Leaving aside the question as to whether this bit of self-reflection is premature or even pretentious, I proffer it with the age-old proviso (actually, D.H. Lawrence in 1924): “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”
Many thanks to my cousin, Tennille Astor, whose extensive email dialogue with me about The Monster & the Proxy helped me to form many of the thoughts contained herein.
—V.C. September 14, 2009
|Cover painting by Gabriela García|
My willingness to write fictively about actual events within my clan such as incest, sexual abuse, homophobia, disownment and rape has been called a betrayal to the family. First, I believe the treachery is in the odious acts committed, and second, my special affliction is an obsessive-compulsive disorder obliging me to poke at truth as one would pick at an itchy scab: for relief and the thrill of seeing fresh blood spilled. No doubt this impulse has been a detriment to my social progress.
When we hold onto others’ dark secrets due to social/familial pressure, we create a rift in authenticity and diminish ourselves. ("It’s the damage that we do and never know/It’s the words that we don’t say that scare me so"—Elvis Costello, “Accidents Will Happen.”) However, the shame we carry from keeping the skeletons closeted is not our own, and by going public with the truth we can unburden ourselves of this unwarranted responsibility. No doubt feelings will be hurt, and many reasons will be offered as to why it is wrong to speak out—I have found none of these compelling.
The opening scene of the book, in which Ben awakes from a dream drenched in sweat, convinced he has AIDS, did actually happen to me, and I did, in fact, in that condition compose the poem “Heredity.” I have never completely returned from the upper stratum I visited that fevered night, and my desire to demolish that which is False has not abated. While it is axiomatic that an act of destruction is exponentially simpler, requiring less thought, than one of creation, I favor the Hindu view of Shiva as embodying both Creator and Destroyer and model my philosophy and behavior after that holy and inevitable alliance. If I shatter a cherished belief on one page I desire to invent and inspire hope on another.
Illness as a metaphor has presented itself front and center in my life, but I do not aim to iron out the rough edges of the analogy—this novel is not an artifice that can be easily molded into an aesthetically pleasing, or even comprehensible, shape. The events of our lives are sloppy and awkward—one portion begins before the previous has properly ended; we are rife with contradictions, overloaded by ambiguities and ambivalence.
In an earlier draft of the novel I had Ben, in his role as narrator, pontificate:
This is not what happened. My account is not even the whole of what I think happened—merely what I’ve been able to transmit. As I take a long view of what I’ve written, I see conclusions emerging from the text that I have not intended. I am tempted to comment on this, I want to say that if Jamin is a burnt offering, he has been laid to waste upon the altar of shame and judgment. But this chronicle is not meant to embody an über-philosophy; it aspires to be personal and relevant to my extended family, which now includes you, the Reader.
The point is, it doesn’t matter what I think, and I won’t try to persuade you beyond this untidy confession. Jamin and his family are no longer mine, they are yours to share and think about. Do with them as you please. If my family objects to such intimacy or if I demur upon hearing your analysis, it is of no consequence beyond that of a spoiled child’s tantrum.
I removed this section, realizing I was talking to myself more than the reader, and that these ruminations were ill-placed—speculation on the meaning of Jamin’s life should be left for the reader to discover, conjure and/or interpret, and Ben, as a stand-in for the author, needn’t tell us that he has no business telling us, however cleverly expressed. Having said that, and at the risk of wildly contradicting myself, there are a few more things I would like to comment upon that are germane to the writing of this book.
RE-ENVISIONING A MONSTER
The short story, which spanned two years of alternately sporadic and intensive writing, was emotionally draining to produce. I never wished to revisit that terrain, but when I re-read my effort some years later, I concluded that the story seemed like an outline for a larger work, and that while it was chock full of events and insights, it was perhaps a little too crammed and could benefit from further explication. Heather believed Monster to be an important story and I came to agree that it deserved a more an extended effort.
The first thing that I decided to change was the role of the narrator. In the short story the focus is clearly and squarely on Jamin at almost all points. The narrator, while opinionated, remains nameless. If there were more to be said in a novelized version of this story, then the narrator would need to tell us more about himself. In the end I made the narrator my chief protagonist, and subjugated Jamin to a pivotal, but secondary, role. Thus was Ben “born.”
I wished to retain the short story’s moving-around-in-time narration. However, I believed the jerky, unpredictable back and forth I’d contrived for the short story might be too cumbersome for a novel, and I wasn’t sure I was up to the task of smoothing it out. What I settled on was a series of “flash-forwards” in the midst of an otherwise linear story, somewhat disguised by the fact that the book starts with a flash-forward (thus the structure is “forth and back”). Essentially the novel starts in 1990, backtracks to the birth of Ben & Jamin in 1957, then lurches briefly to the future and recommences with the past. Each backward leap picks up chronologically from where the previous one ended, while the forward jumps consistently land in ’94 and ’95 until the story catches up to 1994, which is then followed by the final forward jump (now a simple continuation) to 1995 in the last “Death by Protocol” section, “The Witness.”
The scope of the story widened in the novel as well. No longer concerned exclusively with Jamin and his fate, the novelized version seeks to set the background for Jamin and Ben’s lives by limning the feel of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s & ’90s. In so doing it is my hope that the zeitgeist of an entire generation is depicted, and the destiny of a segment of its gay subset illuminated. What this meant practically was that Ben’s life would need to come to the fore. As it is, the novel takes license with narration concerning Jamin, presented from a nearly omniscient viewpoint. I presume that the reader will guess, even if not always explicitly informed, that such events were “as told to” Ben by Jamin. Nevertheless, there is only so much of this I felt comfortable doing and, for the sake of variety as well, I chose to depict the great bulk of incidents that chronicled the eras, as coming from Ben’s life.
SEX AND CHILDREN
The sexuality of children is a dangerous thing to talk about much less commit to paper, for most adults wish to think of the little scamps as asexual, believing that somehow their hormones magically kick in at some appropriate age. But I have only to scan my own history to know that we are curious explorers, and that much thought about sex occurs even as we know little of its true nature. On the other hand, it may be that by universalizing my experience I am portraying a skewed vision—perhaps my childhood was more rife with sex than a typical child’s—but I think it more likely that children forget or block those experiences from memory (or at least from public discourse).
Beyond mere description, it is even dicier to suggest that not all childhood sexuality is evil, or to extol some of it as virtuous, rather than label it in knee-jerk fashion as perverse, abuse or both. There are distinctions to be made, and they center on that tricky axis of free will and consent—how and when can a child make such decisions, and with whom? I will not tell you what event in The Monster falls into which category, but prefer that you peruse and allow your heart and mind to discern.
The arguments that accompany the assessment of HIV/AIDS as a largely fabricated epidemic are more complex and nuanced than could be addressed in the novel or here (lest either piece be burdened with facts, citations and interpretations). But I did feel it necessary to voice this alternative perspective as a way of understanding both the micro- and macroscopic chunks of history I present.
While Ben is probably more of a hard-line “HIV/AIDS-skeptic” than I am, we do share this point of view. My opinions have largely been formed by my own observations as the epidemic unfolded and by the courageous work of Peter Duesberg, award-winning professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California and author of Inventing the AIDS Epidemic as well as Christine Maggiore, author of the booklet What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? (which I've found to be a concise and invaluable guide for the layperson). I commend these authors and works to anyone wishing a clearer understanding of what precisely was/is happening epidemiologically and politically vis-à-vis AIDS.
ON THE UBIQUITY OF SEX IN MONSTER
I write explicitly about sex when I think it’s integral to a story, and it is especially pertinent in this tale. I don’t aim to sensationalize—my intention is the opposite, i.e. to demystify by removing shrouding curtains.
Much of the sex within this book is graphic, if not pornographic (one person was heard to describe it as “hardcore” with this word’s frequently ensuing companion “porn” strongly implied). Whether or not what I’ve written is pornographic or even obscene is of little matter to me. I will let others decide whether my work contains the “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” which the Supreme Court has ruled it must in order to be afforded First Amendment protection. No doubt the acceptability bar for literature will be raised and lowered by turns with the shifting mores of each generation. All I can say in my “defense” is that I compose with purpose and that as a writer I don’t believe any subject off-limits. In fact, in my estimation, it is the duty of artists to investigate the outer reaches of experience, just as it is the explorer’s job to travel to a frontier and report back, so that the rest of us may know of its existence and vicariously taste the flavor of a strange land even if we never choose to venture there ourselves.
Further, in my view sex can be most useful in delineating character by revealing what is within us, as can any other situation which puts us ill at ease or in which we must make decisions based on complex variables. Until our society regards sex as truly natural and uncontroversial, it will continue to be a useful literary tool.
MATTERS OF LIFE & DEATH
Freud’s Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death instinct) are at play (if not war) in this novel. The Prologue juxtaposes Ben’s mother’s thanatotic impulse and Ben’s “erotic” response, in order to create an atmosphere which will pervade and inform throughout the book. The Prologue is titled “Heredity” and in the poem of the same name Ben seeks to overcome the “genetic” curse of living in stasis and waiting for death. The rest of the book is an exploration of this conflict, if obliquely: Chapter One opens with Jamin seeking AIDS as a career move, and later shows Ben’s mother craving the beautiful vision of Heaven she dreams after her mother’s death. Ben dances and brings his mother back from the dead, with mixed results. In the ensuing pages numerous examples are given of people cozying up to death, culminating with the last chapter’s final scene at the nursing home: Ben high from a hallucinogen (or life), contrasted with Jamin lying still in bed, moving towards death, unaware of his surroundings. Ben imagines performing a shamanic dance to undo Jamin’s impending death—it’s an echo of the kindergarten dance which “saved” his mother, but is it the correct course of action? No longer a child, Ben can now act with forethought; further, unlike the five-year-old who desperately needed his mommy as she headed toward the Pearly Gates, Ben’s life does not depend upon Jamin’s survival. Ben’s vision of AIDS as a monster compels him to disentangle from the double-helix connecting him to Jamin; once fully individuated from his uncle, Ben is able to ponder the differences between them. How they each got to their respective places is the mystery that the book scrutinizes.
THAT SLIPPERY TITLE
As in my novel Sanity’s Bane, the complete meaning of the title is withheld until the final pages. Unlike Sanity’s Bane, whose title could easily call up a generic explanation as early as the first chapter (i.e. Janice’s apparent insanity, Victor’s possible descent into same and the ruin this might cause) the title The Monster & the Proxy is odd enough to demand the question be answered within the specifics of the text. There are hints, and perhaps red herrings, strewn along the way: Joshua is described on a couple of occasions as a monster; the Loch Ness bar with which Ben and Jamin have a legal tussle has a monstrous logo and door policy (and the struggle with the bar is called a proxy for Ben’s “marital” difficulties with Joshua). The health care proxy that Jamin gives to Ben makes its first appearance about a third of the way into the book, but the reader may surmise much earlier that such a document will come into play, given that AIDS is a major theme from the outset. Those who’d been incarcerated in the ’80s and ’90s would have a leg up in this titular guessing game—in prisons AIDS was called “the Monster” because of the swift and horrific way it ravaged its victims. While this was the inspiration for the title, I’ve gone further with the metaphor by creating a personified monster that Ben encounters in his climactic vision.
Beyond these concrete explanations, I wished to instill in the reader curiosity and active pondering. Who or what in this story is a monster? Jamin? Ben? Joshua? Homophobes? What thing is a proxy for what other thing? An invented “disease” as a proxy for medical murder? Jamin as proxy for the AIDS epidemic? Rape and prostitution as proxy for the denial of love?
Ultimately Ben not only holds Jamin’s proxy, he becomes Jamin’s proxy as he vows to “watch for both of us,” after Jamin’s presumed death. And if Ben is less than human, as he speculates in those final pages, because he does not feel survivor’s guilt, does this make him a monster, albeit one we come to love and have compassion for? If these last two interpretations are accepted, then Ben is both the Monster and the Proxy. Personally, I don’t subscribe to this theory of Ben as monster, but I neither ask you to reject it nor wish for you to embrace any of the hypotheses I favor purely on my say-so. I merely desire to inflame your impassioned cogitation, and if this spurs you to re-visit the book in whole or part, all the better sweet Reader, and I shall be well pleased.
|If you liked Monster...|