and partner in misdemeanors, and “Liz, my X, my axe to break the freeze” dominate the book, which consists mostly of careening, bristly laments for them and for the half-gutted mining and forestry towns whose ghostly half-lives as resorts provide the book’s title: “This is my vacationland, my very own / Misery Bay, my dredge, my lighthouses, my vanishing / animal tracks in snow.” In Monson’s northern Michigan, death is just “the other Canada.” As for the survivors, “We are what is left. We drift. / I guess this is a sort of manifesto.”
This manifesto encompasses plenty of complaint—there’s not enough money and not enough to do. Monson kicks against “awful playlists and shitty DJs” on album-rock radio and “coin-op beds that vibrate in the Budget Inn.” But the poems also celebrate defiant excess. In this land of scarcity, right living involves using up what you have, whenever you have it; otherwise someone might wreck, steal, or use it and you might not get any more. This rule applies to parties, trucks, and emotional commitments—a carpe diem for obscure doomed youth. Monson’s elegies stack up realist-novel (or even YA) detail, but their method of stacking shows an exuberant anger and a comfort in disconnection that marks the poems as contemporary. Uncommitted to storylines, the speaker lets language go where it will, even when it leaves him out on the ice.» - Stephen Burt

«Ander Monson’s Vacationland centers on a small Michigan town perpetually covered in snowdrifts. The speaker of these poems—and the speaker seems to be consistent throughout the book—sees this permanent winter as isolating and estranging the community, in addition to causing frequent snowmobile and car accidents, which partly explains the dominance of elegies in Vacationland. At first peculiar, the poet’s sustained elegiac engagement with everything, including loved ones and near strangers from high school, and even luggage and the weather, slowly and effectively infuses loss into the whole world, including the Detroit airport:
Everything is an airport, is stained like an airport, has to be lived through like an airport— visible through the scrub blind and clean, the air spiteful, luke- warm, an operating room for travel and regret.

The Detroit Metro E-gate wing where the short-hop planes mass and wait has had enough of loss.
Monson has a penchant for traditional forms, or at least invented forms that look traditional. Take, for example, “Astonish,” which teases out a description of the soft melting and crumbling of an asphalt road behind a grocery store into a meditation on human impermanence: “if what we / call the ground is hurtle, globe, then we are / breakneck, roller coaster gone, or famished / from lack of love, finishing & finished.” Here the compression and rhythm of the sonnet highlight Monson’s musical gifts and fuse his sensual language to thought. But Monson’s other forays into traditional forms are largely predictable and sometimes completely flat; one gets the sense that he can’t resist hammering any short lyric into 14 lines.
And yet he excels unlike any other young poet I can think of at using his own “found” forms. Any graduate of an American high school will immediately recognize and take delight in Monson’s ingenious deployment of the outline, the index, the answer key, the inventory, and the old SAT analogy to structure his work. While these forms, which compose roughly half of Vacationland, showcase the poet’s cleverness, they also forcefully reveal poetry’s function as an organizer of grief, a lyric lab report on what it means to grow up in middle-class America. There is something irresistible in these efforts, and yet they are, finally, wearying: the poet leaves us with nothing uncategorized, no detail unmentioned. The unfortunate result is that, at times, Monson’s very effort to elegize verges on trivializing that which he had set out to preserve and understand. Consider the concluding stanzas of Vacationland, one of three poems that share the book’s title:
We might as well be the kind of rock that passes for rock on the radio up here, meaning Foreigner and Journey and nothing that could be ever meaningful again because it has been subsumed by soft- rock crap-rock, classic-rock, by radio, by frequency-
modulated energy in air, by the tyranny of awful playlists and shitty DJs and no hope of getting a decent song played for us to be indifferent to at prom.
We are what is left. We are drift. I guess this is a sort of manifesto. Despite Monson’s strong grasp of the venerated communal and poetic functions of elegy, getting worked up about bad radio hardly qualifies as mourning. Monson’s talent is voluminous, but there is a sheepishness to his ambition, and, in the end, his wit eclipses his more urgent subject matter.» - Jennifer Grotz
Ander Monson, Our Aperture, New Michigan Press 2007.

«Ander Monson’s chapbook Our Aperture is 30 pages of poems that feel huge, but huge in the sort of referential way one wanders through subway stations and feels like s/he is seeing the whole shape of the moment, encapsulated and removed, a participant.
These poems revolve around and around the “I,” and gratefully the “I” is less of a judge and more of a participant. The concern or conceit of this “I” involves a genuine understanding of the way circumstance colors our situations and the way that something which is pushed responds by being moved: “What came after the world: / silence, lots of it.”
There are three poems in this chapbook with the title “Availability.” The subject matter of these poems is what one might expect: quasi-lists of things that are available and of ways to be available. But they also go further than that; much of the language is recycled and recontextualized in each poem. Even the forms change; some just pour down the page, and others are neatly tucked into in even stanzas.
Some begin like stories: “In the midst of darkness, this presence / is also always and it will be it…” Others start in medias res: “What is also is always.” But to look at the idea of availability from the point of view of someone who has occasionally been made available or who seeks availability calls into question just what it is one looks to be available for, and at last, the many methodical ways in which the concept itself can be deconstructed.
While all of these poems broke my heart, the one I marked up most was “Exhaust”:
streaming exhaust
out of a pip that leads to the heart of the world
where great things are constantly being created
from scratch
cares about now. Fuck the moment. I want the next
one, and the one after that: result, proceeding, the dark
heart of it out of reach of the streetlight, flashlight,
motion-detector floodlight you installed
to keep the world out of your heart.
The poignancy of this greed for more and more moments weighs heavy on the chest; the image of the floodlight as protector of the heart made me think of the way one might move around slowly late at night, understanding that the lights are motion detectors and that turning them on is a bad thing. The tender and careful feeling I get from this makes my own heart feel less exposed if only because I am reminded that there are other little hearts out there guarding themselves as well.
The title Our Aperture cleverly suggests joint ownership of the speaker’s split. It can be read as collective sigh and protection, or as instance of failure—of flaw or blip that is unfortunate but unavoidable, as many things turn out to be when reasoned enough. The last poem, “Any Vanishing Point is as Good as This,” reflects this:
of the family viewed only from above
from such a distance that love disappears.
Perhaps there is a limit to love’s extensions and perhaps the place where this is true is safer.» - Jackie Clark

"Composed on a Cellphone While Driving"
"Short Lessons in Hybridity: on Lia Purpura, Maggie Nelson, Jenny Boully, and Thalia Field" (essay, over at Essay Daily)
"American Renaissance: on the American Renaissance Faire" (essay, at the LA Review of Books)
"In Hennepin" (essay, on the Bending Genre blog)
"Dear Tom Chiarella" (essay, in Wag's Revue)
"On Shortness" (essay, in Essay Daily)
"The Fold" (essay, in Menagerie)
"A Fat Man Story: on HL Mencken's 'A Forgotten Anniversary'" (essay, in Essay Daily)
"Hide and Seek" (video essay, a reworking of an essay forthcoming in Columbia; the video essay itself is forthcoming in Ninth Letter)
"Dear Unsighted" (essay, in West Branch Wired)
"July Letter" (essay, in West Branch Wired)
"If Winter is Ours (on Adam Gopnik)" (essay, in Essay Daily)
"See You Next Week" (essay, in Triquarterly)
"How to Read a Book" (essay, in Triquarterly)
"On Cybele Knowles and Yngwie Malmsteen" (essay, in Essay Daily)
"Letter to a Future Lover [Handwritten]" (essay, in Brevity)
Advent Calendar 2011 (disappeared, sadly, since the chocolates were eaten)
Take Me to the River/Don't Worry, Be Happy (video)
Epic Index: Healing Codes for the Biological Apocalypse
"New Approaches to Infinities" (talk given at AWP 2011)
"The Woodchipper" (talk given at AWP 2011)
"Let Us Speak of the Essay" (talk given at NonfictioNow 2010)
Essay revisioning of the video variety, "I Have Been Thinking About Snow" (Close to the Edit)
Story, "Believing in the Future with the Torturer's Apprentice" (from the Huffington Post)
Essay, "Long Live the Jart, Heavy and Pointed and Gleaming" (from Defunct)
Videos for poems from The Available World:
Point of Vanishing: Intermediary (updated 07/21/09; shit, dog, that's a long time ago, yo)
Essay, "Ode to a Bad Ass Disc Golf Course" (from the Oxford American)
Essay, "If I Had a Heart I'd Die in It: Writing the Writing the Midwest"
On this circuitry.
A fragment.
The Designed Essay (Design as Essay), a pdf version of a talk I gave at the NonfictioNow conference at the University of Iowa in 2007.
Short Burst on Ames, Iowa
On Patricia Clark
"Breakfast at Tiffany's" a cappella which is entirely worth watching and writing about. I am writing about it.
Essay as Hack

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

al-Ḥarīrī - An itinerant con man. A gullible eyewitness narrator. Voices spanning continents and centuries. Featuring picaresque adventures and linguistic acrobatics, Impostures brings the spirit of this masterpiece of Arabic literature into English

al-Ḥarīrī, Impostures, Trans. by Michael  Cooperson, NYU Press, 2020. An itinerant con man. A gullible eyewitness narrator. Voices spanni...