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A BEAST OF A BOOK

A BEAST OF A BOOK

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Monstruary by Julian Rios Knopf, 225 pp., $25 Imagine for a moment that through some strange rift in reality you have been physically transported to the absurd, unnatural, and harrowing world of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, but you’re blindfolded. What you hear is disquieting. What you smell is nauseating. Since you can’t see, providing narration for every terrible and nonsensical sight encountered is your disturbingly alliterative and alarmingly articulate guide Julian Rios, author of Monstruary. Rios’ most recent book, masterfully translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, is nigh Joycean in its labyrinthine linguistic complexity, though you most likely can decipher its prose -- unlike some of Joyce’s -- albeit a bit dense and breathless. Monstruary is the tale of Emil, our writer/artist/narrator, and his exceptionally gifted cadre of friends and acquaintances, who are all caught up in a world of high-octane art and bad-luck love. The title of the book comes from Emil’s friend Mons’ painting-series-in-progress, a number of works with many different recurring themes but one thing in common: chilling imagery, which Emil is all too happy to relate to his audience in horrific detail. It seems Mons must first have a drunken nightmarish vision a la Bosch before his brush touches canvas: The trampling angel with the body of curling clouds who plunges ahead on petrified pillar legs that shoot fire like muskets and make the earth tremble to the rhythm of a pile driver. Ill-assorted multitudes of human figures with the heads of animals, vertebrate and invertebrate, and all kinds of beasts and insects with the heads of men and women and mutants, semihuman masses that swarm like ant colonies, surge like cresting waves, spill like avalanches into chasms of darkness. ... A giant starling straddled by a naked Lilliputian. ... A tightrope walker with the head of a goldfinch. A carp with the head of a duck. A beetle with the gaunt, dissipated face of a young man. Fish with human arms, men and women with fishtails ... Admittedly, this is a very odd book. While we learn the details of the characters’ lives and loves, we’re intermittently taken on descriptive roller-coaster rides regarding paintings and sculptures, the life of the mind of several artists, mysterious journals full of automatic writing penned by unaware mediums of dead wives (each almost indecipherable phrase rife with possible meanings), et cetera. And this roller coaster starts on page one. Somewhat pretentious is the narrator’s ubiquitous plays on words, obscure puns, and alliterative phrases -- that poor exhausted translator! -- of which there have to be at least 20 on every single page. (Every character is a latent linguist.) No phrase is left unskewed by double entendre, no pun is left unpunned, and rarely is a sentence left in which every word does not echo another with the same sound or series of letters. Chew on this: “That delirious architecture seemed to spring from the opium visions of De Quincey and Coleridge, semisymmetries in a chaotic kaleidoscope where dromedary domes rose beneath the cupola of night, mad truncated caracole staircases against unsalvageable walls, lofty basalt rising over the abyss, pilasters soaring to the stars and splintered plinths and prostrate rostrate columns, the sharp beaked peaks of their rostrums earthbound, and alligators astride astragals in the black sun of melancholy.” For many readers this will be too much to deal with. They’ll lose interest immediately, or, if intrigued, will simply be worn out by the sentence strata they have to constantly dig through to get at meaning. But there are plenty of masochist members of the intelligentsia who relish a very challenging book like this, obstinately difficult in its narrative bent. You just have to be a word junkie. You have to enjoy it like others enjoy puzzles. The meaning’s there, but you’ve got to know what to look for to get it. Don’t get me wrong. I recommend Monstruary, especially if you love art and literature. But don’t eat too many pronto pups and cotton candy before you get on the ride, and for God’s sake keep your hands inside the car at all times.

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