As promised, on Monday and Tuesday of this week, a few members of the LBC will be in dialogue about Ander Monson's Other Electricities. Here's the first installment.
I have to admit, until I read the post by Sam, I had strictly read the book adhering to the cover, where it referred to Other Electricities as "stories." Reading Sam's post made me reconsider what I had read (and heavily suggested a re-reading of the book which I've made it through). I can now easily see this working as a novel as Sam detailed.
I think the thing I enjoyed the most about Monson's work is the intricate wording of the stories. How every sentence in "Dream Obits for My Mother" started with either the word "who" or "whose." How "The Organization and Formation of Blizzards as Seen by Satellites" has groups of sentences beginning with words starting with the letter A, and then groups of sentences beginning with words starting with the letter B, and so on right through Z.
An interesting comparison comes from a reading of his award winning collection of poetry, Vacationland (2005, Tupelo Press). Many of the same individuals appear — in fact the Liz who died in a car crashing through ice accident on her prom night that Sam mentioned in his post, has an entire section of poems listed as being for her. There's some great wordplay in his poetry as well — frequent sentences where very similar words fall next to each other, or just a word or two farther away.
Dan, there's an interview with Monson in the Adirondack Review that ties together both your themes:
"One of the strategies I used in pulling the book together to be something more than just a bunch of unrelated stories (in fact I think of it as a novel, though the press says it's stories) is to have these repeating motifs echoing through the book."
We could probably talk for a week about uses of repetition in the book: verbal, phrasal, thematic, symbolic, etc. Monson is talking here mostly about
thematic repetition, but I think they all help tie the book together.
The types of repetition and wordplay you mention are conventional in poetry. They strike us as unusual in Other Electricities because they occur in prose. Even novels that are described as "poetic" don't usually incorporate poetic techniques — they're imagistic or impressionistic or just "sound good." Monson's does.
Believe it or not, I never noticed the alphabetical order in "Organization and Formation." Shows you what I know. But that reminds me of another connection I didn't mention in my original post, which is Oulipo. I was reminded many times of the Oulipo novelist George Perec when I was reading Other Electricities — maybe it was the interplay between order and emotion, the sense that the ability to create order, even of the most trivial kind, is our only defense against despair. Maybe Derik, who mans the Oulipo desk at LBC, will touch on this when he posts on "novels with indexes" on Friday.
I, too, was drawn in first by the language in Monson, because when I first started reading the book, I had no idea what I was in for. The first story seemed a bit too long to me, but I also liked its oddities and rhythms. Then I found myself drawn in by some of the very short stories, many of which felt like poems in the sense that the patterns of language and imagery seemed to be as important as any narrative they contributed to. I began to skip around, and ended up reading the book entirely out of order, though I did save the last (and lovely) story for the end, which I think was a good idea.
Did anybody else jump around, reading the stories out of order?
I quickly stopped thinking of the book as just a short story collection; too much in it is too well woven together. It's a collection of echoes and revisitations. The choice of images frequently impressed me, particularly the details of weather and technology, the intersections of nature and science in ordinary lives.
Overall, I was quite fond of this book, though I also had a certain sense of emptiness from it, and I'm not sure why that was. Garner I liked for similar reasons, but it also felt fuller to me, richer emotionally than Other Electricities. On the other hand, maybe the emptiness I felt with Other Electricities wasn't so much emptiness as quietude, the soft and distant melancholy of watching a snowstorm late at night when the entire world is still.
The first time I read the collection straight through. When I re-read it this past week, I did skip around, and might even have missed some of the longer stories — it was harder to make sure I had read everything because even those I may have missed sounded familiar enough from the first read through.
I agree with you Matt that the reading of that last story as your final piece makes great sense — most authors that I've read of how they decided to order their "collections" state that they intentionally pick the first couple and last couple of stories for specific reasons.
The weather in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan must be an awesome force — every story I've read set there: this collection, Sharon Dilworth's The Long White (even the title), and various other individual stories — have left me with the emptiness that Matt describes and I don't think it's so much an emotional emptiness as the idea that Matt ends up with — the feeling of sitting out amongst all that snow and quiet and almost feeling swallowed by it.
Emptiness in Other Electricities — what a great topic, Matt. I wonder how often the word "emptiness" itself occurs in the book.
"Whereas Liz is gone, I know, and there is only a slight emptiness now, a year after the fact ..."Dan, I think Monson does use the landscape and the weather to suggest emotional emptiness. And I guess the book calls on poetic tradition as well as poetic technique: this is basically the "pathetic fallacy" that Ruskin complained about when he looked at contemporary poetry 150 years ago. (And which I studied 125 years ago. Yes, I remember Ruskin. In old age he used to sit in the garden pretending to read. Drawing closer, one noticed that he held the book upside down. But I digress.)
Best example of the pathetic fallacy, I think, is from Housman's A Shropshire Lad:
In my own shire, if I was sadSays Ruskin:
Homely comforters I had:
The earth, because my heart was sore
Sorrowed for the son she bore;
And standing hills, long to remain,
Shared their short-lived comrade's pain
And bound for the same bourn as I
On every road I wandered by,
Trod beside me, close and dear
The beautiful and death-struck year.
"The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy is, as I said above, that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or overclouded, or overdazzled by emotion ..."But I don't think this is where the emptiness comes from in Other Electricities. I think it comes rather from a sense that the tragic events of the narrative are being dealt with at a distance (distance — another theme!) and even, perhaps, that the narrator is using his schemes and themes to protect himself from feeling. Ultimately, I think we sense the futility of these schemes — and even language itself, as the repetitions suggest — in helping him (us) deal with his (our) losses. It's the same futility you find in Beckett, and people are still arguing about whether it's profound or hollow, courageous or weak ...