April 17, 2020: “Monsters” by Karen Brennan

Hey hey Friday, Story366!

Two weeks ago, I ventured into Zoom for the very first time for my English Department meeting. I think it went generally well and I was genuinely excited to see my colleagues, to see people who were not my immediate family. Two weeks later, today, I had another English Department Zoom meeting. It was the first of three Zoom meetings on schedule for today, after having four Zoom meetings yesterday. Even more exciting, the first and the second meetings today overlapped, so I was on my phone for one meeting and my laptop for another—Double Zoom! All in all, seven meetings in about thirty hours—that’s a lot of meetings. Any sort of shine Zoom had originally sported has officially worn off, I think, as it’s weird to sit in my house and talk to thirty-five colleagues about important business as my kids and cats scramble about and my pants are nowhere to be seen. I mean, it’s almost like I have a job and they pay me money to do all this or something.

For today’s post, I red from Karen Brennan‘s 2016 collection, Monsters, out from Four Way Books. I’ve read Brennan’s work in magazines before, but this was the first time I’ve ever sat down with one of her books (this her seventh). No time like the present is what I always say, so here goes.

Monsters is a book comprised of short-shorts and pieces slightly longer than short-shorts. Some of the stories are one paragraph long, just half a page (or less), while there’s a couple of stories that reach up to ten pages. This means there’s a lot of stories and a lot of ideas in this collection, but the more the merrier is what I (also) always say. And like with any book that includes all/mostly shorts, I’ve read substantially more stories from the book than I would with a book of longer stories, so I’ll be focusing on one piece here—the title story—and will also annotate several others.

“Monsters” is a sad story, about a guy whose daughter is in some kind of full-time care facility. Her brain’s broken is about the best explanation we get for what’s ailing her, for why she’s in the home. But the dad, the story’s protagonist, travels to see his daughter in this facility every other day, a loyal and loving father. It’s even the kind of place where he can check her out, push her in a wheelchair off the property, pick up some BK, wander through the dollar store for treats and trinkets.

Suddenly, though, Dad finds out he can’t do that anymore, as his daughter’s condition is “declining.” Most of this decline manifests itself in abuse toward her new roommate. The daughter routinely calls her new roommate a bitch and tells her to fuck off, getting all loud and violent and uncontrollable. It’s not that the new roommate doesn’t antagonize her—in fact, she might be doing just that, and on purpose—but still, the facility sees this all more as the daughter’s doing. Each of the women thinks the other a monster. The caretakers’ tone indicates the end may be near. No more trips to the store is just the beginning, it’s implied.

Of course, the dad is absolutely crushed by all this. We see him imagining his daughter as healthy and strong, running cross country in high school, a stark contrast to her acting so unhinged toward her roommate, is unsettling, to say the least. He sings songs to distract his brain from the unpleasantness of his reality. That’s where he is. And that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot (though, admittedly, that’s most of it).

I’ll also note some playful language in this story, smatterings of vocab perhaps out of Middle Earth. First sentence of the story: “Inexplicably, the roommate has hairy floots and a bumpy snout.” Later: “Today’s caregiver wears a wreath of orange labbies around her head and long black mards embossed with zanims.” Also: “A buffler does not repair so much as stave.” Again, playful. I liked reading this, but I did pull out the online dictionary more than I usually do for a six-page story.

Other stories in the collection that stand out to me: “Snow Day,” a sweet tribute to childhood’s greatest surprise; “The First,” a coming-of-age story about a girl’s trip to a farm with her sister and nurse; “Distant Nurse,” a delightful three-sentence play on words; (lots of nurses in this book, if you haven’t noticed); “Mouse Choir, An Opera,” a numbered story about mice, Kafka, opera, and other musings; “Pete, Waste Lab Technician,” one of my favorites, a longer story about this guy named Pete, who’s a waste lab technician; and “Migrating Wall,” about a couple who poisons the ivy off their neighbors property wall and begin to see some fantastical results.

Overall, I loved reading the stories in Monsters, Karen Brennan’s collection of mostly short-short stories. I love her attention to language, the risks she takes, and her ability to create a fascinating, compelling story out of the smallest scrap of conflict, even the tiniest hint of an interesting idea. I hope to plow through the rest of this book, see what other treasures she’s buried for us in this gem of an omnibus.