Photo credit: Todd V. Wolfson
I’m staring at a monkey.
It’s a vervet monkey, living in a small round enclosure on the grounds of a Long Island wildlife center.
It sits with its back to me; then, seeming to sense my presence, it turns and eyes me. I smile and it curls its lips, displaying its yellow teeth. I call to my wife and kids, who are goggling at the camels. I look back at the cage, and find the monkey is now feet from my face, propped on the thick branch leaning against the bars. It cackles, swaying on the branch.
I think, as novelists do, how would I describe this fellow
? How to describe its narrow, furry, expressive face, its extended, sharp, yellow teeth? It’s simultaneously humorous and frightening.
Without turning away, I call out again to my family, and the monkey imitates my moving mouth — biting down and yammering. I get the feeling this monkey doesn’t like me. As if to solidify the impression, the monkey spreads its legs and lets its penis flop forward. Flop is the wrong verb. The penis protracts in a slow bend until its tip touches the branch like an aquatic tube worm blindly searching the seabed for food. The worst part is, the monkey keeps its eyes firmly locked on mine.
My wife and kids arrive. Should I warn them? Is this perhaps more wildlife than an eight-year-old needs to see? Maybe they won’t even notice.
How could they not? The tube worm twitching, its tip groping in the dirt. The monkey scowls at us, spreads its legs a little wider, and strokes its angled, red member.
Now my kids are truly enthralled.
The monkey stands, gyrating with its hands raised like some aggressive, bitter Chippendale dancer.
I urge the kids away, but they are fascinated.
“Why’s he moving like that?”
“He just touched himself and smelled it!”
“Oh my God, he’s peeing!”
I take a few steps back, pulling my kids away. But the monkey suddenly breaks from its slow-jam dance and rushes to the bars. It screams, bouncing on its branch, its eyes wide and wild, chomping its wide jaw, biting down on its own paw — a quick, enraged dance trying to tell us something. Something. Maybe that it hates its imprisonment, maybe that it despises being on display, maybe that inside it is a storm of lust and confusion? I don’t know. It bites and chatters and scratches at the bars using all the words
we share and making more up, all to tell me what it is to be him, but he can’t. He can hint, cry, jump, bite, and piss. But eventually he fails. Just like I fail. With every book I write, I fail.
We are pulsing with hunger and starlight and we don’t have the words to say it.
I am that monkey. Caged by limited language, limited talent, limited time, and desperate to tell you something I can’t quite convey. I’ll scream and bounce and bite my own claw. I’ll whip out my monkey cock and beg for your attention. At my best, I’ll acrobatically leap through branches of ideas, spinning in midair, and landing with a howl. At my worst, I’ll fling my shit at you. I’ll twist plots and merge words and scribble thousands of pages to try and say what, of course, lies beyond saying.
Good art crackles with this frustration. The frustration necessitates the art. If we could just say what it is to be alive, if we could communicate directly the cosmos of experience inside each of us, we wouldn’t be driven to color canvas, pen operas, or spend years of our brief lives typing out fictions; or stand at the bars of a cage dancing and screaming.
We are pulsing with hunger and starlight and we don’t have the words to say it. But we do have stories.
So I’ll fail. I’ll fail wonderfully and often. I’ll fill pages with beauty and lives and fire. I’ll howl, cry, and sing. Because this, all of this, is beyond words, but it is not beyond stories. We read, we write, for the moments — the miracles — when the bars disappear and for a delicate instant life finds a voice, and something that could not be said is said.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of two previous novels, The Book of Harold
and Everyone Says That at the End of the World
, and one story
collection, How Best to Avoid Dying
. He’s also the writer/director of the psychological horror film Follow
. As a screenwriter, Egerton has written for Fox, Disney, and Warner Brothers. His pieces have appeared in The Huffington Post
. He cowrote the creative writing guide This Word Now
with his wife, poet Jodi Egerton. Egerton also hosts NPR’s The Write Up
is his most recent book.