Other Electricities by Ander Monson
Interspersed throughout Other Electricities are a series of radio schematics, black and white diagrams of nodes and connections. Next to them, Ander Monson has written what at first appear to be impenetrable captions: “Dear, some distances are accidental”; “Dear, distance is a constellation, dead light from distant stars"; “Dear, this distance is now all I have, a wine-dark sea, a solo moan, a haunting." There’s no terminal punctuation; the sentences just hang there in midair, a lot like a radio transmission that suddenly goes dead. There’s a growing sense of desperation in the messages as the book progresses, and it ends with a final one-line transmission that somehow both ties everything together and busts it apart. If that sounds vague, it’s because Other Electricities affects you on an ethereal level -- it’s angelic and musical, and more than anything I’ve read recently, it begs to be experienced and not just read.
Monson’s book is subtitled “Stories,” but that might be a feint. It reads like a novel, or, more specifically, like a novel that reads like a collection of short stories. Set in a small part of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, the stories follow an unnamed teenaged narrator who is “at times perhaps the author,” according to a chart in the front of the book. (It’s a chart documenting the characters and their relationships to one another -- the living in white, the dead in gray. It might sound gimmicky; it’s actually not at all.) The narrator’s father is an emotionally dead recluse who is able to maintain interest in his ham radio; his brother is disabled and unable, or unwilling, to speak. There’s a series of friends, a couple of teachers, and there’s Liz, “the central X,” the object of his devotion, killed when the car she was in breaks through a frozen lake on prom night. The narrator’s love for Liz is declaimed even in the index, where an entry reads “Liz:... Liz my X, Liz my X my only X; Liz my unknown quotient, my lonely roamer. Liz my rune... Liz, still life under ice; Liz who I had wanted for a long time...” It’s breathtaking, both in the quality of the prose and the fiercely real emotion behind it. And that’s the index.
The stories, individually, are unfailingly excellent and frequently brilliant. The first is six paragraphs about a police officer assigned to tell a girl’s parents that she was killed in a car accident. It’s unadorned, written in effortless second person, and it’s gripping. Some stories are presented as instructional: “Instructions for Divers: On Retrieval” and “To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder,” which is one of the most haunting, deeply unsettling stories I’ve ever read. Some are nominally mathematical and scientific: “Subtraction Is The Only Worthwhile Operation” and “Consideration of the Force Required to Break an Arm.” Monson is at his best when he inhabits the voice of the narrator -- the one who may sometimes be him -- in stories like “We Are Going to See the Oracle of Apollo in Tapiola, Michigan.” Monson has a startlingly unique ability to conflate the forces of nature with the forces of human frailty, and he does it in “Tapiola” with passages like: “Besides electricity, other things can move us. Gasoline for one, or loyalty, or fire. Fire that comes from anything that is a burst a birth a burning bush that will soon go out in snow. Fire that is a way of loving property. Fire that is my cousin Ben when he stayed with us, out until too late doing God Knows What in Michigan then returning with his boots loud on the floor of the house... I have told Liz some of this, a little bit at a time. She knows what fire is to me.” It’s possible to just get lost in Monson’s prose, which is, at its best, hypnotic and songlike. In the acknowledgments, Monson thanks the indie rock/slowcore band Low “for providing a kind of soundtrack to this book (certainly to the writing of the book).” It’s hard to think of a more apt comparison -- the Duluth-based Low aren’t far geographically from Monson’s Keweenaw Peninsula, and they’re not far in tone, voice and spirit.
There’s a good reason that the reading public is skeptical of prose that gets referred to as “experimental” -- it’s often long-winded, impenetrable and painfully self-indulgent. There are some elements of the experimental in Other Electricities, but they’re pulled off with an almost superhuman confidence and intelligence. Monson manages to be both oblique and accessible, and the care he takes with his prose is refreshingly evident. This is the kind of book that’s too brave and honest for New York publishers. (Cheers to Kentucky-based Sarabande Books to bringing it to our attention.) I can promise you’ve never read anything like it, and you’re not likely to again. It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which Ander Monson does not become a vital, profound and essential voice in American fiction.
Other Electricities by Ander Monson