Perhaps you recall, from last summer, a moderately interesting post on this blog about how to find authors "struggling to be noticed." Well, that was me. I mentioned Ander Monson's Other Electricities in that piece, and here I am again, this time telling you that I nominated the book for the Winter 2005 LBC Read This! event. What can I say? Six months later, it was still the best new book I read all year. And probably next year, too.
The story takes place in Keweenaw, the upper reaches of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Once the area was dominated by copper mines, logging, and commercial fishing. Now it's mostly vacationland. Year-round residents are aware of the natural beauty but also of the shuttered mines and the rusted remnants of long-gone industry.
The narrator of the book is a 19-year-old boy. His mother recently died of cancer. Since his mother's death, his father spends all his time in the attic, playing with his shortwave radio:
He stopped going to work. He told us he had enough money stashed to keep us up for a year. He kept provisions downstairs and would make excursions once or twice a night for salty snacks. He was always up on the night. Radiating some signal of distress.
The narrator spends much of his time thinking about Liz, a friend who died when her car went through the ice in a prom-night accident. Other dark events occur as well: someone else goes through the ice on a snowmobile; a girl is murdered by her thuggish boyfriend. There's also a generous amount of teenage and not-so-teenage crime, from shoplifting to vandalism to bank robbery, mentioned in passing.
In fact, Other Electricities is a long meditation on the things in life that surpass our understanding: love, fate, the unfathomable mystery of other human beings. And, of course, death:
Whereas Liz is gone, and there is only a slight emptiness now, a year after the fact, I think she is somehow here – caught in the detritus dust caught in the pale green living room curtains, somewhere in the radio waves coming through the air, or perhaps misaddressed in the mail, eventually to find her way back to me. I don't know if this is a healthy feeling.
What do I like so much about Monson's book? First, the form. The characters and themes wind through thirty short chapters ranging from two to twelve pages. There's also an enhanced table of contents (with "brief key word index and identification of speakers/main characters as appropriate"), an annotated list of characters and themes, and (at the back of the book) an index. And, oh yeah, the text is decorated with schematic diagrams from the 1985 handbook of the American Radio Relay League, the US national organization of amateur radio operators.
You may smile at this material but don't dismiss it as a gimmick. Together with the book's loose structure, it means you can read the chapters in almost any order. In fact, it's better to read the chapters randomly, since your indirection mirrors the hero's own approach to the central mysteries of the book – things always to be circled, never reached. In the end, though it's described on the cover as a collection of stories, Other Electricities coheres in character, theme, and narrative voice like few novels I've read.
Speaking of voice, Monson is a master of tone, and in this respect the book is a brilliant balancing act: dark, strangely soulful, yet funny too. Monson also writes poetry and some of the figures are beautifully drawn, as in his description of a gusty wind, "kicking through the trees like a vandal."
Finally, Other Electricities reclaims a little part of the world for literature. So often, tales of the upper Midwest are either Hemingway or Anderson, testosterone-charged adventure or small-town desperation. Monson doesn't borrow these myths; he makes his own. Other Electricities is one of those rare books that takes a part of the world we think we know, and makes us see it as if for the very first time.
Thanks to Nickole Brown at Sarabande Books for her support on this nomination. Next week, January 23-27, we'll have a week-long discussion of Other Electricities, featuring a podcast interview with the author and other special features. Come back and join us, won't you?