Reading a novel, I like to live cradled not in the hands of characters but lying full out in their skins and their skulls, becoming them—though not through stream of consciousness, which has always felt to me more like the meaningless flicker of dreams than any consciousness I’ve ever known—no, I like to live in the mind at its most refined, an emotion-scape crafted of precise language that follows the contours of a person’s inner and outer worlds with insight and honesty. This is where Christopher Bram takes me in his novel Gods & Monsters, into bodies and minds shaped by his brilliantly patterned lyricism, his deftly observed surroundings, into a world where self-pity is leavened by self-mockery and longing and love are cut with both cruelty and forgiveness.
It is 1957 and James Whale, the director of the Frankenstein movies, lives with Maria, his maid and only real friend. A gay man whose life has been conducted in a checkerboard of honesty, avoidance and outright lies, Whale is recuperating from a recent stroke that has brought on confusion and migraines. Vivified by everyday smells, long-buried memories of his first homosexual experience, fighting in Word War I, directing movies, and the disintegration of his relationship with his partner, David, kick off neural firestorms his damaged brain can’t repress. When a young, handsome gardener named Clay Boone begins working for Whale, he sees a chance to have a final bit of fun, then escape his last pointless, painful years: Whale will make a pass at Boone, provoking the simple, all-American man to beat him to death.
Bram had me by page 4, when Whale’s maid is consulting with his ex-partner David while he sits in the other room. “Whale cannot hear them but knows that he is the topic of conversation. He hates how illness has reduced him to a problem whispered about by others, a difficult child, an embarrassment.” These kinds of keen observations come one after the other. Later we get, “The capsules won’t take effect for several minutes, but to know that pain will pass makes pain bearable.” During a flashback of Whale at a movie premier, “[He] wears the droll half smile of a visiting foreign dignitary.” Of Clay Boone, Bram says, “[he] resists the impulse to stand at attention. He declares his independence by wiping his nose with the back of his hand.” Even on the third or fourth reading, these insights feel fresh and accurate, never contrived.
And yet, it’s not just one-off sentences that make the novel so beautiful and heartrending. Many authors are capable of this. What has always truly distinguished this book for me is Bram’s lyrical patterning.
Lyricism is a slippery concept. It brings to mind poetry and songs, but how does the term apply to prose? Emma Darwin furnishes a usefully broad yet specific definition on her blog The Itch of Writing: “[L]yrical writing wears its poetic techniques a little more on its sleeve than your prose does the rest of the time. That’s not just rhythm/sound/repetition/rhyme/pattern/echo, but also figurative language: metaphor, simile and images. And it’s not just about using the right metaphors to evoke ideas and sensations accurately, it might also be about using them as patterning, argument, idea.”
Bram does precisely this last, employing a pattern of metaphors that fuses opposites: the good and the bad, the future and the past, image and reality, beauty and ugliness, truth and lies, people and objects. The power of this fusion lies in its perfect reflection of the novel’s emotional arc, themes and characters. Whale is both a real person and a self-manufactured cutout who mistakes Boone for a kind of monster and tries to manipulate him, only to realize in the end that Boone is very human, and that using him as a means of suicide makes Whale himself the monster.
It begins with an image drawn from outside the book: Frankenstein’s monster, a creature defined by its opposites. He is simultaneously an object (a man-made thing) and a human (he experiences emotions like confusion, fear, and the need for love); simultaneously a victim (manipulated by Frankenstein and his cronies) and a perpetrator (a dangerous, amoral entity); simultaneously weak (he can be controlled by the superior machines and intelligence of the people around him) and strong (he is physically larger and more powerful than human beings).
Bram riffs on these opposites mainly through anthropomorphizing objects and animals while doing the inverse with the novel’s human beings: assigning them the qualities of animals or objects. The strategy begins immediately on page 2, where he describes Santa Monica Canyon, Whale’s neighborhood. “Seen from the air, both sides of the little valley are blue-eyed with swimming pools…[A] triangle of ocean tucked in the valley’s mouth loses its horizon and melts into white sky.”
Here landscape becomes face and ocean becomes tongue, suggesting Hollywood’s sensuality and beauty, its blue-eyed models and tongues making incursions into other faces, while at the same time figuratively laying the groundwork for what the reader will learn is part of Whale’s struggle: appearance vs. reality. To command respect in Hollywood, Whale has invented an upper class British past, projecting an image of himself as clever, educated, refined and confident while inside he worries that “his whole life is a poor cartoon, his love of beauty a clumsy aping of his betters.” Confused and fragmented after his stroke, Whale vacillates between embracing his false pretensions and giving reign to the truth. When he meets with a young man for an interview about his movies, he thinks, “This pretty story, made from the odds and ends of people he’s known and books he’s read, doesn’t feel as convincing as it once did. It hangs on him like a suit of clothes he’s too thin to wear anymore. The truth stands closer to him now, peering over his shoulder.” Through the metaphors Bram has a silent dialogue with readers, telling us that a lie is just a suit you can take off, but the truth is an actual person who can see you even when you don’t want to be seen.
When on p. 15 Whale approaches Boone in the yard for the first time he thinks, “What does he see? An old faggot, a withered fruit.” The play on the word “fruit” as a slur for a gay man is a bit tough and off-handed here, but becomes tender later, when Whale thinks of his plan to provoke Boone to kill him. “It had been beautiful in his imagination, beautiful and immediate, as simple as stepping into a lion’s cage. The beast would seize him in his claws and tear him apart with no more thought than a hungry boy ripping open an orange.” Here Boone=lion=boy and Whale, touchingly, becomes a sweet, humble orange. Elsewhere when Whale fantasizes Boone killing him he sees “….the enormous hands that would form fists like mallets. That blue tattoo like a price stamped on a melon.” Now Boone is the fruit, thicker-skinned and larger, but no less delicate and vulnerable inside than an orange. In this way Bram’s metaphors fuse Boone (young, poor, uneducated, and heterosexual) and Whale (elderly, well-off, educated and homosexual), making them one and the same in their humanity.
All of this metaphor builds the novel’s emotional complexity without letting it spin off into incomprehensible chaos because each comparison is apt in its narrow context. In addition, Bram remains close to the characters at every step, never allowing his own cleverness to hijack their perceptions. When Whale walks down to his art studio his first day home from the hospital he reflects that, “It feels good to find he has a body, something more corporeal than the achy joints and hospital gown floating behind him like a wedding train during his long weeks in hospital.” This is a comparison made by a man with Whale’s particular psyche: a gay man with an enormous yearning for dignity who nonetheless faces life with a lighthearted self-mockery that keeps the great pathos of his situation from sliding into self-pity. Bram also pulls off a kind of rhetorical magic here by exploiting the word “gown,” oddly applied to scanty patient garb and the finest of wedding attire.
Of his pain medications, Whale thinks, “[T]he barbiturate is already taking effect, breaking circuits, turning out lights.” Whale’s weakness and dizziness is evoked with “he slowly stands up into gravity, a heavy marionette,” and about his intrusive memories and stroke-damaged brain, Bram says Whale, “is like a city during a blackout, all manner of deformed, forgotten creatures coming out to wander his pitch-black streets.”
As Whale and Boone get to know one another, each sees the other with increasing sympathy yet resists the humanization. To Whale, Boone “smiled and looked as innocent as a box of cornflakes.” Boone thinks of Whale’s aggressive questioning about his experiences in Korea, “Like a dog marking out his territory, he pisses on everything, even Clay’s lie.” When he recognizes Whale’s frailty it is “his body folded like a bundle of sticks.” In Whale’s lovely home Boone feels “like a very large, dumb bull who’s blundered indoors.” A few pages later this zoomorphism is mirrored when Whale, lost in a memory of seeing a sheep blunder onto the battlefield during WWI, remembers, “Nobody dared go out and risk his life for a sheep…she remained out there, tiptoeing in hell like a four-footed ballerina.” Because of their proximity and the similarity of images (two farm animals) the similes interact with one another and the sympathy Whale feels for the sheep becomes sympathy for the bull-like Boone too.
Boone and Whale even begin to think about a person’s history the same way. When Boone notices the inconsistency in Whale’s life stories, he thinks, “Whale keeps becoming somebody new with each story…The man has more lives than a cat. Clay wishes he could pick and choose the lives he likes and throw away the rest.” This choosing and discarding is exactly what haunts Whale and by now we know it haunts Clay too. He allows people to assume, based on his tattoo “Death Before Dishonor,” that he is a Korean War veteran when in fact he was discharged shortly after enlisting due to a burst appendix.
Near the climax, when Whale is attempting to draw Boone in the nude, he observes that he can’t because “You are much too human.” This hurts Boone’s feelings. “What did you expect?” he asks. “Bronze?” implying that a statue with its fixed, perfect shape is superior to Boone, and to all living things. To dehumanize him, Whale retrieves an old gas mask and asks Boone to wear it. Though it seems “like handling a pair of handcuffs” he can’t help but put it on. Again, oppositions are fused: the fear of and desire for being restrained and dehumanized.
As the story nears its end, death imagery appears. When Whale wakes to find Boone wrapped in a sheet asleep in the living room chair “he sees the thing in the wing chair, something white, a corpse wrapped in a shroud” and thinks “But a nude American isn’t death, even with a gas mask.” Whale finally understands Boone is a person as much as himself, with as strong an inner life. The entire arc of the plot has led to this moment, but the intensity of the emotion we feel has been carefully built by the imagery. A catbird on page 2 “who has no song of its own but sings fragments and snatches of other songs” reappears on page 261 doing “a dazzling string of impersonations, ending in the sweet rendition of a nightingale.” We have been trained to equate the landscape and the animals with the people in this novel, which allows Bram once again to engage in a tacit dialogue with the reader, reminding us that, like the catbird, Whale had to live his life singing “a dazzling string of impersonations.”
In the end all opposites collide. “Everything is coming together. Past and present, life and death, all dissolve together in the solution of the pool.” The pool is a physical solution (water, chlorine) as well as a solution to Whale’s problem (how to die). Here again Bram exploits the duality and subtext of language. The reader understands: death sometimes is the only solution to life. Now the novel has come full circle. Whale’s early observation about Boone’s tattoo—“What a quaint, young sentiment. To think that death could be preferable to anything.”—is turned on its head and I find myself there, with Whale, toes on the rough edge of the pool, about to die, having lived a whole life in a few hundred pages.
Amy Gustine is the author of the story collection, You Should Pity Us Instead from Sarabande Books, available February 2016. Her fiction has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology and appeared in several publications, including The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review and Black Warrior Review. She lives in Ohio.