Nov 16, 2009

Monkey droppings - Monster, 1959 by David Maine: " Maybe there's no difference anymore between existence and entertainment."

Giant Monsters! Giant Monsters everywhere! Run! Run!

Monster, 1959
by David Maine
K. stands roughly upright, bipedal, forty feet tall from crown to toe. Claws instead of fingers, earholes like a lizard's, residual butterfly wings far too flimsy to support his mass, the suggestion of a dorsal fin halfway down his back..Matted black fur covers the rest of him except for those wings...and the scaly forearms, patterned like an Amazon constrictor. Arms longer than the comfortable human proportion, nearly dragging on the ground even when K. stands erect.
I must be in a gigantic monster mood as of late: no sooner do I finish James Morrow's excellent faux-Godzilla novel Shambling Towards Hiroshima when I then pick up a novel that, by the cover alone, has me salivating with glee over its promise of B-movie excitement. Yet like Morrow's offering, David Maine's novel Monster, 1959 offers far more than a mere 'monster on a rampage' narrative, both being rife with political satire and social commentary. And unlike Shambling, Maine makes sure his monster gets centre stage.

Taking a cue from
King Kong, Monster, 1959 begins on an island almost forgotten by man. But not forgotten enough, it seems, as the atomic tests of the 1950s are held almost precisely on top of it. As a possible result (it's never entirely clear), the island is laden with monsters likely impossible under normal evolutionary conditions.

Ruling the island (from the point of view of the natives) is Kama ka, or K., as he's referred to throughout the story. K. is a creature of ridiculous proportions and features, a 40-foot behemoth, part ape, part lizard, part who-knows-what; "There is something unfinished about K.s face, as if nature gave up halfway through. Quitting an obviously hopeless job in favor of something more fruitful: flamingos, maybe, or eels." K. is also a vegetarian, not something that occurs to the islanders who routinely sacrifice virgins to appease him. He never eats them, he just ignores them until they pass away, either from hunger or from outside forces
i.e. a flying lizard that often absconds with K.'s sacrificial brides to feed her brood.

Maine takes great pains to point out that K. is an
animal, and thus cannot have human thought processes ascribed to him.
An observer might be forgiven that K. is lost in thought, He is not. He is simply lost. Or more properly, he is waiting for a stimulus, internal or external, to prod him into motion. Perhaps hunger, or the approach of the flying lizard who occasionally torments him, or the need to relieve his bowels, or a thunderstorm.
However, K's fairly simple world comes under great stress when, one day, the islanders offer up Betty, a blonde-haired beauty they kidnapped from an ill-advised adventure excursion to the island. K. is soon after chased through the jungle by Johnny, the manliest of he-men who would be right at home in any of the monster movies Maine continually cites. K. is unequipped to deal with such a chase as he is "not a predator though he might look like one [and] is unable to appreciate the predatory instincts of others...Having lived his life as neither killer nor victim, his instinctive understanding of such things—what would be his race memory, if he had a race, or memory—is vestigial, dormant, rusty." Soon after, K. is caught, bound, and dragged to America, where a canny impresario markets him as "the Romeo is the Forgotten Jungle...The biggest big top in history...Two bucks to stand in the presence of the mightiest monster the world has ever seen."

Many lesser authors would doubtless present such a tale as a pure adventure saga, and there's nothing wrong with that. While the
King Kong and Godzilla movies have always had a subtext (the perils of atomic radiation, the folly of man's pride, etc.), they were first and foremost awesome monster extravaganzas (see Cloverfield for the best modern take on giant monsters destroying things - not much subtext, but tonnes 'o fun). Monster has a fair amount of its progenitors excitement, and Maine expertly layers this with K.'s dawning sense of his self as a being rather than a collected series of impulses sheathed in animal muscle. K. never becomes fully cognisant and therefore a complete individual, but in places he gains what only can be described as insight: "Now what? K. wonders wordlessly, not recognizing this as a breakthrough: he has learned to expect things to happen."

Maine, however, wants to thrust his subtext forward to garner equal coverage to the beast, and that's where
Monster, 1959 falters, not fatally, but substantially. Maine has a point of view, mocking the world through his presentation of K. and juxtaposing his plight with those of displaced cultures the world over, most notably the Palestinians. And there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but Maine's B-movie plot structure cannot hold up under the deadly seriousness of his agenda.

If anything, his satire is too 'on the nose'. Morrow's
Shambling had an agenda against military thinking and the monstrous proliferation of nuclear armaments, but his story withstood a perilous crushing under its weighty themes through its judicious use wit, smart characters, and general entertainment value. Morrow used a scalpel to dissect his thesis, Maine attacks his with a blunt hammer. Where Morrow used facts to emphasize the story, Maine drops in details about the world as it was in large chunks of world history that interrupt any narrative flow, such as:
On TV, CBS begins a new weekly program called The Twilight Zone, featuring outlandish stories, crazy stuff really. The kind of thing that no one but a child could ever believe. It will prove remarkably durable over the ensuring decades, slyly suggesting the possibility that almost anything—aliens from space, free and fair elections, Martians bearing gifts, "liberation" at gunpoint—could be accepted as reality, if presented convincingly enough on television.
I won't say that Monster, 1959 is a failure, just that it lacks for subtlety. Maine's story has large swatches of inspired writing, and K., like all the great monsters, elicits as much sympathy as he does horror. Monster, 1959 is a good, thoughtful read, and Maine is a strong enough writer that I am going to ferret out his other novels post-haste (The Preservationist looks especially good, like a pairing of Morrow's best religious satire and Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage ). But much like K., the novel doesn't fully appreciate its own strengths, and tends to smash all things in its path as a result.



James said...

Speaking of giant monsters, anyone who grew up on Sesame Street and likes Cloverfield needs this t-shirt.

Corey Redekop said...


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