Sandy Florian and ANDER MONSON’S NECK DEEP
ANDER MONSON’S NECK DEEP AND OTHER PREDICAMENTS
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 published by Graywolf in 2007 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, perhaps more intelligently, 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 . . .” 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. 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 affects even our most quotidian moments.
From Action Books Website:
Sandy Florian was born in New York and raised in Latin America. She is of Colombian and Puerto Rican descent. She holds an MFA from Brown University's Creative Writing Program in Fiction. At Brown, she was the recipient for the Francis Mason Harris Award for best book-length manuscript written by a woman. She was also the recipient of the New Voices Sudden Fiction Prize in Cambridge. She is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her work appears in the following journals: Indiana Review, Bombay Gin, Shampoo, La Petite Zine, Washington Square Review, 14 Hills, elimae, New Orleans Review, eratio, Tarpaulin Sky, Gargoyle, 42 Opus, Copper Nickel, Upstairs at Duroc, Word For/Word, Segue, Versal, Horse Less Review, Identity Theory, The Encyclopedia Project, Elixir, dANDelion, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Visit her blog at http://boxingthecompass.blogspot.com