The Claws That Type the Text: Ander Monson’s Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession

Reviewed By

Things I fear I might crush: bugs just doing their thing, balloons (for sensory purposes), a finger in a careless weightlifting accident, the ribs of my new four-pound puppy. (The li’l fuck has an adorable death wish—every time I take out the trash, he ducks and hurdles and laps my boots as many times as caninely possible, as if death-foot were his favorite game. Honey, no.)

Things I fantasize about crushing: my squat PR, a watermelon between my thighs, the heads of men who go out of their way to crush me first—or at least, the men who pass me in the street and tell me they’d crush me, kill me, correct the alienness of my queer body. Like, with a li’l less make-up, a li’l less estradiol, I imagine they could be me in another life, and I know they imagine it, too. They see me, a nerdy white fag, and some lizard-brained shit within them instructs: Stay the mission, bro, prove your allegiance, bro, put the deviant (bad guy) in its place, bro, you (good guy) are what this amateur could never achieve, you’re literally a literal Alpha in this 100,000 person Midwest town.

Things I’m crushing on right now: Marvel’s The Punisher and its fucked-up 2017 reboot on Netflix, several tattooed himbos on Twitter, and Ander Monson’s latest book Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession.

When reading Monson, it’s difficult not to slip into his witty, sideways way of speaking. To take an idea or word or turn of phrase and willfully misread it, a kind of challenge to excavate the coincidence lurking below its surface (or sir face, à la poet Jos Charles). My impulse to mirror Monson is, perhaps, the effect of a crush. Like how, perhaps, I say “perhaps” too much. And perhaps how I picked up the habit up from reading and re-reading Monson’s first essay collection, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments. Monson wrote Neck Deep back in 2007, as an exercise in hacking the rules of the contemporary essay. In that same what-can-I-get-away-with ethos, Monson’s latest book is his first memoir: Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession (hereafter referred to as PMMO, which, I might add, kind of reads like “pimento” or some variation on “MMORPG”).

As the title suggests, PMMO is loosely about the 1987 Predator film. But mostly, it’s about how Monson watched and rewatched this “big and dumb and stupid” movie filled with phallic guns and oily men, only to find himself pulled back into the America around him. Just as much as PMMO is about analyzing a crush that hasn’t aged well, it’s about pulling at the threads of culture until our clothes begin to unravel.

“A lot of [PMMO] is thinking about what it means to see (ourselves) as another creature,” Monson writes for Essay Daily, “which is the question that a lot of good sci-fi asks us: what can the predator or bird or whatever see in us that we cannot see in ourselves?” In this line of questioning, Monson narrates the film in a play-by-play fashion, pausing every couple of seconds to explore the cultural commentary that seems to just slip by.

Like how in the film, the predator (the monster, the alien, the other) utilizes a thermal camera to hunt Schwarzenegger and friends. Many of these red-blooded men grow vibrant through its eyes, white and hot around their edges, just before the predator leaves their bodies lifeless and blue. It’s cool in a way where my amateur brain can’t muster anything more specific than “cool.” I think most viewers in 1987 saw it and stopped at “cool,” too. But Monson, ever nerdy, refuses to settle. The thermal gimmick—garbled whickering, blobby silhouettes—reminds Monson of how so many action movies depend on thoughtless consumption, with morals spoon-fed to viewers, quite literally, through force. Predator, Monson argues in the chapter “On Infrared,” performs a bait-and-switch: Viewers expect to align themselves with the band of All-American G.I. Joe dolls introduced in the opening, only to be faced with the predator’s point of view as it gains clarity in real time. These men are arrogant and wrathful, it concludes. They kill unarmed creatures. Therefore: it seems pretty chill to dish them some wrath in turn. “I perceive one thing,” Monson writes, “but when I look more closely, tracing one edge or one feature, I see something else within that [same moment]. It’s humbling . . . I remind myself that what I think I see may not be all there is . . . these shots are really about adaption, our ability to see ourselves as others do, and to—hopefully—evolve, at least a little.”

Never one to settle on just one level of subversion, Monson takes this fixation and riffs on it by bringing his own thermal camera into a big game taxidermy museum in Tucson, Arizona. Here, as film criticism melds with memoir (and three or four other genres), Monson attempts to live the predator’s point of view. It’s an imperfect exercise, sure. The predator’s prey is alive and human; these trophies are defenseless and dead. But the point is: By looking upon humankind’s “prey” as if he were the predator, Monson doesn’t just see but feels how vapid big game hunting is. The room washes up blue. It’s not pride or pleasure or art, it’s a “mania for death.” And he can’t help but wonder if he belongs alongside these prizes, blown up by one of the many, many Anarchist Cookbook bombs he concocted as a teen, a victim to his own youthful obsession with danger.

However silly it is to slap on a pair of heat-vision goggles and waltz into a museum full of dead animals—“I feel like a child again”—what signals hope amid the morbidity is Monson’s willingness to pursue such an exercise. Often, it’s difficult to confront questions of self-implication head-on. Rather than saying, Fuck it, and remaining stagnant in the face of cultural horrors, Monson suggests readers start with the marginalia. Exhaust all possibilities. Carve a new path where sweeping prescriptions fail to stick.

Similarly, in another early chapter titled “So Many Easier Ways to Hurt,” Monson takes stock of how the protagonists toss around homophobic jokes and snippets of sexual braggadocio as they helicopter their way into the jungle. They’re confident yet compensating. They’re all going to die within the next hour and forty-five minutes, but they don’t know it yet—and in the meantime, they’re SO psyched to SHOOT THINGS UP. Monson could’ve rebutted each poorly aged snippet of dialogue to prove he’s one of the Good Men™ who’re better than that, but instead he uses the moment to question his own childhood. When a character/caricature in the film drops the f-slur, Monson recalls using it as a boy, imitating the movie’s heroes to overcompensate for his wavering sense of self. An older Monson (who watched countless interviews with the film’s director) will later reveal that these “jokes” were intended to parody hypermasculinity. But in the moment, Monson wrestles with how the irony was lost on his younger self, even if he “[finds] it embarrassing to write here now.”

By reliving these moments of harm (in a non-gratuitous way, btw), Monson’s able to track the small steps of becoming. Destructive assholery is not an overnight thing. It’s a wound inflicted by other wounded boys, then improperly sutured by cheap role models: alcoholic fathers, Hollywood actors, predatory presidents, or pick-up artists selling “confidence” courses:

The things we love at fourteen were made by and of the world we inhabited at fourteen. If that world has embedded itself in us, then it’s embedded itself in a whole generation of usses…it’s more important that the thing gets pulled out of me than the fact that I’m embarrassed it happens. I can’t leave it there unexamined and hopes it goes away.

That leaves the rest of these “usses” to join Monson’s journey. If excavating your wounded, hormonal, fourteen-year-old self sounds terrifying, I have some bad news: It probably always will be. But that’s par for the course. (It’s also an opportunity to subvert all that horrible shit into something beautiful, perhaps.) The best you can hope for is that you can see, like, really see, the impact of all these wounds and repurpose them to grow healthier as a member of a community. Otherwise, if you self-flagellate to the point of giving up, how will you ever make amends?

Since I transitioned and left behind masculinity as a guiding light, I’ve read countless books by men about men, searching for a sort of, I don’t know, Ars Problematica, my own imperfect term for writing that wrestles with what it means to write about problematic selves and problematic art and problematic culture without feigning innocence. Writing that finds value in fucking up, while holding these same fuck-ups accountable. I wanted to know if men knew they inflicted harm when they beat, berated, and inserted themselves into the lives of folks who failed to measure up to their prescriptions. Did they feel remorse? Was anything about masculinity redeemable? Could masculinity be broken down with some element of nuance, or was it an all-or-nothing deal?

Monson never uses the term Ars Problematica, I should clarify, but PMMO certainly reckons with these questions. And yet, if I had to truly dig for a critique of PMMO, it’s that it doesn’t pursue this kind of vulnerability to its fullest potential.

For all PMMO’s reckoning with the Self-through-the-eyes-of-an-Other, I felt like it never fully breached the unique interior of Monson’s present-day masculinity—gender as something more personal than guns, jokes, and media. Monson describes the thousands upon thousands of hours superfans put into their homemade Predator costumes: “When I put my Predator mask on I feel differently, but also I move differently in it: slowly, by necessity, and with deliberation.” Here, I found myself wondering: Okay, so does Monson’s identity as a man sit neatly in and around his body? Or does it fit more like his own attempt(s) at crafting an alien suit: “I know mine is a crappy copy. I give it no name. I make no [social media] post. I claim no authenticity.” Monson opens the door to examine his present self, then nods to the possibilities behind it, then eschews vulnerability in favor of an anecdote about running 5Ks in a tiger costume “to cheers and laughter.” Why—if not for me, then for readers in a similar position—does he stick with the labels of “man” and “manhood” if he feels so shaken? And truly, I’m not suggesting Monson transition if it isn’t comfy, god no, that’s SO much to impose. But this pause, this self-assertion despite the discomfort, is an opportunity to show his masc readers that gender is more than a matter of ticking boxes and signifiers. It’s a complicated, inconsistent settling. It’s a continual reckoning with the self. This “door,” as I’ve named it, is an opportunity to “perhaps” in the most Monson-y vein of perhaps-ing, all toward a fuller sense of self.

The closest Monson comes to this kind of vulnerability is early on in PMMO, a chapter called “Fast-Forward: Billy, Get Me a Way Out of This Hole”:

On book tour right before the 2020 pandemic hit, I had dinner with a couple women in their twenties, and one of them asked me: You write about men and masculinity. What do you think is actually good or worth saving about masculinity…I struggled to respond: What even was masculinity anyway? It seemed so basic and straightforward, but I had such a hard time articulating it in a way that didn’t feel awfully essentialist and reductive, and the more reductive it felt, the less appealing it sounded…I was thinking about the uses of aggression, competitiveness, assertion…I’m no biologist, but it’s pretty obvious to me that more of this behavior is learned rather than innate…Still, this masculinity is not the kind I’ve always particularly identified with or felt particularly capable of or infused by…I’m easily intimidated by the jockeying of men, especially when in large groups. I like the intricacies of typography and like to discuss serifs. I stan the Pet Shop Boys.

Again, Monson walks right up to the edge of something that could really, truly challenge himself and other men reading PMMO. But again, he steps back into easy signifiers. Li’l stamps of media or clothing or stereotypes, as if masculinity is purely material.

I pick on Monson because A) he’s a readily available example, and B) I find a giddy pleasure in reading his work. I make time for him, he’s a man I want to trust despite my longstanding fear of men, I’m fucking rooting for him. And regardless of my parasocial investment, these sorts of interrogations are well within his range. Through PMMO and other works, Monson has proven he’s capable of approaching a subject from a multiverse of angles and personas and points of view. Questions like Is a suit an appropriate metaphor for masculinity? are aligned with Monson’s goal. (Does this suit feel uncomfortably tight in some places and just right in others? How has the suit matured alongside Monson, fraying along the edges once marked by homemade bombs? Does it move through a room in the same ways it used to? Is there a particular pleasure—or acceptance—in the sculpted scruff of a handle-bar moustache? The claws that type the text?) After all, Monson’s Letters to a Future Lover taught me I could write seriously about topics considered “marginalia,” while Neck Deep and Other Predicaments gave me permission to explode and warp and evolve my language on the page, just as I began to play with gender presentation in my body.

Perhaps this isn’t a critique but an invitation for Monson to keep going. The work of unpacking gender as a lived, bodily experience can’t only be the work of trans writers, and cis men have just as much an opportunity to explore their own unique masculinities. It might seem easier to focus on, say, other men enacting Tough Guy™ tropes and follow those wormholes back to multinational corporations—and that is also essential, yes. But to reckon with your own labels, preconceptions, habits, relationships, and social roles as a queer theorist might: That’s the kind of questioning where men can find grounding, intrinsic value, where men can really “see” themselves through all that external noise.

PMMO is an imperfect text, sure, but I prefer imperfect texts like I do imperfect crushes. They get me thinking far more than those that have everything “figured out.” And isn’t that what Monson wanted all along? “All I ask is for us to see ourselves,” he concludes, “to look and also see. To know what we can be and what we can do.”

I can’t dictate the universal rules for what is and isn’t redeemable when it comes to men—nor do I want that ability. But as an enby who’s still debating what tidbits of masculinity I can call mine, Monson’s work gives me hope for what’s to come. We both might’ve been born into a swamp of violence and hurt, but its materials are just as much ours to retool. After all, in the moments before the film shifts into a slew of horror and survival, the infrared camera shows the monster cradling a dead scorpion. It wonders why the Americans crushed it for fun. It lays the creature down with reverence. The camera doesn’t confirm, but it’s possible that the predator weeps, just as I weep now.

 

 

https://store.therumpus.net/product/membership/

***


Mason Andrew Hamberlin (they/them) is a queer writer, designer, educator, bookseller, and cursed earring-maker from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They’re currently at work on an essay collection about the intersection between Zillenial meme culture and queer bodies. In the meantime, some other writing can be found in Ninth Letter, Entropy, Adroit, Shenandoah, and more. Say hi online! More from this author →