Ander+Monson%27s+Vanishing+Point


Vanishing Point
Ander Monson
Graywolf Press, 2010
Review by Amanda Goldblatt

This is where I finished Ander Monson’s book of linked essays called Vanishing Point: laying poolside, on the flat expanse of a deck beyond the diving boards, beneath an American flag snapping in a slight summer breeze thirty feet into a highly saturated blue sky spoiled nicely and periodically by a far plane or a near bird.

Before (when I was reading it on a plane, but most likely not one flying above the Centennial Commons community pool in University City, Missouri, the site of the finishing) Monson was part of a jury, proclaiming at an early essay's end, "I can only stand up and (think about what it means to) speak for myself." Cue metacognition, cue multiple layers, cue multiple milieus. Monson has at this point already apprised us of the companion website (http://otherelectricities.com/vp/), gestured to throughout the book via typographical symbols he calls daggers.

When Monson briefly mentions his mother, the word "mother" is attended to by a dagger. While the essay continues in print, the thought is allowed to digress online, without breaking the experience of book reading and its momentum. Online, the thought of "mother" continues: "I talk about her too much, and don't want to say any more on the subject as of this writing. Sorry. You reach a dead end. Turn around?" But elsewhere on the site, a ball of paint (a tourist-attraction attended to lovingly by a couple in Alexandria, Indiana and prominent in two of the book’s essays) is explored in full-color pictures, further consideration, and links to the site of the Ball itself.

The book is in this way plausible in its claim toward almost-limitlessness; it taps into the Internet, which is as concretely limitless as anything under the auspices of our human comprehension. Monson’s project (not merely the paper thing I hold in my hands in various locations) expands like a large and mutable accordion file: something at this intersection of mundane and magic seems just right. But access to the textual expansion is done at the reader’s convenience and discretion – and it is this agency that saves the book-and-website model from appearing aggressively gimmicky. Instead, the book and website together provide a strong scaffolding and structure which deepens Monson’s access to reflections on identity, memory, memorial, place … all of the preoccupations of a thoughtful modern memoirist.

The book’s cover proclaims, on the bottom right corner, "NOT A MEMOIR." And it isn't, not quite. It is not anything we have come to expect of the form; it does not play to the crowd, nor is it a loopy and self-indulgent narrative about the travails and triumphs of a national legend. It is, instead, a series of schematics concerning the thought processes of a dedicated thinker.

As much as Monson is explicitly part of communities – social networks, cultural pageantry, a coupling, a family, a writing tradition – collective sensory context is at a minimum, while individualized sensory experience rises, enveloping. The experience of the book becomes, much like Monson smartly monikers eating mystery-flavored Doritos: "a game, a first-person shooter." When he is interested in a crowd, it is because it is made up of these first-person shooters; being in a crowd is a creational act of experience authored by each individual.

Monson encounters spaces and places in a similar way, writing, "We like spaces best when we don’t know our way around them." There is a process of discovery, conducted by the individual (reader by reading). Though there is a sad and beautiful exploration of degraded Grand Rapids, and one about sprawling Phoenix, too – the writing is not about what the place is, but what it is like to be in the place. This determined existential positioning creates a sweetly unbalanced feeling of being nowhere and somewhere at the same time.

There is a nowhere and somewhere to everything in this book: the weird non-ceremony of a presidential re-funeral, the live action role-playing outfitter’s where one can buy all one’s LARPing needs to play-fight, but not to fight-fight. It’s hard, too, not to consider here the author’s voice powering the reader’s [role-play] experience, while he, the person, is nowhere to be seen, and also the Internet (both a topic and, owing to the companion site, content), which, is the nowhere-iest of them all. This seems as honest impression of on-the-page self as any.

Throughout the linked essays, there is something which Monson values as "real realness." He is not so naïve as to bring up – too seriously nor for too long – authenticity. There is an insistence in the doubling up of "real" as both a descriptor and noun. It recreates the motion of the striving towards actual lived life. This is the charge of creative nonfiction, as best as I can tell. "Creative" has become about the mechanism of striving, rather than simply reporting and pretending to be satisfied with something that cannot claim even to be a simulacrum.

The spreading out of Vanishing Point, the book and website, speaks to its admirable breathlessness, its endearingly neurotic wish to achieve "real realness," if not of a lived life, then of a thinking one. Everything loops satisfyingly – karaoke, snacking, musical recordings, mothers, a nearly sublimated but then brazenly copped-to awkward stretch early adolescence …There are neat mechanisms of craft, among them a series of right-hand pages devoted to asterisks which act as thematic breaths, three "assembloir" essays collaged convincingly from the lines of other people’s memoirs, and an essay called "Exteriority" which lets the type reach the edge of the page without the customary margin. There is a feeling, here, of getting at a thought from any angle available. However, the words are always exacting, and earnest. "Ain’t I fancy?" Monson writes in essay called "Solipsism." "Is this essay about me? Is all nonfiction about the me, the I, the eye trained in on the self?”

In the book’s final pages (which I in fact do not read at the pool, though I’d hoped to since it seemed picturesque and grand, but rather in a coffee shop where I may conveniently use the Internet on my laptop to freely frolic through the website component) Monson calls writing memoir "irksome and entertaining in equal measure." It is the strenuous copping-to of this challenge, this concession, this process of discovery enacted on the page, done with humor and a voice real-sounding enough to manage to be coy and confessional as any known friend, that makes Vanishing Point work, and work well.

Amanda Goldblatt teaches creative nonfiction at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been published in The Collagist, Thermos, Redivider, and elsewhere. Catalpa: This is Not True, a chapbook, was published by Cupboard in 2010. She is the editor of the online journal Super Arrow.

© Amanda Goldblatt, 2010