about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Aroma Truce
A Review of Monster Portraits
by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar

Spencer Dew

“We went into the field to study monsters,” writes half of the voice that guides us in this remarkable book—the word half, paired with a sibling’s sketched half, giving us glimpses of multi-eyed beings, fanged and clawed, with fingers for ears and tattoos that may well be organic elements. The book has an immediate hook, the feel of something familiar. Oh, one thinks, a book of monsters, an imaginative field guide, something like a sourcebook on some “world”—produced by Hollywood or built for roleplay or birthed as an expansion of some blockbuster series of books. But this book is so much more. The world its far-flung explorations concern is ours, resolutely; the monsters it seeks are such only in relation to us. Indeed, a truth derived from these pages is that the monstrous exists only in relation to us.

The monster is “a revelation,” is defiance—of categories, norms. The monster is “Incongruity,” “Simultaneity,” hybridity and the unease that results. “The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.” The monster is a metaphor for culture, mimesis, freedom, control, for moral laziness or amoral devotion, for the pursuit of desire, for the expectation of more...

To attempt to describe the project here: on the right-hand page is a creature with an elaborate, crab-shell-like crest for a head, things like arms or antennae crooking out from it, three eyes, some crevices at once vaginal and beak-like, and below the neck another set of eyes, another mouth, more exoskeletal armament; then on the left-hand page field notes from travel, a restaurant with uncanny walls, a set of instructions:

Experiment: Try to copy something exactly. Impossible. You can transfer every word and still, in the margins, this unfolding fin, this nub of horn, this tail. We spread the pictures out on the floor. That was in Colorado, on a dry and scented night. My brother and me. Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.

Like Rabelais, this is a text, in its own way gesturing toward “something as all-encompassing as the Bible.” Assembling and alluding to a vast array of engagements with the monstrous, from Rabelais and Cixous to Amiri Baraka and Sarah Baartman, from Aquinas on the conception of females to Kathy Acker on how—in her words, woven into the monstrous tapestry of this text—“The woman who lives her life openly according to nonmaterialistic ideals is the wild antisocial monster; the more openly she does so, the more everyone hates her.” We hear about the hoax that was the Feejee Mermaid, displayed for a circus fee. We are prompted to consider the stance of the Reformation-era Anabaptist minister who revealed, via word play, what he took to be the heretical evil of the Eucharist, calling it a monster, naming as monstrous the act of taking signifier for signified.

As the monstrous is related to the grotesque, we have here, too, reflections on grotesquery’s subjective character and the sliding scale across which it can be located. The treatment of Palestinians, by the Israeli state and its young agents, is grotesque; gorging on food while half a world away children are starving to death, with those deaths televised, is also but not quite “likewise” grotesque, though neither of those grotesqueries is of the same character as the grotesquery of the song “We Are the World.”

Passages sometimes begin with canned, genre horror stories—a species of smooth-skinned child attendants, the slaughter of a family—but swiftly meld, as if slipping back into the shadows, into darker and more terrifying stories involving no unearthly creatures. Our obsessive acts of categorization, imposed upon our own species, are utterly monstrous; we make monsters and, in so doing, become them. A humanoid seahorse chained to a giant piranha-like fish? The sketch is unsettling. But the prose description of the bot fly is monstrous:

A pair of doctors forced the worm out of the flesh. They gave it to me on a piece of gauze: a blind maggot, a pearl of muscle. At once it twisted its body and ate through the gauze. It was terribly agile, industrious, wholly dedicated to life.

The book, however, can only exist—can only have the force it has, the ability to seduce and traumatize—with both components paired in weird tension, an added meta-layer of mystery within the text, juxtaposition and implied dialogue between image and word on multiple levels, the relation between sketches and text serving, like a mirror facing a mirror, to exemplify the infinite (and monstrous) relation of those things referenced, cited, and discussed. The connection between the two pages, itself a jarring disconnection, is a central mechanism, a kind of toothy, living trap which grabs the reader like a predatory crustacean and which does not let go. As the text puts it, on the meaning of monsters and fieldwork thereon: “In the end I’m reduced to begging you: Endure the scar. Let an insight come and find you.”

Official Del Samatar Web Site
Official Sofia Samatar Web Site
Official Rose Metal Press Web Site

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