October 2012

Martyn Pedler


Go, Go, Go, Go, Go: Theo Ellsworth's The Understanding Monster

Misery makes you embrace clichés -- one day at a time, dance like no one's watching, et cetera -- but those clichés turn sour as they fail you. Time is the only thing that'll help? Then why are clocks ticking and suns setting and seasons changing with an almost sarcastic speed and everything feels worse and worse?

So you try burying yourself in fiction. You go to the movies, but something's wrong with the screen. It's either too small, like it's buried in the seatback of a budget airline, or it's enormous and incomprehensible. Like Philip Marlowe says in Chandler's The Long Goodbye: "It meant nothing. I hardly saw what went on. It was just noise and big faces." Reading's no better. Every book could be under a pane of filthy inch-thick glass. Is this really what used to thrill you? Move you?

A few of months of depression had chipped away at the thing inside me that let me project into fiction. I mostly settled on using the TV for the anesthetic glow of old cartoons and sitcoms. When I opened Theo Ellsworth's The Understanding Monster, though, without even noticing, I reached for the remote control. I sat in silence and read it cover to cover. The Understanding Monster absorbs attention like a black hole absorbs light.

It begins with a strange figure (a mummy? a spaceman?) projecting three images (a mouse? a bed? a monster?) and these words: "There you are! Time-lapse evolving into a living physical body has caused you to go into sudden manifestation shock. It's vital that you keep your limbs in motion. I'm going to be setting a negative-time clock inside of your new brain. When the clock strikes zero, you will turn a very important corner."

Got it? Technically, the narrator -- a multi-dimensional robot who exists only in the story's margins -- is talking to a mouse named Izadore. Ellsworth collapses Izadore and the reader so successfully that all the instructions could be coming directly out of the page. It makes it feel like a children's book; the incredibly dense artwork makes you feel like a child as you read it. There's almost no flat color to let your eyes settle. You're left trying to make sense of the intricate biology of the book's toys and monsters, or the trail left by a buzzing fly that creates a maze, or the tails of word balloons that twist and wind around their surroundings. There are Time Crystals. Micro-Seeing-Eye-Orbs. Gel-Mold Apparitions. It's overwhelming.

I was reminded of Brecht Evens's beautiful Night Animals, released last year. It consists of two stories, each its own take on a Where the Wild Things Are-like flight from the everyday to a fantasy kingdom. In the first, a man dons a rabbit suit, climbs through a toilet, and follows glowing arrows through sewers and oceans and forests to find his reward. In the second, a girl's embarrassed, as she gets her period in gym class. She runs home only to be met by a horned creature in high heels that carries her to a blood-red place where she is stripped naked and painted in glorious celebration.

But in Night Animals's most complex landscapes, where every inch is packed with monsters, you're still never lost. Your eye moves through them as if floating down a river. Ellsworth's worlds are much more difficult to navigate. It's a bad dream that poor Izadore is trying to escape. It doesn't help that ghosts live in the walls, whispering things like "You have a trained group of specialists working against you" and "All of your friends are actually me in disguise."

Some comic art is intentionally assaultive, rubbing the reader's face in nightmare imagery with the glee of a high school bully. That's not the case here. In an interview with Zack Smith, Ellsworth said that drawing The Understanding Monster "actually felt a little scary at points, like it was completely out of my grasp." (He adds: "It turns out that embarking on a quest to gain complete access to one's own subconscious is not to be done lightly.") He's lost in here, too. Author, reader, and mouse: we're all in this together.

(Also, the dreamlike worlds of Night Animals are places traveled to; reality waits for its inhabitants to return, even if they refuse to do so. The realities of The Understanding Monster unfold in layers, but I'm not sure any is more or less real than another. As Izadore's told, "You really are a house. You're in a room inside yourself." Where's home, anyway? What's home?)

You could read The Understanding Monster in random order for its art alone. Despite all of its eddies and whorls and tangents, however, it's genuinely propulsive right from the "reverse countdown" of its opening chapter. It's a race against time to put together Izadore's spiritual components. The inertia of doubt and fear wants to keep everything standing still, but motion, any motion, is the only way out. "I know the urge to stop is overwhelming, Izadore," says the robot, "but you're not going to stop. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go." It's vital that you keep your limbs in motion.

The last few months killed whatever lingering ideas I had about critical objectivity. I probably experienced some great art that left me stone cold. And maybe this book wouldn't have hit me so hard if I didn't need to be reminded to keep turning the pages. Ignore the ghosts. Accept outside help. Put yourself together again.

The best part is that there's more of The Understanding Monster to come. Sometimes the most comforting words are just "to be continued."

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.