Online Edition: Fall 2010

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The Essayist/Poet as Hacker

Or, My Meander with Ander

 by Mark Gustafson

Essay: Theater of the brain.
—David Shields

The high-velocity technological maelstrom that we are caught up in—this wired, channel-changing, information-rich, DIY culture (amateurs all) in which attention spans are decreasing as notions of the self (a wiki?) are in transition if not disarray—is the main territory Ander Monson (editor of the online journal Diagram, and publisher of New Michigan Press) explores in both of his new books, The Available World (Sarabande Books, $14.95), a collection of poems, and Vanishing Point (Graywolf Press, $16), a book of essays provocatively subtitled: Not a Memoir.

There is a lot of overlap in Monson’s two books, and no reason not to identify the “I” of the poet with the “I” of the essayist. Traversing familiar ground from previous books, there are references to his delinquent past, the death of his mother, a car crash, and his (fictional) armless brother. We also encounter the giant paint ball in Indiana, Icarus from Greek mythology, and the ridiculously available thoughts of actor/blogger Wil Wheaton.

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Randomness may be a virtue of the new nonfiction, but apparently not in book structure. In Vanishing Point, there are three “Assembloir”s, assemblages of excerpts from one hundred memoirs; also, five essays are entitled “Vanishing Point,” with various subtitles; “Exteriority” is offset later by “Interiority,” and the central essay, “Solipsism,” is focused on “me,” the axis on which any memoir spins. In The Available World, witness the iteration (both in poems and sections) of the abstract notion of availability. Self-consciously elegiac poems, and others styled as sermons, are looped as well.

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The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems. . . .
     —Patricia Hampl

The best poems here are those that get at existential anguish, perplexity, or some other human emotion. Like “Some of Us Have Fewer,” about his mother, and “I Have Been Trying to Make Something Happen,” and “Work-Related Injury Sermon.” In the last, one stanza reads:

I would like to file one claim at least
over my life’s rush (as my life rushes
out of me and down my shower drain
in dreams) that entitles me to one free moment.

Here is the wish to rise above the din, to be free from the excess, the hyperconnectivity, the virtual reality that obviates a sense of the passing of time and denies the inevitability of death. In “Ordinary Experience” he asks, “What is it and where can I get it?” In “Trace” is the stand-alone line “What’s a VCR?” This kind of question may eventually greet many of the details in Monson’s new poems, as they are sprinkled—almost like the ubiquitous product placement in movies and TV—with Roombas, Wikipedia, Law & Order, Internet Explorer caches, Mariah Carey, and the like.

“It’s True, I Love the Shape of Steam” shows Monson at his best, on the beauty of everydayness:

I think steam
comes off everything
in mornings, winter,
especially the stutter
breath of the bereft,

comes up from the ground
on sudden warming
when whatever wetness lingers
dissipates in brightness.

Yet The Available World as a whole fails to bridge the gap convincingly between the worthwhile offerings of the digital world and its pernicious inanities.

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Monson has a flair for the good final sentence. “I would like some kind of notification / that I am not alone.” “Let us find our way back to what light there is for us remaining.” “There is a world underneath this world / and it opens its hands to us just often enough / to keep us far away and coming back.” Sometimes this rescues the poem, or ties it together, a ribbon with a bow. Sometimes the poems seem to run out of steam; then, like a deus ex machina, a killer last line is too little, too late.

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If it doesn’t sing, it’s not poetry.
     —Monson, at a recent reading in Minneapolis

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From “On Basketball”: “your / amber-screened Tandy, least sexy of all / conceivable IBM-compatible computers, / with Jordan vs. Bird: One on One. / It is 1988. You’re probably a douche.” Is this singing?

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The wordplay in many of the poems is overdone. A few examples: “it puts out and puts you out. / It puts the lotion in the basket. / It putts passably”; “a nascence, luminescence—maybe an effervescent / bubble bath”; “Ingress is easy. But egress / (like that of the egrets) is elusive.”

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I hear veiled shout-outs in The Available World to David Shields, John D’Agata, and David Foster Wallace. Even to Leonard Cohen. Speaking of old guys, the few mentions of lycanthropy (which I realize causes Dungeons & Dragons geeks to light up) put me in mind of Jim Harrison, another Michigander. He famously swears that one night at his cabin in the Upper Peninsula he briefly turned into a wolf. I love Jim Harrison—I have even made the pilgrimage to the Dunes Saloon in Grand Marais, MI, on Lake Superior—but he is, it must be said, a shameless blurber (more than 200 are documented [see Harrison’s bibliography] in the last twenty years!), and the one on TAW is typically fatuous. It is difficult to imagine Harrison—who still writes in longhand and calls himself “a Quasimodo in a world without bells”—truly “engrossed” in Monson’s primary subject matter.

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Hacking is at heart a creative activity. It is first, simply, an exploration, an opening up, of a system. A kind of problem solving. . . . Most hackers who illegally access computer (or other) systems do it not to break the law but because we want access. Because we see a system and we are not allowed inside it. Because we see that apparently impenetrable tower and we want to know what rests within its walls.
     —Monson, “Essay as Hack”

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Announcing that Vanishing Point is “not a memoir” seems intended to keep us wondering: Is it or isn’t it? Or, more to the point, what exactly is a memoir? Also, even if the essay already is a hybrid form, there is further hybridization here: many words in the text are accompanied by a superscript dagger, that glyph being the invitation to visit Monson’s labyrinthine website (not glitch-free, by the way), enter the word, and see down which rabbit hole you go. Although the book can be thoroughly enjoyed on its own, a variety of bonuses come with the interactive option. Usually more meandering (me-Ander-ing!) text, some photos, a pleasing video (Monson walking around the abandoned Indianapolis airport). At times this “orbit of muchness” seems excessive, gaseous. But, much to his credit, Monson is trying to stake out a position that includes both paper and digital.

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The opening essay, “Voir Dire,” is wonderful, zeroing in on matters of truth and memory: fact-checking; considering the unreliability of eyewitness testimony (Monson’s jury duty is front and center; what might “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” mean to a nonfiction/memoir writer, or to any of us?); his confusion about the cause of his mother’s death, leading to his own unnecessary colonoscopy; his task reading essays for a national prize. Monson says: “what we remember—all of it—is fiction, variously true or edited. It is constantly being reedited to fit our version of events with what we think of ourselves, the narratives we use to define our lives and give context to action, and we might as well admit it.”

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“Vanishing Point: Former City” is about Grand Rapids, Michigan, which Monson recently left for Tucson. I lived in Grand Rapids for almost ten years (until early 2005), but it seems a different place from the one he portrays here (and in his terrific previous essay collection, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments). Mine was, to be blunt, a homophobic hotbed of religious, social, and political conservatism. (I could go on about this forever.) About his, Monson wonders why it doesn’t figure more prominently in literature and story. (We could ask Sarah Palin, who kicked off her Going Rogue tour there.) In his recent AWP talk, Monson discusses the difference between writing about and writing a place. Writing about is “making a claim on truth, veracity, verisimilitude.” I wonder: Is he intentionally being obfuscatory, or is he blind to it?

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Does Monson have substantial social/political critique to offer, of anything? Especially given his often enthusiastic involvement with trash culture (marked by commercialism and consumerism) and with the network giants—virtual if not outright monopolies like Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook—the answer is, Hardly. Although he purports to be exploring/mining/excavating, via poem and essay, the effects of this brave new world, I see mostly unquestioning acceptance, hive-mindedness, even collusion. He may defend himself by saying he only describes what he sees, and what he thinks about what he sees. Might he think more about what he thinks about what he sees? Who’s running the show? Monson indicates his distaste for the “moral essay” of old; it bores him, he says, and he wants to “sex it up,” which he does exceedingly well. But where’s the hacker to bridge the gap to the ethical?

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Hackers became heroes to a generation of teenagers, and had all sorts of motives, but their most distinctive trait was a tendency to show off.
     —Mark Bowden

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In another “Vanishing Point,” Monson is playing a video game on his laptop at Panera Bread. There are traces of judgment. Being in that generic place, in a suburban locale indistinguishable from any other, is, he says, like being in a video game. “This place is fluid, replaceable. Fragrant. We are protected. We are barely aware of being anywhere.” I hear the poet. Give us more!

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“Exteriority” is what Monson calls a designed essay. Viewing the page as a two-dimensional object, this designer gives us a text without margins, justified, the first and last letters on each line partially truncated, as though not containable. “Solipsism” is another example. It begins with 1003 instances of “Me.” The design includes marginalia and footnotes, one of which has its own marginalia. Such concrete explorations of textual possibilities may strike some as gimmickry; I think they are delectable. (I also happen to love footnotes.1)

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Monson loves Doritos. He mentions in “Transubstantiation” the near ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup and other chemical strings in packaged food, and says: “The organic, local, slow food movement responds to this, but its presence as a reaction suggests the dominant culture, that the key innovation of food technology over the last decade is to recognize that consumers still want the experience of eating food that looks like food but we don’t really care how much it actually is like food.” Here again he seems to yield to banality, to the suck and sell of consumerism. Monson writes: “I might as well work for them, get a commission.” On the website, see “artificial”: “artificial flavoring tastes really fucking good. Doritos taste really fucking good. . . . You get it, right? The corn chip is the life. The artificially flavored corn chip is the memoir.” That is almost enough to turn one’s stomach.

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At his recent appearance in Minneapolis, Monson read “Geas.” It begins: “Gary Gygax is dead.” Oh no, more Dungeons & Dragons crap, I thought. All of Monson’s self-confessed dorkiness is on display. But the essay dazzles. A lyrical ending describes driving in Arizona with a three-inch grasshopper on his windshield. “It slowly climbs to the top of my car, beyond my vision, beyond anyone’s vision or capacity for understanding, and disappears.” It’s another gorgeous last sentence, yet this vanishing may embody Monson’s failure to really wrestle with the emptiness at the core of so much of digital life. “It’s obscene, so splayed, so there, such a fact.” This stance doesn’t help us to hew to any standards, to try to decide what’s good, genuine, or at least interesting. Even if the grasshopper incident never really happened, even if what it represents seems beyond our comprehension, nevertheless it deserves, it demands, that we persist in making the attempt—an attempt (an essay) at problem-solving, a hack, an effort to cross that gap.

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Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself.
     —Samuel Butler

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Which brings us to “Ander Alert,” documenting his online search for others who share his unusual name. Monson mentions that there are four blogs he regularly reads in the morning with his coffee. “I imagine the writer Gary Snyder would find this sad . . . He’s opposed to that kind of immediacy—or perhaps I should call it intermediaricy. I asked him . . . whether he self-Googles, a term that I had to explain. Perhaps he just wanted to humiliate me. He is a cruel man. He probably gets up and contemplates the pines and the breeze and the eroding earth for an hour.” Well, probably he does, and it’s one reason for the endurance and import of Snyder’s five-plus decades of written work. Monson evades the question that the contrast in their early morning rituals begs.

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In the final essay, “Vanishing Point for Solo Voice,” Monson admits: “I’d like to find the courage not to tell my story. . . . the harder thing for lots of us, is silence. Or at least discretion. Restraint.” But he is flying to Minneapolis, locked in a holding pattern, enjoying the capacity to listen to the in-flight cockpit communications with air traffic control. “I am not just I, I am one of many Is, many stories on the plane . . . I listen to the chatter, evidence of a human interaction, a life summoned up by just a voice. I am nowhere now. I am in the air. I am everywhere at once.” Another lyrical ending. This situation, being party to a conversation in which he doesn’t belong, avoiding solitude, is similar to others in which we all find ourselves occasionally. The question is, is this our gain or our loss?

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There are two unusual words (though common in programming language) that Monson (in both books) is way too fond of: “asymptotically” and “iteration.” He really likes the notion that virtual reality and the other kind can never quite intersect. I suspect he likes it even better that, of many of the endless loops in which we are caught, his use of “iteration” is the most obvious. (Is this irony?) Their overuse (seemingly every other page) bores the X out of me.

Moreover, here and there Monson flashes his credentials by telling us that he studied some ancient Greek in college. That’s great. But if you have the balls to use the actual Greek word in a text, be sure you and the publisher get it right! Any student who has made it through the first week of beginning Greek could spot the mistakes (in Vanishing Point, p. 74, and in Neck Deep, p. 80). What’s he trying to prove? Monson’s intelligence is obviously agile, and formidable. Sure, writing for publication is a kind of bragging, showing off, and writing about “me” even more so, but enough is enough.

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Behind every essay I write is this hacker persona, this desire for punkrockitude, the trickster impulse.
     —Monson, “Essay as Hack”

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How do I love Monson? Let me count the ways. 1) the sheer concatenation of observations and ideas; 2) his obsessiveness; 3) his humor; 4) his regular flashes of brilliance; 5) his wildly telescoping vision; 6) his playfulness; 7) self-deprecation in healthy tandem with self-assurance; 8) the whole Scandinavian/Yooper/copper mining/snow thing; 9) his love for footnotes and marginalia; 10) his reminders that the physical book, letters, punctuation, etc., are all technologies, all ingredients of his art. “I expect to see a little fucking craft,” he writes about reading memoirs. There is a lot of fucking craft in Monson’s (not a) memoir, and plenty on his website, too. I see/hear less of it in the poems.

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Bearish, lovable, ebullient, Monson steps to the podium and begins to read. The clicking of his brain is almost audible, and fascinating. And it’s the strangest thing; as he holds his book in both hands, his arms, bent at the elbows, begin flapping up and down. It’s like he’s a chicken trying to fly, but in vain. Now that I think about it, he seems most often to stop short of the precipice—where the more interesting stuff lies—from which I wish he’d take a leap. Then he might find out he’s not a chicken, but some other kind of bird, a soaring raptor, maybe.


1 A really good footnote is like a Herodotean digression, a meander through an otherwise hidden pathway leading, often, to something entirely unexpected. One returns to the text a changed person, with a heightened awareness of parallel/competing reality.


Click here to buy Vanishing Point from Amazon.com

Click here to buy Vanishing Point from Powells.com


Click here to buy The Available World from Amazon.com

Click here to buy The Available World from Powells.com


Click here to buy Neck Deep from Amazon.com

Click here to buy Neck Deep from Powells.com