Constant Reader Book of The Month June: The Monster Variations by Daniel Kraus
The Debut of a Master of Grim YA Fiction
“Childhood is the garden where nobody dies.
Nobody important, anyway.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
This quote seems to come from a halcyon era the more time goes by.
In reading the work of Daniel Kraus, I’ve been struck more and more by the work of Robert Cormier, a New England author who anyone growing up in my generation — the 1990s — was intimately familiar with. We are so used to the bleak tone of so much YA fiction these days that it’s hard to imagine the effect Cormier’s work had when it came out, and all the more so because unlike The Hunger Games or so much other dystopian fiction, Cormier’s work was set in the real world. I read and reread I am the Cheese at least a dozen times through middle school, and I don’t think I ever truly understood the significance of the last ten pages until years later. I didn’t have to in order to get it. The Chocolate War is one of the seminal books of anyone’s childhood, and looking back on it, you could see it as a precursor of so much of Peak TV these days. How rare was it for a novel to spend so little time on the presumptive hero Jerry Renault and so much time on Archie Costello, the head of the miniature cult the Vigils, a true Machiavellian master of all he surveyed and the impending menace of Brother Leon, one of the most insidious villains in all of fiction. I actually believe the sequel Beyond the Chocolate War is by far the superior work because it discards Jerry almost altogether and turns the focus entirely on the horrors that Archie has sent throughout Trinity, causing even his loyal followers to turn on him when they believe he’s gone too far. (I intend to reread and review this book for a later entry.) It’s very easy to see Archie growing up to become Tony Soprano or Walter White, or even running for public office and becoming Frank Underwood.
You don’t necessarily have to have devoured Cormier at a younger age or even know who he is to appreciate the writing of Daniel Kraus, a graphic novelist who has mainly focused on YA fiction the past decade, but I must admit it would come as excellent preparations. Unlike Cormier, who mainly dealt with suspense rather than out-and-out horror, Kraus tends to focus the lions’ share of his work as having a horrific undertone while looking at the world of childhood and adulthood. Last year I completed the incredible Rotters, the enthralling the story of a young man who, after the sudden death of his mother, must live with his father who barely seems like a human being and who he — and the reader –eventually learn is a practicing grave robber. Having read the book I am genuinely uncertain which I find more horrific: the world of digging up the dead which eventually leads to the hero nearly being buried alive, or the horrific teachers and bullies he encounters in the high school he is desperately trying to survive. When he takes an act of particularly grisly revenge against his tormentors, you actually think they deserve what’s coming to them. Several years ago I read the first volume of his two-part saga: The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, the story of a young man who is killed at the beginning of the book and continues to function as a human being — sort of — for the rest of the 20th Century. The first book was mesmerizing and one of the most grimly fascinating novels I ever read. I have yet to read Empire Decayed the concluding volume, frankly because the carnage of the first book genuinely unsettled me. I actually meant to beginning this entire series of book clubs because of his most recent novel Bent Heavens a book so breath-taking staggering in his horror and twists that after glancing at the first time I took it home from the library, I have been unable to open for more than a glance for more than eight months. It is a brilliant book — and every single bit of the story becomes more relevant with each passing day — but if you are trying to become a reader of Kraus, the portrait he paints of humanity will drive you into a corner, mumbling for your mother.
So if you wish to appreciate Kraus, you should start with his first book. The Monster Variations is a lightning quick read — a little more than two hundred and fifty pages — but it is absolutely unforgettable. The man who wrote the jacket flap giving it the appearance of a thriller clearly didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. You could be forgiven for thinking there was an actual monster at the center of the novel. (There is, but it exists in the imagination of a child.)
The novel is bookended by the chance meeting of James Wahl, a young man who has just graduated high school and who wants to desperate leave his hole-in-the-wall town. (We never learn its name or even the era this book takes place in). While leaves he stops at a gas station and runs into Reggie Fielder, once one of his best friends who he hasn’t seen in six years and who James’ instinctual reaction is to start a fight.
Almost all of the action takes place in the last summer of their friendship. The third member of their group, Willie, is the victim of a hit and run and loses his arm. The only thing he can remember is that he was hit by a silver truck. Not long after, another young boy is the victim of a similar hit-and-run. As a reaction, the ‘town elders’ impose a curfew of eight o’clock, which horrifies everybody because summer vacation has begun. (It is my belief that this book takes place at the very latest in the early 1970s; I can’t picture any time later than that when a town would dare try to impose, much less enforce a curfew.)
All three boys have troubled homes. Willie’s father was out of work when the summer began and has since degenerated into alcoholism. His mother is increasingly, desperately cheerful. The Purdues are a wealth family, but there is clearly something dark below the atmosphere they show in public. Reggie is raised by a single mother, and it is pretty clear that she is considered the town whore.
In the early stages of the novel, Reggie and James try as hard as possible to include the disabled Willy in their fun, though it is clear from the beginning that it is beyond their twelve-year old selves to handle. Reggie, always the most audacious, begins a series of elaborate stunts, starting with breaking into their school. On their first visit, they find a piece of artwork by Mel Herman, the school bully who all but a single teacher fear. They look at it, and they see a truck — something that indicates that Mel might know more than they think.
Enough of the plot. What Kraus’ captures far better than so many writers is what childhood was in a bygone era, where all kids ever cared about was playing games in the street until you couldn’t see any more, when video games and cell phones were considered beyond futuristic movies, when the most fun you could have was thinking about something strange that a peer had. There are threats, of course, but none of the boys can conceive — or even fully comprehend — the true horrors that are going on around them. Mel has a better glimpse of it then the younger boys, and is frustrated that not even the adults can truly understand it.
The bond between the boys begins eroding early. None of the boys can understand why this is happening, and all of them have explanations that they use. Brutal secrets are learned throughout the course of The Monster Variations; the least of which involves the Monster in the title. (Again, it’s not what you think.) The novel climaxes when the curfew is lifted a week before the summer ends, when the town elders believe the danger has passed. It hasn’t.
The line ‘after that year, nothing would never be the same again’ has been used to death. In the case of The Monster Variations and certainly for Reggie and James it is the brutal truth. But in the final pages, when the two have their first conversation in six years — and perhaps their last ever — we learn that one took the right lessons from that summer, and one took the wrong ones. The last few pages show that one of them might be able to come out the other side as well.
I started this novel with the quote above because it definitely applies in the case of The Monster Variations. None of the novels I’ve read by Kraus contain anywhere near the sense of optimism of his debut. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this one is an outlier or that he simply developed a grimmer view of humanity as he continued to write (though the fact that this novel is set in a distant past and that the protagonists are younger and more innocent may be a critical difference). Perhaps that is also a message from the novel. We live in a more advanced age, but not necessarily a better one. In the age where every child has a cell phone, who would dare to believe in an urban legend, much less have the idea of trying to take it for yourself? Or believe that it is not the driver of a truck responsible for death, but rather the truck itself?