Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Narrative Performance in the Contemporary Monster Story

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Narrative Performance in the Contemporary Monster Story

Article excerpt

Recently literary and cultural criticism has come to recognize the signal importance of the body in constructing culture, and we have seen a flourishing of articles and books on representations of the body. One of the most traditional ways that a writer can explore society through the body is by telling a monster story. Critics have long recognized that literary monsters serve to challenge the homogeneity of society by revealing its tensions, inconsistencies, and gaps. Contemporary theory, as well as popular culture, is clearly in sympathy with the monster story's goal of revealing social disunity through bodily multiplicity. More than ever we are aware of our bodies as constructions dependent upon technology and social expectation. The popularity within literary criticism of Donna Haraway's claim that we are all today 'cyborgs' existing within and constructed by many different information circuits is only a reflection of the larger social interest in images of the synthetic, heterogeneous body. One witty statement of our thinking about the body is Max Apple's short story 'Free Agents' (1983), in which the author's internal organs decide to leave him, suing for their right to sell themselves to the highest bidder. They issue a press release: 'The so-called one-life one-body ruling [...] has for an entire decade been based upon false medical, legal, and moral evidence. The star surgeons traipse through the land making big reputations by moving organs from one body to another. An average John Doe might have a new heart, a fresh kidney, pints of alien blood, even an engrafted tooth if the dentists have their way, and you know they will. Meanwhile, the organs are treated as so much meat.' (1) Apple's story of the court case that will decide this issue (with the pituitary gland as the judge, and the organs of famous people as the jury) humorously shows just how widely recognized is the disunity of the body.

That contemporary culture has accepted the disunity of the body in a way makes the monster story curiously irrelevant. For if we recognize that we are all, like Apple's narrator, 'monsters' comprised of independent elements, what need have we for stories that foreground this disunity? And yet, monsters continue to inspire writers and to attract readers. Even leaving aside the monsters of popular horror film and fiction, characters with monstrous bodies have consistently appeared in 'serious' contemporary fiction. We think, for example, of Italo Calvino's Il visconte dimezzato (1951), William Burroughs's The Ticket that Exploded (1967), John Gardner's Grendel (1971), Sahnan Rushdie's Shame (1983), and Alasdair Gray's Poor Things (1992). What cultural 'work', we might ask, do monster novels do at the end of the twentieth century? In this article I will argue that monster novels provide contemporary writers with the chance to examine the process of storytelling itself. (2) I would like to discuss a number of contemporary monster stories, but will primarily focus on three particularly significant texts: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984), Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1989), and Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (1990). What we find, ultimately, is that monster stories raise important questions about the agency of literary symbolism--who makes the body 'mean' and how that act supports or undercuts larger socio-political messages within the novel.

The Symbolic Body

As a number of recent critics have noted, before the eighteenth century the monster was most often seen as a divine sign intended to convey some message; these critics frequently link monster to the French term montrer, to demonstrate. In this sense, monstrosity is a fact that must be interpreted by considering what message it sends. Chris Baldick summarizes Michel Foucault's work on insanity by noting: 'In a world created by a reasonable God, the freak or lunatic must have a purpose: to reveal the results of vice, folly, and unreason, as a warning [. …

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