Lizzy Acker’s first book of stories Monster Party depicts lost adults, drifting into the coming storm.
After finishing Monster Party, Lizzy Acker’s debut collection of stories, the temptation is to make grand, specious diagnoses about this or that “generation.” The fault is not Acker’s: stories about young people hanging out, risking their bodies, drinking, fucking, crying and the like generally attract the old critical reflex to make grand pronouncements about Kids Today. They are, the familiar argument runs, isolated, rootless, apolitical, sarcastic, and cynical. As usual, these claims are as much about “kids today,” as they are about our deeply felt concerns about the future of community.
Acker, thank god, is not nearly as pretentious as this. Her collection of stories depicts the lives of adults who see themselves apart from history. In so doing, she gives us a clear view of history’s sad effects. Her young people muddle along in the usual way, at a time when the usual trajectories of American middle class life have begun to disappear. While Acker’s stories are firmly American, her characters appear as so many migrants from suburbia: unattached, rootless, and free-floating. In the fifties and sixties, this might have been the attractive, rebellious choice, the old romantic escape from the stupefying routines of office work and the deadening banalities of suburbia. For the characters of Monster Party, such detachment hardly seems like a choice at all. Here, rebellion blurs into exclusion, and the old celebration of dropping out becomes the new horizon of scarce and precarious jobs.
Monster Party begins with a story of four-year-old Lizzy. In “The Basement,” we follow Lizzy as she escapes the gaze of her mother and descends into a college basement, where she is told by a slightly older boy to take off her pants. He can, he says, put them in Playboy, “this book with pictures of girls with no clothes.” This childish world of partial knowledge and serious play sets up her other stories, in which the drunken parties of adults suggest frustrated lives. In “There’s a Drunk Lady Selling Jewelry on QVC,” friends Lizzy and Joe talk shit to the television and decide to cut each other, to break their boredom. “I want to try things,” Joe says. “I think the world needs us to try this.” And so they make each other bleed—the teenager’s search for an empty thrill again spilling over into adulthood.
On the one hand, these characters are kids; on the other hand, we fear that kids are all they can ever be. In “Dave is Looking for the Devil and He Wants to be Friends,” Acker shows the friendship of a student with her former professor. The clichéd scenario—the messy, regretted ingestion of forbidden fruit, the tawdry encounter of a young woman with an flabby, too-hairy fifty-something—is obviously present, as Dave and the woman, like so many other Acker characters, drink and joke. When he employs her to clean his house, the narrator begins to realize the truth: the problem with Dave, the real reason that she shouldn’t sleep with him, is not that they are of a different age, or that he was once her teacher, but that he is of a different class. He has a “real professor’s house.” “It was,” she tells us, “three stories and the grass in the lawn was green. The porch was deep and had furniture and stretched along the full side of the house.” As she walks around the house, thinking about where to begin, it becomes clear that “it was a fully clothed house that wanted finger paintings and A+ spelling tests posted with magnets on the fridge.” The story ends with the narrator ringing a boy and heading to a bar. Here, as elsewhere, her characters do not have plans; nor do they particularly care.
In the title story, the most effecting and ambitious, the narrator reunites with her old friend Joe. Both in their mid-twenties, they visit a skatepark, eat steak and salmon, buy a lap-dance, and sit together, naked, in a hot tub. This loose series of events is typical for Acker: within an unexceptional life, there is no ambition, no grand claims to self-transformation and improvement. The narrator tells Joe that his girlfriend is sleeping around. Joe, a real-estate agent, stands, “like some sort of massive toddler getting out of the bathtub, hit in the stomach by a brick when no one was looking, panting, not knowing he should scream.”
When all of America’s prudes are thrice married and affairs are as common as precarious work, the dramas of Monster Party are not particularly shocking. Nor are they meant to be: the debauchery is generally strained or ironic, more listless than rebellious. The stories themselves read like sketches towards a lost novel: smaller scenes and scenarios of something larger, something looming off the page. This “something” may be nothing more than the common opportunities and limits of a generation. In the title story, we follow these adults slowly shedding their cuteness and realizing their horizon of sadness and pain. But mostly, these adults identify as kids: in “True Love,” our narrator jokes to Mike that Jared, another friend, has been hitting her. Even as a joke, this appearance of a real adult problem sends Jared into a tantrum. “Our relationship is canceled,” he announces, as he throws her out of his house.
In Monster Party, Acker makes scattered comic references to the apocalypse. This sort of thinking—that we are inexorably heading into collective oblivion—once again marks the incapacity of her characters to see themselves in history. They are fatalists, listlessly drifting into the probable storm. One hopes that they, like the possum with which the collection concludes, are only playing dead; and that they, unlike this possum, which is beaten to death with a rock, will awaken before life gets much worse.