Saturday, March 8, 2008

David Maine's "Monster, 1959"

David Maine is the author of The Preservationist, Fallen, and The Book of Samson.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new novel, Monster, 1959, and reported the following, beginning with a passage from Page 99:
Ash: —They said they didn’t want to move prematurely, sir. If the monster falls off the platform, they don’t want it to be too far offshore.

Betty: —What are you talking about? What are you planning here?

Captain: —Let’s hope they get the voltage right.

Betty: —You mustn’t hurt him!

Johnny: —Easy darling. No one’s going to hurt Romeo here. Billy’s got a nice place for him in the warehouse district.

Billy: —A regular Waldorf-Astoria, doll. And it cost about as much!

Johnny, placing a hand on Betty’s shoulder: —But we’ve got to knock him out to get him under control. Surely you can see that.

Billy: —It’s not like we can carry him up another cliff and throw him over again, can we?

Impatient, Betty shakes off Johnny’s reassurance. Sometimes—only sometimes, but more and more often lately—her husband feels like a complete stranger to her.

The exchange doesn’t go unnoticed. Billy studies his friends from the corner of his eye. He notices the tension locking Betty’s shoulders, the stubborn set of Johnny’s jaw, the professional calm of the captain. Billy figures he knows a thing or two about human nature, about how people react under stress. Johnny’s bull-headedness, an asset in some circumstances (on the island, pursuing Betty and the monster) can be a drawback at other times (sinking every penny he owned into a single safari, a one-shot that gambled everything. And lost). Johnny just doesn’t know when to quit, how to say enough is enough. But then anybody who has ever watched him drink, or play poker, or mix with the girls, knows that already.

Billy also knows a thing or two about Betty’s overgenerous heart. How she’ll give the benefit of the doubt to anyone. Or in this case anything, especially anything male.

There was a professor at my college who liked to say that you could measure the greatness of a culture by counting the number of cheeses it produces. (US = 1; Britain = 2; France = 273). It was a funny line but I never quite believed it, and I feel the same way about Ford’s idea. Great quote, it’s pithy and memorable. But accurate?

My book Monster, 1959 is something of a kaleidoscope. Or, as one reviewer put it, it’s “all over the map.” She meant that as a criticism, but I don’t take it that way. The book is all over the map, both in terms of theme and content, and incorporates lots of things — a pastiche of monster movie clich├ęs, a contextual smattering of contemporary events, faux documentary elements, pop culture references, a wildly intrusive third person narrator. The viewpoint character can’t think or talk. The narration veers wildly in both tone and content. Is it possible to encapsulate all that in any single page? Probably not.

Here on page 99, we find ourselves with the human characters as they watch the 40-foot-tall radiation monster, K., that they have abducted from his island home and towed by steamship back to the USA. There is a terse exchange between these characters, then the POV shifts to one of them as he reflects on he conversation.

Is this representative? In some ways, sure. The situation and dialogue mimic a cheesy 1950s B-movie — this conversation is even written as a script — but then I try to twist those conventions, as Billy’s reflections suggest. But there is much you don’t see on this page, most obviously the monster, the glue that holds the story together. Or the peripheral 1950s context of the story: the nuke tests, the desegregation of public schools, the Suez War, and much else. The stories used to re-tell and distort the original story — comic books, newspaper reports, a stage play — are all missing. Which is, maybe, just a way of saying the obvious: that one page cannot hope, really, to represent 242. This doesn’t apply only to my book, either; I can think of many that simply contain too much to be distilled down to a single page.
Read more about Monster, 1959 -- and learn more about the author and his work -- at David Maine's blog, The Party Never Stops.

--Marshal Zeringue