Book: A Greater Monster
Author: David David Katzman
Type of Book: Fiction, experimental, indescribable
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The reasons are numerous and many.
Availability: Published by Bedhead Books in 2011, you can get a copy here:
You can also order this book from The Strand.
Comments: Jesus Christ. The best way I can begin this book discussion is to dare every single one of you to buy the book and read it. I add the dare so that your pride forces you to get the book lest you seem the sort person who shies away from a challenge. I need you to feel your honor is at stake. However, it will be a dare you will be glad you took. A Greater Monster is a book you will need to read at least twice, and even then you will be able to pick it up a third, fourth and fifth time and right around page 40 you will feel like you are reading a new book again. Given that this book has 367 pages, that’s a bargain. In a sense, you will get a new book every time you read it. So really, it’s an economical dare.
The best way to describe the book is to call it experimental fiction because after the first 40 pages or so, it defies any traditional narrative. It’s a drug trip that has a beginning of sorts but no real end. The protagonist slides from one hallucinogenic experience to another, each itself having no beginning and no real end. It’s disorienting and peculiar. But at the end it is a religious experience for the protagonist, a deeply personal descent into the unreal and irreal that make it almost alienating to read. The protagonist wants this trip into a world that has no meaning – if he doesn’t experience real meaninglessness, his life will become even more meaningless. And each trip he experiences means only to me what I assign to it because there is no meaning once the trips begin. Only experience. A nauseating but ordered beginning turns into the protagonist careening in unordered experiences.
I had to read this book in a manner similar to the way I read House of Leaves. The first time I read it in bits and pieces. It’s a dense text and, without any linearity of plot, I don’t recommend reading through it in one attempt the first time you read it. I honestly don’t know if the book would do you any good reading it all at once. It would be like experiencing someone else’s delusions. Before my senior year of high school, I developed pneumonia and had such a high fever I began to hallucinate. My mother found me in the hallway, waiting in line to go to the bathroom. Evidently I was convinced Chinese laborers were using the house as a rooming house and we all shared the same toilet. I could see odors as colors and felt sure there were cows hiding in my room, producing methane gas that manifested as the color orange. Small blue people ran across my bedsheets, warning me I needed to sit up or I would die. My books spoke in foreign languages, the mirrors showed me unseen rooms in the house, and when I later told all of this to the doctor, he flat out did not believe me. My mother told him, with no small amount of anger, that all of that had happened and I still don’t think he believed us.
I hallucinate now with very low fevers and most medical personnel give me the side eye when I report it. I seldom say anything anymore. I’ve had a couple of nurses tell me they do the same thing but mostly I know I am not believed. I used to be offended by it but now I know better. The fever dreams and hallucinations of one man can never really resonate with others unless they, by chance, had the same fevered dream, the same tendency to hallucinate, the same peculiar mindset. That sort of cross-over seldom happens and you find yourself wondering how anyone could see a cow’s flatulence. And that’s why you need to read this book in little bits at first. Otherwise the protagonist’s experiences will become too much as you try to make sense of them. In smaller bits you won’t try to find the common thread, the element that links all these stories together. There may be one but because this is not my hallucination, my drug trip, my terrible fever, the thread is elusive at best.
It took me several months to finish this book the first time. I would back up and try to connect everything I was reading but ultimately that was a loser’s bet. You just have to read in snippets and when you are finished, let it digest and then read it all in one go. This book is a bizarre, at times alienating experience and that may sound unappealing but actually it was quite divine. It was like taking a vacation into someone else’s mind. It was a violent, unnerving, disjointed trip into utterly foreign fever hallucinations and that experience is enjoyable and frightening and fun if you don’t try to force it to make any linear sense.
The book begins in a manner I can only call Palahniuk-ian with a dash of American Psycho with the protagonist as as potential victim, not a rich, yuppie killer. The protagonist works for an ad agency and he is in trouble. His mind is running races, his soul is dying a bit each day. The book opens with the protagonist literally grasping spirituality in his hands, squeezing it in his sleep.
I jerked awake from my half-sleep, still clutching Ganesh in my right fist, when I heard the moan. The room smelled of ashes and rosemary. Hit the power button without shutting down and clenched the action figure tighter as my computer whined to its death.
I returned to my chair and considered the elephantine god in my hand. I’ll take him to work as a sentinel to keep me company, I thought. The rich olive color would bring some energy to my office, which was a black box within a large black loft designed to simulate a warehouse (while incidentally honing paranoia and cruelty).
He is open to the idea of change but is oblivious to signs. This man who works 18-hour days in a place that would have killed me off in a week, this man who is overworked and in constant fear, is an asshole. On the way to work on December 21, he is given “a small black lozenge” from a homeless man. Here is his reaction:
The old man did not move. A monument to homelessness, a statue of failure, wearing a postman’s jacket over a shirt with the outline of a horse on it. Work pants, a dirty baseball hat with the swoosh logo, and sandals covered in what appeared to be dog shit completed the outfit. Better him than me. I grabbed at the pill. Turns out, I wasn’t as quick as an action-movie star. The moment I contacted his palm, the old man close-fisted my fingers and spit a glob of phlegm violently at my feet. His acid-green eyes met mine – “Why’d the chickens cross the road?” I scooped the pill and yanked my hand from his. “Why’d the chickens cross the road?” he repeated more urgently. I backed away, thrusting the pill into my coat pocket. The rough wool fibers rubbed like a Chinese finger trap. I turned the corner back to the street, he bellowed, “Cuz he’s a goddamn backstabbin’ chicken’s why!”
Better him than me, but he walks away with the black lozenge. He passes by graffiti that comes from a place of human despair, and he thinks:
Mmmh, sorry you couldn’t make it like I did. Welcome to natural selection, loser.
But then he walks into the street, the walk sign on his side, and he is nearly run down by a silver SUV. He gives the car driver the finger and he comes very close to realizing he is the backstabbin’ chicken who crossed the road, but he doesn’t. It eludes him. He cannot yet see the signs.
This is how he sums up a day at work:
Skull-crushing boredom interspersed with hyperventilating fear.
He is working on marketing a project called eEye, a security system for the well-heeled to keep the economically disenfranchised at bay. He spends all day in pointless meetings and has to work late in order to get anything done. He’s contemplated the black lozenge as he does the job of several people but he doesn’t swallow any yet. And there are still signs, so many signs.
“I want a fucking life!” The cry echoed from somewhere in the warehouse outside my door. The creatives were getting restless. It was 12:21. Third night in a row I’d been at work past 10:00.
“So lose the account and your job, fucker!” I shouted back and stuck my head out the door. No one. Just a cleaning guy sweeping the floor. He didn’t even look up or acknowledge my presence … perhaps because we don’t speak the same language. I retreated back to my office.
It’s no longer the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, but though it is not 12/21, it is still 12:21 and this backstabbing chicken who does not speak the same language as other men, still does not see the sign, even as he contemplates the nasty, oily and gummy pill the homeless man gave him. He is beginning a long dark night of the soul and has no idea.
He decides to surf for porn on the company computer but he gets tons of popups and decides to take part of the pill. He eats half of it and thinks it tastes like chicken (but not backstabbing chicken), but then decides it taste like death. As he leaves the office, he grabs hold of spirituality again.
Ganesh was there on the shelf next to my desk. If I’m really going on a trip, I might as well pack my totem. Joke. Stashed him in my pocket anyway.
He leaves the office, sweating and in a state of timelessness, the Indian god Ganesh, the remover of impediments and obstacles, in his pocket. And time slips away from him and has no meaning.
Time is imaginary space. How do I get from one moment to the next? Space doesn’t have direction, why should time? It’s a medium. Within which vibrations occur. It just is, not movement, no strand, just now.
He stumbles. He wanders. He finds himself condemned by voices no one else can hear and things begin to fall apart, inside and out, as he suffers from stomach cramps.
I felt myself being ripped apart inside my asshole chunks of my ass thrown across the bathroom sputtering the walls my legs falling in opposite directions my body surrendering to the tile my face bounding off a surface warm milk in my mouth my tongue felt the topology tooth tooth tooth tooth? jagged edge my face was a jagged tooth my eyes they were closed they would not open I was tugging at them with all my willpower nothing the abyss no orientation no perspective abruptly swung open: my face was in the urinal I pushed back many bodies entangled with me we were all kneeling at the urinal I wriggled and all the bodies writhed around me a knot of little snakes nadouessioux nausea overwhelmed me and we vomited into the urinals before
As I read this and realized he was not at home, I wondered about the people in the restroom with him as he crapped himself and careened into the urinal. What were they thinking during all of this? He somehow makes it home and wakes after what had to have been only a couple of minutes of sleep to a drug hangover he thinks he can beat if only he goes shopping. He buys a ridiculous suit made of velvet just because a hot but aloof salesgirl recommends it.
She led me to the changing room, which was a frosted acrylic cube mirrored on all four sides, open at the top. “Let me know if you need anything,” she said and left. Tore off my clothes and tried it on. Like a hipster James Bond with money to burn. Checked the tag. 4k. Jesus, an entire paycheck. Burned all right. Back out.
He doesn’t back out because she tells him he looks hot. He wanders, time means nothing, but the book is still linear enough and he meets up with a friend called Sasha, who is half Dutch and half Jamaican. They are in his apartment and she is not buying his shit. In fact, I sort of wish this entire book consisted of little more than Sasha hitting the protagonist with a bamboo stick until he experiences enlightenment but that would be been a short yet repetitive book, though very enjoyable. Sasha and the asshole backstabbing chicken protagonist are smoking drugs, talking religion. He wanders off again, the book beginning to lose linearity, and he meets Sasha again. I have no idea where they are, but this is when I loved Sasha and felt myself fantasizing about what this book would be had she been the source of the revelation and not the oily gumdrop. The protagonist shows up whining and she is having none of it.
“Bollocks,” Sasha sneered. “Page two of your existentialist drama should relate a kick in the teeth. Babylon knocking at your door. All those pretty uniforms. You’ll know what tired is when you find yourself on the wrong list. I saw les flicks with clubs wade into a Pride Parade in Jamaica. You’re just like Cobain – a self-indulgent tosser who couldn’t focus outside his small mind for a change.”
“Hey, Hamlet had that problem, too.”
“Another bloody loser. Fuck Hamlet. Just another man who wanted to hear himself talk.”
And they descend into a conversation that if only he will listen will save him but chickens can’t listen. Sasha is speaking first:
“Freud had a lot to say about primal urges. The superego exists to overcome the id. That’s how society survives. Otherwise we’d live like pack animals in the wild or whatever He called it the Reality Principle. Unfortunately, he got it wrong. It’s an unreality principle. We’re working hard to destroy our species, and it’s all perfectly logical, based on the logic of capitalism. The need to survive as individuals, as cogs in a system which is destroying itself.”
“I’m sick of talking. Let’s fuck.”
She paused. “Did you just – is that how you want this to go?
“What, I just figured…”
“I have no problem at this point. I can turn you into a machine like that. Fuck if I care. You disappoint me.”
“I’m just kidding.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I won’t bring it up again.”
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
I followed her to the door; she took her parka off the hook.
She was gone.
And with her goes his last chance at self-actualization without an ordeal. She wanted him to step outside his little mind and he wanted to fuck. There’s nothing left for him to do but eat the second half of the oily pill and lose his mind in an unreal torment.
Kind passersby make things worse. Mistaking him for a junkie, a man offers him deep tokes of some strong marijuana and it is here that things make no more sense as our chicken begins to experience time and space in a manner wholly inexplicable to those who have not ingested the black lozenge. He is having this epiphany on the floor of the train, where he slid after smoking the pot.
Re la x ed.
Come for ta bull.
I observed myself:
the past has left marks on my body
my state vector collapsed
all time is simultaneous. Or a concept.
Hypercube of space and time. Is why time’s not visible.
Time is not a thing, no thing, it’s a reflection, the reflection of change into space
the angle skews with speed
the subatomic realm does not distinguish between
all is change
In all candor, passages like the above make me nuts. If the rest of the book contained nothing but passages like this, I would tell you to run, run far away from this book. Passages like this appear in the book from time to time, but they are endurable and show the degeneration of the mind rather than being a sophomoric attempt to show the woo-woo that happens on a particularly exhaustive acid trip. Little bits of narrative clarity (clear in that one thing happens and another thing follows instead of a stream-of-consciousness word salad) prevent moments like this from becoming onerous.
As you read on in the book, you just have to let go of any ideas of traditional book construction – this is when the “experimental” part comes in. You just sort of have to float on a raft of interesting words that may lead nowhere because this is not our trip. For some being forced to experience someone else’s fever dream may be a horror show in its own right, but to get the reader through, Katzman has a writing style that makes the incredible readable and accessible. There is also a dark, obscene and often irreverent humor that runs through all the experiences the protagonist has as he sheds the feathers of his backstabbing chicken life.
Going back to his origins, literally, the protagonist shelters briefly with a man named Ron who lives under half of an enormous egg. He brings Ron some water.
Returning to the old man, I’ll kneel down to pass him the cup as he lifts the egg, and I’ll crawl under. I’ll be inside now. Half an egg. The egg will cover us completely. He’ll take the cup and look into it.
“Well, this is top notch. Top notch. Water. What a nice surprise. All right, well, Hello? My name is Ron,” and a tremor will take over his left side as he drinks from the cup with his right hand.
He–sitting by my side, looking out at the river — will have a very long penis.
This is one of the easier episodes to decipher. One does not have to be Freud to understand this experience and what it means to the protagonist. He’s a chicken sheltering under an egg, an ovum, with a man with an enormous penis. It’s a rebirth of sorts but it’s also a rebirth under a giant chicken egg feeding water to a man with a giant penis. Deep, but ridiculous.
I suspect half the reason to read on after the protagonist has taken the second half of the black pill is to see if you can determine the meaning or symbolism of what is happening to him. Sometimes I could ferret out some meaning, sometimes I couldn’t.
Here’s a scene wherein a woman is feeding him soup, soup that he calls “unknowable.” She tells him the following:
“He also told me about a place where males killed each other in competition to mate with their mothers. I don’t understand why males would do this. What do mothers want? Who says males have a right to mate with anything? They fuck their own emptiness. It goes back to the origin. The ending returns to the beginning.”
The ending will always return to the beginning. Sasha more or less told him this earlier. I wonder if he is speaking to Sasha again or if his memory of her is fueling this interaction with the Eternal Soup Woman.
There are more strange trips – he is attacked by a metal creature that read strangely cat-like to me. He meets an Elk Pirate who is full of casual snark but also has a sort of debonair, Cary Grant-vibe, or at least it seemed Cary Grant-like until I learned he is a she. Maybe the Pirate Elk is beyond sexual roles. He offers the injured protagonist a cigarillo and some cognac in order to ease his pain and has one of the more coherent conversations with the protagonist:
“Where were you trying to get to?”
“I don’t know. Trying to survive mostly. I think … think that I’m … I’m just trying to … to understand? I’ve … I’ve become confused about … what I’m supposed to be doing, what I’m … like.”
“Yes. You’re wasting time. The point is you exist, and what are you going to do about it.”
The conversation with the Pirate Elk has what for me was the best paragraph in the book. The protagonist is telling the Pirate Elk that he didn’t ask for all the things that have happened to him in life. The Pirate Elk replies:
“Who does, who does?” The Pirate Elk tossed back a sip. “This isn’t what I wanted. I used to endlessly fantasize arriving. You know, make my entrance in a big ballgown. Self-possessed, magnetic. The men swooned. I was finally there. Not a care in the world. Everything at my feet. Yes, those were the days that never ended, never happened.”
I did not connect emotionally with this book. My discussion of House of Leaves was deeply emotional because I got Johnny. I had lived as Johnny. I know about the burns and the madness and the booze and the pills and the way we fight our way back from it. I could only be intellectually interested in this book because the chicken protagonist meant little to me. His travails were not my own and so foreign that it never felt real to me, though I am sure others will have a different experience. But as I read, passages like the one from the Pirate Elk, imagining his or her entry, knowing it would never happen but the idea of it never ceasing, thinking of it so often that it became its own strange reality, resonate with me. Who hasn’t dreamed of arriving? But that isn’t the point, of course. The point is that we are here – what are we going to do about it.
This book is peppered with moments like that, wherein you find your truth in the puke-covered, shit-stained hallucinations of a very lost man. That’s why you should read it. You will have to work hard for those moments and that’s part of the reason I dare you to read this book. Katzman’s imagination and intense writing are also worth the dare.
Katzman also includes interesting illustrations in the book. There are about 40 pages straight of white-line on black illustrations of the protagonist’s hallucinations. Very compelling artwork.
I have to stop here because I could keep going for another five thousand or so words and still not cover all this book brings to the table. Does he achieve enlightenment? Does he stop being a backstabbing chicken? Read it and find out. I’m not wholly sure if he even survives the experience. I don’t even know if he could survive what Katzman does to him. But the interpretation, as I mentioned before, is half the fun. You should read this book and not just because I dare you to read it. You should read it because it’s not like anything I have ever read before and in spite of being one of the more challenging narratives I’ve tackled for IROB, it remained compelling and interesting, even as I had to put it down and return to it. Highly recommended.
3 thoughts on “A Greater Monster by David David Katzman”
Awesome review, as always!
Re: hallucinating when you have a temperature. My aunt and cousin experience that, with even slight fevers, and have done all their lives, as did my late grandmother. My mum remembers, as a child, once being woken up by my aunt who was searching her bed because she thought their sister had had her head cut off, and it was hidden in the bedclothes. It was such a regular thing in the family that no one made a big deal out of it. (Although it surprised the hell out of my aunt’s second husband when he saw it happen for the first time, as no one had thought to warn him.)
I hallucinated once, as a child, when I had chickenpox and a very high fever. I very clearly heard people walking around and talking in the attic above me. Obviously, this didn’t faze my mum at all, or particularly impress her. 🙂