, January 25, 2007
(view all comments by Matthew Bell)
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.