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Matthew Bell has commented on (2) products.

Neck Deep and Other Predicaments: Essays by Ander Monson
Neck Deep and Other Predicaments: Essays

Matthew Bell, January 25, 2007

First, a disclaimer: I think that it would be almost impossible for me to dislike Ander Monson. The author of last year's 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 and Other Predicaments biased, because after reading the book I know I would have liked it either way. The winner of Graywolf Press's 2006 Nonfiction Prize, 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. Neck Deep and Other Predicaments comes out in February, and shouldn't be missed.
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Before You She Was a Pit Bull by Elizabeth Ellen
Before You She Was a Pit Bull

Matthew Bell, January 24, 2007

When I first started reading literary magazines, I had one small problem: I didn't know any of the names on the back or in the table of contents, so I didn't know where to start reading or who I was interested in. As I continued to read different magazines and to put my own work out for publication, I started to run across certain names over and over. One of those names was Elizabeth Ellen, editor of Hobart's Short Flight / Long Drive Books division and now the author of the newly released Before You She Was A Pit Bull, a chapbook from Future Tense Books.

The six stories in this debut collection each detail relationships characterized by longing, by obsession, by wanting what you can't have while refusing to risk what you've already got. Lines are drawn in the sand and then crossed forcefully, as the female protagonists of Ellen's stories hurtle themselves at the men they've chosen as their objects of desire, at the kind of relationships they believe they need. In one story, the blonde narrator in "Trucker" aptly describes the experience of chasing the "brunettes only" Trucker like this:

"This is the sort of bullshit you find yourself succumbed to when you fall face-first in love with yet another shit-for-brains motherfucker and this time said motherfucker's already married, when he's got a regular mail-order bride with an unpronounceable name waiting back home for him between her ten dollar space heater and foreign language speaking dog, eating sour cream and yogurt out of little plastic containers and watching Portuguese soap operas on satellite T.V.: you find yourself snowshoeing in the middle of a goddamn blizzard at two o'clock in the morning; in lieu of having sex, I mean; in lieu of normal, human interaction."

As a snowstorm forces the two closer together, the narrator revels in needing Trucker for warmth, in his needing her for the same. It is not a relationship exactly, but it is better than what she had when the story began. Similar motives and revelations lie behind the taste for erotic asphyxiation discovered in "Breathing Lessons," or the deep co-dependency detailed between a widow with a dead child and her teenage lover in "Avoidance." These women are all studies in contrasts, strong and fiercely aggressive at times while needy and blocked off at others, their insecure desires fueling the dangerous trajectories they carve through these stories.

Two of the stories concern young girls instead of adults. The first story, "What I've Been Told With Regard to the Pianist," is also my favorite in the collection. The pianist is named Samuel, who the young narrator informs us is six-foot-three, married to a nurse, and plays piano at a bar where he meets the narrator's mother before moving into their house. He is also a recovering heroin addict and male prostitute, according to the mother:

""After seven years he moved back here," she tells me as we climb into the truck for a second time this morning, the remains of our breakfast tossed onto the dash in a rolled up sack with pink and brown lettering. "He told me that's how long it takes to lose your taste for the stuff. He said that if you can manage to stay alive that long, you walk away a free man.""

The narrator goes on to become friends with Samuel, who intrigues her with his abilities as a pianist, his taste in movies, and his general kindness towards her. Eventually, he's destined to disappear from her life as all of her mother's boyfriends have, but not before he takes her out to eat and to a movie, leading to a tender moment as they leave the theater, one that makes the anger of the next few scenes even harder to stomach:

"Outside, the parking lot looks like the inside of a snow globe and every car looks like same. The pavement is slick and I stumble and have to hold out my arms like a tightrope walker to steady myself. Sam walks up next to me and takes my hand and we walk the rest of the way together and I don't fall or stumble again."

When the narrator wonders later what it would be like to be like Samuel, to be "a different person in seven years," and if she'll like it or not. Judging by her mother, and by the kind of adults Ellen's characters grow up to be, it's easy to see that yes, the narrator will be different, although it seems unlikely that she'll be perfectly happy when that time comes. There seems to be a progression between the women in these stories, perhaps even separated by the pianist's seven long years: The child of "The Loyalists" becomes the teenager of "What I've Been Told With Regard to the Pianist," then the twenty-something narrators of "Trucker" and "Breathing Lessons," before becoming the older women in stories such as "Avoidance" and "The Trouble With Miriam." These women are not necessarily getting better or worse, only different. They do not find epiphanies, although they do seek rapture. They do not find solace, although they want to be comforted. They do not become whole, although they all find some way to make up for whatever it is missing.

Elizabeth Ellen has given us only six short stories here, six out of a repertoire that already contains dozens of other stories that are easily as strong as the ones here; Surely, there are more to come. Unpretentious, unflinching, and unafraid, her prose is as beautifully vivid as it is haunting, and Before You She Was A Pit Bull is just the first showing of this fantastic writer is capable of. I cannot recommend Ellen's work highly enough, and this books is a great place to start a habit of reading everything she writes.
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