Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters Of TempletonThe Monsters Of Templeton by Lauren Groff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About my relationship with The Monsters of Templeton . . . it's complicated.

Before we met, I had heard a wide range of opinions about the book. Now, my tastes lean toward the obscure. I don't tend to read the popular ones and I have a bit of prejudice toward them. "If it's that popular, it can't be that good," I will sometimes (mistakenly) reason. And this book, well, this book had gotten around. The town of Goodreads had been gossiping about this one for a while, with opinions ranging from "it's amazing" to "it's a rank pretender". But I saw something as I looked across the room at that pretty, complex cover. And as the voices babbled on around me about the book, I was intrigued. "This is not my normal cup of tea," I told myself. "Heck, this might even be chic-lit. Still . . ."

So we made the acquaintance. I was smitten by the first paragraph:

The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass. It was one of those strange purple dawns that color July there, when the bowl made by the hills fills with a thick fog and even the songbirds sing timorously, unsure of day or night.

"This relationship has promise," I said to myself.

But as I read the rest of the chapter, I became confused and disconcerted. The author seemed in too much of a rush, too eager to get information out. Frankly, she talked too much. I sat back, disappointed, but I had gotten myself into this mess, so I decided to play it through until I could find an easy exit from this uncomfortable situation.

Then I read the last couple pages of the chapter and I became, again, intrigued. The last paragraph affected me deeply:

That morning, before I drew my hand away from the monster, I felt an overwhelming sadness, a sudden memory of one time in high school when I slipped to the country club docks at midnight with my friends, and, giggling, naked, we went into the dark star-stippled water, and swam to the middle of the lake. We treaded water there in the blackness, all of us fallen silent in the feeling of swimming in such perfect space. I looked up and began to spin. The stars streaked circular above me, my body was wrapped in the warm black, my hands had disappeared, my stomach was no longer, I was only a head, a pair of eyes. As I touched the beast I remembered how, even on that long-ago night, I could feel a tremendous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing.

So here I was, left to process my feelings about the chapter, on the cusp of a decision: Should I continue, or not? Most of the chapter felt truly shoved in-between those two exquisite paragraphs. The author was "trying" too hard. It was like a Dagwood Bumstead sandwich bookended by the most expensive artisan bread.

I decided to give the benefit of the doubt. Yes, this book already showed some flaws, but I wanted to see the beauty in it, which might have been accentuated by the opening and closing paragraphs' foil against the muddled middle. There is no such thing as a flawless book, I reasoned, and the good parts were so good that the thought of potentially missing more gems made me throw caution to the wind and dive in, head over heels.

I became fascinated by the complexity of the book. As I said in the beginning, my relationship with this book is complicated. There are several distinct voices in this work, many of them speaking from historical documents and journals dug up by the narrator, Willie Upton, in her quest to discover the identity of her biological father.

One of my favorite voices is that of Sarah Franklin Temple Upton, a progenitor of Willie's who struggles with hallucinogenic schizophrenic episodes like this one:

. . . days pass, days pass, dark then light, Templeton glowing in the fog, the brilliance of noon . . . the little shrill girl is back, makes me want to bludgeon my head with a carpet beater until she's out . . . so many ghosts in the water I see now, every day I go down, press my ear close to the water until I drench the small hairs on the lobe . . . beseeching, mournful. The men have bloated skin, and the women's hair has come loose and floats cloudlike behind them, sunnies and pumpkinseed-fish scattered in it . . . a man with my father's face, wrists blooming roses of blood . . . two brothers with frosted lashes and lips, ice skates on their feet, pounding at the surface as if it were glass . . . small Indian girl who looks at me with serene and unforgiving eyes as she floats, naked, bruises like plums on her thighs . . . soldier in olive drab, the stumps of his legs looking tender as a baby's skin . . . young men in boater-hats, young women in tight waists and bellish skirts from before the Civil War . . . summer-camp children with crude leather bracelets on their wrists . . . fat old ice fisherman . . . parachutist from my childhood, the man who leapt from the plane at the County Fair, but his water, not land, whose chute settled on the lake like a flower, filled with the water, dragged him under before the boats could reach him. Yes: every day I see more of them, the drowned ones. It is perhaps not madness: they are so clear, and I am not terrified by them. Is it? I don't know . . .

Of course, I always seem to like the crazies in literature. And there are plenty of crazies in this book. Notice that the title is plural: Monsters. The beast of the opening paragraph is not the only monster in this book. Though the lake-monster trope (along with the ongoing presence of a quiet, seemingly beneficial ghost) gives the work a feel that hints of magic realism, most of the truly inimical monsters are of the human variety. That's not to say that the book is laden with sadness and madness. There are a lot of bright spots, too, a balance of naive optimism and critical pessimism, with characters, situations, and reactions running the gamut in-between. Like I've said, it's complicated.

I was taken in by the variety of voices presented throughout. My biggest concern, the area where I needed to apply the most forgiveness to our relationship, had to do with documentation. The book jumps back and forth between Willie Upton's narration and the documents she discovers in here research. This is fine. But interpolated in the book are several accounts told from different POVs that belong neither to Willie or to those who wrote the documents I've mentioned. Granted, these narratives are told in the voice of the illiterate: Hetty Averell, a slave girl who integrates herself into the family tree, Chief Chingachgook, a native American who figures prominently in the history of Willie's ancestors and who has a profound influence on her research. So one could look past their undocumented stories. But these tales, so "out of the blue," caused me to step back in alarm. It was only after convincing myself that I needed to be a little forgiving of these quirks that I could settle back into the flow of things. Several times throughout the book, I asked myself "where is this coming from"? Sometimes, my reaction bordered on "I don't know you!" but I was, ultimately, able to reconcile things. Still, these episodes left a bit of a taint on my relationship with the book.

Despite these shortcomings, I continued to find some sparkling gems, particularly in the book's strangest passages. Maybe it's the fantasist in me, the lover of magic realism and speculative fiction. Near the end the author fully embraces the speculative (though the speculative elements are NOT the primary driver in this work) by having the main character fully embraced by the supernatural:

My legs moved without me, and I watched them climb the stairs in horror. Foot above foot, so clumsy, as if whatever was in me had forgotten what it was to walk. I felt the eyes of my ancestors, all those pictures, fall on me. As I moved past the guest bathroom I managed a glimpse of myself, and saw my features were dark and veiled. I knew then it was my good ghost, the indirect watcher over my life, that had for now slipped around me. I'd become the yolk in the egg; I'd become one human bone, my body at the marrow and the ghost surrounding it, tense as flesh.

I was impressed, proud even, of the way The Monsters of Templeton allayed my fears that this would be, in any way, dumb chic-lit. It is not. But it is not full-fledged fantasy, either, not by a long shot. It is a mystery, a novel about relationships and fear and friendships and love and redemption and discovery and the search for who we are. Structurally, it is a historical memoir, a fictional autobiography punctuated with biographies. Atmospherically, it is smart chic-lit, a touch funny, magically real, with a narrator as complex as her family history, as complex as the history of the town in which the book is set. It is strange, quirky, at turns brooding dark and blindingly bright, it is an enigma, a puzzle. And I, yes, I'll say it, I love puzzles.

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