A crop of young writers turns to mythic and fearsome creatures as a way of coping with the danger and unpredictability of the real world.
That the rise of the so-called realistic novel coincided with the Age of Reason may be no accident. When, in 1740, Samuel Richardson published Pamela, which some consider to be the first novel, he explained that he wanted to “introduce a new species of writing” that would omit the “improbable and marvelous.” Down with the dragons and griffins, was his message, and up with virtuous young ladies.
For the most part, realism has held sway ever since, making it easy to forget that a devotion to verisimilitude is still a relatively modern development in the history of the story. From Gilgamesh to the Bible, from Homer to Milton, in myths, fables, and religious narratives, monsters and gods are everywhere, the supernatural is real, and the natural world terrifies. If it’s true that storytelling has its origins with those forebears who crouched around fires and told tales to try to make sense of the dark, wild world, then maybe realism’s reign is tied to the fact that we have lived in a more predictable world than did our predecessors. Even when it’s dark outside, we don’t believe in monsters anymore.
Or do we? After the misrule of our last president, after Kyoto, after Copenhagen, after our national barbarisms and colossal, global mistakes, in a warming and divided world, it appears that we are living, once again, on an Earth that might well extinguish us. Is it a coincidence that nonhuman animals and fantastical monsters have been making a comeback in the fiction of imaginative younger writers? In short-story collections published in the last five years by writers as varied as Rebecca Curtis and Karen Russell, Hannah Tinti and Michael Czyzniejewski—and, most recently, Laura van den Berg and Lydia Peelle—unlikely creatures abound. A man brings home an elephant (Czyzniejewski). A dangerous wolf-man is at the door (Curtis). A museum’s stuffed black bear comes to life (Tinti). A family needs to choose which of its members it will feed to a monster (Curtis again). A young girl wrestles alligators (Russell).
In the work of these otherwise heterogeneous writers, there are some shared tendencies: the monsters and animals intrude upon more or less realistic fictional worlds. Underlying conflicts between human characters are dramatized via creaturely metaphors. (The man with the elephant has a wife who fails to notice the pachyderm’s presence in the bedroom; the museum bear haunts a young woman whose artist father is dying; the alligator-wrestler has a troubled older sister; et cetera.) People speak less to one another; when they do, they say less of what they mean to say. There is little confrontation and less blame. Shying away from fighting with their human antagonists, they tussle instead with wolf-men and hungry monsters. Much like the monster under the anxious child’s bed, the creatures in these stories tend to be menacing. (Monsters, of course, are no more than exaggerated versions of more familiar animals.)
Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing are the most prominent recent manifestations of the impulse—let us call it the monster impulse—toward the nonhuman and non-confrontational. Full of imagined creatures, diverse beasts, and fearful people, these debut collections help demonstrate the fascinations, and the possible traps, of using other species to articulate all-too-human troubles.
In van den Berg’s excellent collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, personal disaster is omnipresent and inescapable. A husband vanishes. A lover is soon to die of cancer. A mother is losing her mind. People die by drowning, by fire, by snakebite. Much of the evil that befalls the characters is worse than banal: it is circumstantial. Often, there is no one specific to blame. When there is someone to whom fault might be assigned—an uncommunicative husband, a neglectful mother—the character escapes confrontation and instead obsesses over more global concerns: the husband frets about riots in Paris, the mother devotes herself to environmental problems and forces instructional videos on her daughter’s friends. They excuse themselves from blame—and, to some degree, are excused—by their larger worries. Dear John: It’s not you, it’s global warming.
In clumsier hands, the absence of clear antagonists could cause these stories to float into bland, solipsistic, would-be Beckettian territory. Van den Berg, however, is a disciplined and inventive writer, and has directed the attention of her characters, victims and perpetrators alike, away from their navels and toward a parade of strange, fantastical creatures. There are mythical monsters: Bigfoot; the Loch Ness Monster; a dread Congolese monster called the mokele-mbembe; and the mishegenabeg, a monster suspected of lurking in Lake Michigan. There are unusual and exotic animals: the mapinguary, a giant primate; the Amazonian coral snake; and lemurs in Madagascar. It is as though, left behind with their loss and no one to blame, the survivors seek out the monstrous and the strange to find something that might measure up to—might even make some sense of—their outsized sorrows.
In “The Rain Season,” for example, a woman named Catherine has come as a missionary to the Congo while grieving the loss of her husband, who died in a house fire. Catherine befriends a young boy whose parents are dying, possibly from AIDS, and as the country veers toward war and everyone who can flee does, Catherine lingers. She gives the boy food and makes note of villagers’ reports of the mokele-mbembe, a sauropod thought to have “inky eyes, skin the color of rust, a body thick with muscle and scales.” It is said to live near the village in Lake Tele, which it leaves only to abduct villagers and frighten Americans. To keep the monster at bay, villagers repetitively draw its image in the dirt and keep watch for its enormous footprints. They cannot control the ravages of illness or ward off the impending civil war, but they can at least try to keep the mokele-mbembe in the lake. Catherine hardly believes in God—the Lord is her dead husband’s deity, and she is not sure why she came to the Congo at all—but now she feels that she belongs here. Her husband died in a fire because of malfunctioning electrical wiring; how much better, really, to be able to assign fault to a monster than to circuitry.
“Up High in the Air” features another woman grieving a loss while thinking of monsters—this time, in the form of the mishegenabeg, an aquatic monster thought to live in Lake Michigan. The woman, Diane, is mourning the death of her father, who drowned in a boating accident. Given the circumstances, it’s no wonder that she’s preoccupied by water: “All bodies of water look the same to me now,” she says. “Places to get lost in.” What is more surprising is that her obsession has spilled over to her husband, a scientist who recently left his job and is now working for a small stipend as an “expeditions manager” for the Mishegenabeg Discovery Group. He whiles his time away on the absurd search for the monster, which is reported to be either “at least fifty feet long and the color of moss” or “like an overturned boat floating in the water.” Diane, a university professor, is understandably frustrated with her husband’s sudden devotion to his not-quite-job, yet the characters of this story are Houdinis of difficult conversation, skilled in the art of slipping past their interlocutors. Her evasions, and those of her husband, attain new heights when her husband discovers that she has been sleeping with one of her undergrads. She says she can apologize in a number of different languages; he says he’s not interested in the languages she speaks. And then they listen to an audio recording of what he says could be the mishegenabeg.
If van den Berg’s collection focuses on what seem to be the victims, the accomplished stories in Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing center on the perpetrators. Peelle’s protagonists are destructive, irresponsible, reckless—people who are themselves the monsters they most fear. Again and again, characters forget and betray themselves, their bodies, their lives, a wife, a husband, an employer, a beloved. The most pitiable victims of her collection, however, are wordless—not because they shun confrontation but because they are not human. The real victims are the animals and plants, the very oxygen, so misfortunate as to have to share the earth with Peelle’s two-legged wastrels.
In one story, a man who finds work at a goat farm and robs his hardworking boss finds himself, months later, sorrowing over having left the farm—not because he regrets the theft but because he forgot entirely about the crippled kid goat he was hand-raising, in secret. It must have died without him, he realizes. In another story, a disappointed and aging divorcé lives in a town in which there is a rash of sightings of a phantom panther, “a pale shiver in the distance, a flash of fur through the trees.” That the man, Jack, is by profession a taxidermist provides a neat contrast to the improbability of the panther’s existence so close to the same humans who have made the land inhospitable to its kind.
The implications of man’s negligence are made more explicit in the last and perhaps the strongest story, “Shadow of the Weary Land,” in which three men—the narrator, the Musician, and a Revelations-quoting quack visionary who claims to channel the ghost of Jesse James—search for buried treasure. The Tennessee terrain they canvass is cheap farming land ridged by three-hundred-year-old trees. Developers, of course, are on their way.
Once again, the narrator’s own destructiveness parallels the imminent destruction of the natural world: He exists in the aftermath of a stroke brought on by years of excessive drug use. “My mind, before I ruined it,” he says, “was a beautiful thing. As an old man I can say this without vanity or pride. The brilliance was like the light of late day over Joe Guy’s back field, but now the light is gone.” Later, he says that if he had the wherewithal he would buy back the threatened land and “save it for the coyote, the heron, the possum, the bobcat, the kestrel, the broad-winged hawk.” A pleasant enough sentiment, to be sure, but of course it’s made impossible by his utter lack of wherewithal and by the damage he has wrought. As another of Peelle’s haunted protagonists recognizes, the world may well be ending, and they—we—have done it to ourselves:
And a few more decades down the road, he thinks, at the rate we’re screwing it all up, what will it even matter? The water poisoned, the air ruined, too many damn people and more every day—what is it that we all want to hang around for, anyway?
What is startling and right about the best of Peelle’s and van den Berg’s stories is that even at their most fantastical and animal-centric, these stories address a central reality of our real, human world—there are so many malefactors at large that there’s no one in particular to blame. The panic that pervades these stories arises from a shared consciousness that there is too much cause for fear and worry. Who, exactly, is to be held responsible for the deteriorating environment? What, precisely, causes terrorism? Most importantly, what ought we to do? Enter the bugbears and scapegoats, enter a reliance on metaphor to say what can’t be confidently said. If there is a monster under the child’s bed, it can be avoided or destroyed. If there is a mokele-mbembe in the Congo, it can be tracked. If a kid goat is in danger, it can be succored; if it is neglected and died, it can be mourned. Focusing on the mokele-mbembe keeps Catherine from wallowing in self-pity or self-blame. The panther sightings add interest to the taxidermist’s otherwise flat, regretted life. Freed from self-regard, these characters can turn their attention to the more dynamic world around them.
And yet, as I read these stories, I began to long for more interactions between perpetrators and victims of the same species. (It’s worth noting that van den Berg’s monsters appear only in the characters’ imaginations.) After all, fiction’s particular province may lie in the exquisite possibility of inhabiting others’ minds—of trying to understand that which is not the self. By eschewing confrontations with the only kind of animal that can understand and talk back, by refusing to engage with human wrongdoing, by escaping painful self-examination, van den Berg’s and Peelle’s characters are, in some ways, giving up this fight.
“The death of Satan was a tragedy / For the imagination. A capital / Negation destroyed him in his tenement / And, with him, many blue phenomena,” said Wallace Stevens. As substitutes for Satan, the inventive van den Berg and Peelle offer the mokele-mbembe, Bigfoot, phantom panthers, a mishegenabeg, and kid goats. Even while it gives rise to such delights, the monster impulse is a risky one, as so much evasion between characters can make for frustrating fiction. That these writers so often succeed in their storytelling is an indication of their considerable talent.