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Busy Monsters: A Novel Hardcover – August 1, 2011
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
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William Giraldi's Busy Monsters is rammed with life. It has more than promise. A kind of elegiac intensity, remarkable for so young a man, pervades its harmonies. --Harold Bloom"
Take the amped-up lyrical braggadocio of the American South and join it to a sly, at times Nabokovian celebration of psychological obsession. Add a pinch of O'Connor, a dash of Hannah, heat with an imagination reared in both the canon and its rock & roll antipodes. Busy Monsters is an unforgettable achievement by one of our most important young chroniclers of anguish and bliss. --Sven Birkerts"
About the Author
William Giraldi is the author of the of the memoir The Hero’s Body, and critically hailed novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark, which is soon to be a major motion picture from Netflix. He is fiction editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University. He lives in Boston with his wife and sons.
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You'll like this book if you like the writing. Any quick sample will be enough to decide. I loved the style and the humor.
With a vocabulary a poet would admire, and profanity that will put too many off, the book succeeds in rousing passions.
I think Busy Monsters has been likened to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 for its comic-tragic vim. Did I just use the word vim? Wow, where did that come from? The Heller comparison works for me (love that book too!). I'm also thinking--this dawned on me this morning, as I happily and sadly closed the book for the last time--that it's also a Moby Dick for the Postmodern Man in its positing of Secular Humanist Against Unknown Monsters (from Bigfoot to Kraken).
If I'm the first one to say this, would you be so kind as to let me know? Sometimes I think I'm really onto something, and it turns out that others came up with My Brilliant Idea a long, long time ago. This happened with my comparison of Philip Roth's American Pastoral and The Great Gatsby, and it also happened when I went all crazy about "Lost." I thought, with much vim and vigor incidentally, that I had somehow contributed to Cultural Theory by making connections between "Lost" and all of the following: Land of the Lost, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, "Gilligan's Island," and The Lord Of The Flies. Turns out that our decision to start watching season one when the fifth season was airing on TV would be costly. All the real TV scholarship had been done already.
I'm still upset about that one.
So, yeah, this is the book to read!
As is the case with most (all) of my book reviews, I don't actually "review" the book. This time, there are a couple things I want to focus on:
1.My personal response, which might possibly offend Giraldi.
2.This Secular Humanist Against Unknown Monsters thing.
But, first, let me repeat myself: Read this book!
I did have a rather odd, visceral feeling that resembled, um, a homecoming! My guess is that most of us writer folk, whether we like it or not, write out of our particular "heritage." I suppose this heritage is made up of many different kinds of things: region, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. The funny thing is that I don't share ANY of these with Giraldi--not-a-one--and yet I think his is a world I get.
Is my writing like his? In my dreams, folks. Rather, I just feel strangely at home among the writer/academic-speak grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition with knowledge of the New England area.
When I read this book, I knew I wasn't a southern writer (oh, you knew this?). I knew I wasn't a California writer or a midwestern writer. But, wait: I don't live in New England either, even if my husband is from Massachusetts! I'm a girl, and he's a boy! I'm not even a Catholic, lapsed or otherwise!
What in the world am I talking about?
Here it goes: Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before. This should get the attention of some of my college friends. Minimally, I may be able to tell if they're reading my stuff or not. Did I ever tell you that I was in the Honors Program in college? Well, I was! Did I ever tell you that I graduated with honors and Summa Cum Laude? Well, I did! Did I ever tell you that I got straight As as an undergrad, except for one OBNOXIOUS B (in Intermediate Poetry-writing, my friends)? Well, it's true. Did I ever tell you that I got into graduate programs in Political Science (Political Science!) at American University, George Washington University, New York University, and I was wait-listed at Columbia? Well, it happened!
But don't hate me. Countless failures followed. I failed the Foreign Service Exam (twice, I think), I scored with extreme mediocrity on the GRE exams, I felt like a total idiot in my NYU Politics program, I was told outright that I was not PhD material, and--when I decided to go back to school and get my MFA--I was rejected by all of the ones to which I applied; I had to re-apply the following year.
And we're just talking the academic arena.
This, Dear Reader, is my legacy, my heritage.
There's something I'm not saying: I've always--always--been the dumb one among The Smart People. I mean this, most sincerely. Most of my friends are pretty smart. Quite a few of them really sound like Busy Monsters' protagonist, Charlie Homar.
In short, the world of Charlie Homar--the mental landscape--has been my stomping ground. In reading Busy Monsters, I was home.
So, yeah: this was my odd visceral response: Ahhh! Home!
Poor Giraldi! I'm sure he doesn't want me camping out on his New England porch. In truth--and you must remember this because it's very important for when you finally get around to reading my work--I left home.
Still. I find Giraldi's wordplay, his self-conscious take on writing, and his ironic comic voice wholly enchanting. I love this book. I love Charlie Homar. He's my people.
The Secular Humanist Against Unknown Monsters thing. Well, it's tempting to just write down brilliant quote after brilliant quote, because this book is filled with funny, tragic, ironic, contemporary observations as weighty as those found in the Ishmael-Ahab-Whale Triangle.
I have a ton of yellow post-it notes decorating the pages--things I wanted to quote or remember. There are too many, though. There are the cultural references to Neil Young and Dr. Seuss, Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet and that "sane scientist Spielberg." There are the ongoing jokes about writing. (My favorite: as Charlie makes his monster-trek, he promises the people along the way that he won't write about them. Then, immediately afterwards, he writes about them. This is doubly funny, though. It's funny, because it's funny. But it's also funny because it speaks of a writerly compulsion: We Cannot Help But Write About You. We'll expose ourselves as well--our own dastardly, shameful selves. Because That's Part Of It.) There are the name-choices: Thud, Groot, and Romp (which are not at all patronizing, but are used to heighten some of the absurdities of being--as Groot declares--"brain-scrubbed by ironic feminists at them liberal universities"). The book, for all its snarky quips, is decidedly not cruel. These are likeable characters. Groot and Charlie, incidentally, are best friends, and it's entirely believable.
There are all these things, yeah. But it's the meaning of the story that interests me. The Moby Dickness of it. Did I just write that? Why, yes, I did! I better confess this right now, before one of my friends exposes the truth. Remember when I told you that I was always the dumb one among The Smart People? Case in Point: I never finished Moby Dick. And I skimmed what I did read. This is my albatross. Not a day goes by that I'm not guilt-ridden (hyperbole, hyperbole). The goofy part is that I assigned the book to myself in an independent study! I sat there, in the tiny office of one Dr. Jay Boyer at ASU, and faked it one-on-one (vim, moxie). He probably knew. I'll ask him. I like him too. His office was a mess--a professorial disaster of paper and tome--and he wore ties with cats on them. He loved literature.
I never finished Moby Dick, but here I am using it to describe the meaning of Busy Monsters. Well, I've heard a lot about MD.
I'll stick with Busy Monsters. The story is classic, a contemporary Odysseus or Beowulf, one of those. A Holy Grail or Dante's Beatrice. Beatrice, right? Not Gertrude. Not Juliet. There's the Whale, the secularization and postmodernization of all that was once sacred. The whiteness of the whale and stuff.
You can tell I don't know what I'm talking about, can't you?
Anyway, Charlie gets dumped by his girlfriend, Gillian, who is a Jew--not a Druid, as his father mistakenly thinks. Gillian takes off on the high seas in search of the ever-elusive Kraken. Charlie, a writer of memoir for a New Yorker-type magazine, wants her back. In his journey--The Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz--he encounters monsters or the hunt for them: Big Foot, Aliens, Ghosts, etc. There are others too.
The question is, of course, Who Is The Monster?
Obviously--it's obvious, right?--man is the monster. We're talking secular humanism, after all.
Maybe it's more subtle than that, and I'm being a little too blasé. Romp says to Charlie at one point, "One monster at a time." Charlie's mother tells him, "You've been busy . . . You and your monsters."
The monster metaphor is, at heart, a critique on the emptiness of human existence, the lack of meaning, the plight of postmodern man? The Giant Squid is the presence of hope, a mystery still to be had? Ultimately, though, the Kraken will never survive if caught? Is that the philosophy of this book?
A Special Note on Groot: One of the finer features of this narrative--an academic one?--is the self-awareness of the protagonist coupled with the kindness shown in the portrayals of the more manly (?) counterparts. Groot is the main manly counterpart, a.k.a. the antagonist. Note their clothes for the grand finale, the book's resolution (which it has): Groot wore "frayed cut-off jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt" and Charlie wore his "aggressively adorable . . . pinkish polo shirt and pressed khaki shorts." Groot wore combat boots; Charlie wore flip-flops. This is sweet, isn't it?
One criticism? I did have a fleeting thought that this voice might--just might--get tedious after a while. But guess what I decided. It may to some, but not to me. I think that any strong first-person voice runs that risk. Frankly, I think I run that risk. At some point, one just asks, "Do I care?"
I've also encountered, more than once, people who find the voice of some of my favorites to be tedious: from Holden Caulfield to Lorrie Moore. Most recently, a student of mine said she felt like she was being pelted with ping-pong balls when she read Lorrie Moore's "How To Become A Writer." I think that's a great analogy, though I love that story, passionately. Pelt away!
So it is with Giraldi. It's a strong voice. I love it.
I'll leave it there. It's worth your while. It's great: funny without cruelty, snarky but not arrogant, philosophical but not overwrought, character-driven but not without attention to language.
Read It Now.