You know, I've never written a review before…
About a year ago, during winter break from university (I remember because my feet were freezing in my Converses), I was hanging out with some friends. We had dinner plans for one of those Chinese/Japanese/Generic Asian super-buffets, and one friend had not yet arrived. Thus, being 20-something-year-old ne’er-do-wells, we decided to hang out at an adjacent dollar store. While I was explaining the scientific inaccuracies of the little, plastic dinosaur toys those stores always sell, a friend interrupted me with a book from the next aisle over. In his hand, he held a copy of David Maine’s Monster, 1959. I don’t remember what friend it was; maybe it was Phil, maybe it was Goober….
Anyway, where shall I begin with this review? A summary, probably. This short, 243-page novel follows a monster simply known as K., a forty foot tall, chimerical hominid. He lives on an undisclosed island on the Pacific where the natives revere him as a god. There is also a whole mess of monsters crawling around on this island: man-eating fish, giant serpents, dragon she-beasts, and mole men. Eventually, K. receives a sacrifice from the natives that is different, sporting porcelain skin, and blond hair (her name is Betty). Her husband (his name is Johnny) and a group of safari hunters chase K. down and steal back the girl. They eventually capture K., bring him to America, and put on a show!
Basically, Monster, 1959 is a pastiche of King Kong, with a plot and character roles very similar to the RKO film. Because of this, I’m not going to focus on the overall plot of the novel. It follows the King Kong formula, the only difference comes from the characters and their actions.
The novel functions a lot like John Gardner’s Grendel, with the protagonist being K. himself. A lot of the novel is told from his perspective, but the novel is ultimately third person-omniscient. Because of this, you see and know everything.
Seeing the world from K.’s perspective is the best part of the novel. K. is characterized as an animal that is only immediately aware of himself and his immediate surroundings. He is like an infant who has not developed object permanence. But, unlike a human infant, K. does not remember much, does not remember the young woman sacrificed to him, or the monster island home he was taken from. However, over the novel, he does change. He becomes some-what aware, he knows he wants Betty, he knows he wants to leave. However, he doesn't know the why or where to. K., visually, is a new and different monster; he has butterfly wings and antennae, an ape-like body with scaled arms, seven toes, and a bald-head Overall, he’s just weird to think about, and that makes him a great monster.
The beginning of the novel starts out great, describing the world from K’s eyes. Here, Maine’s skill shows. Even when the human characters are introduced, Maine effectively replicates the cheesy dialogue one would expect from a 50’s B-Monster movie. The characters are fine up until halfway through the novel, when they get K. to the United States and the show starts.
The three main human characters mirror characters from King Kong. Betty functions as Ann Darrow, Johnny as Jack Driscoll, and Billy as Carl Denham. However, Maine’s parallels are the perverse shadows of King Kong’s cast.
Betty is the least horrible character of the three. She is a caricature of women in the 1950s, showing how submissive they were expected to be in society. She is the most educated, though. She possesses a degree in biology, making her the scientist character these movies often have. However, she is underplayed as someone with knowledge in biology, only coming up a few times. This is probably underplayed because of 50s-woman-are-submissive mindset, which Betty does have. She believes she should throw herself into her husband and his own pursuits, leaving hers behind. That’s how she gets captured by K., and eventually gets caught up in Billy’s traveling K. show.
Johnny is the good, ol’ American boy, to the point where he’s throwing around racial slurs. He starts out as the rugged hero, trying to save his wife. After saving his wife and returning from the island, his life has become boring. Johnny eventually mutates into a perverse sex addict when he can’t replicate the rush he had on the island. He starts to become an exhibitionist, having sex with Betty (and eventually other women) in public places. He even does it in the cage K. is locked in! He's easily a caricature of America's hatred and risk taking behaviors from the 50's, and as an image of America now. He use to take all the risks, live, and be the most powerful. By the end of the novel, he's a crazed bulldog looking for the power he use to have. This is what ultimately does him in.
Billy is no better. He literally makes prostitutes masturbate with stacks of his money, and he even has sex with his own money. I have a feeling Billy represents capitalism, seeing as he loves nothing but his money. In fact, now that I think about it, Billy’s story really isn’t finished. He just sort of runs to Mexico and isn’t given a resolution. At least, that’s how I think it goes for him. As you can tell, he’s not too terribly compelling as a character, but his actions are something you will remember.
Now, let’s talk about the meat of the novel, the actual written words. David Maine is a fantastic writer, spinning vivid paragraphs filled with literary, historical, and pop cultural references. These references are great, especially the literary and pop cultural ones. However, the historical references are a bit of a problem. The references are tools used to push the author’s opinion, an opinion on the United State’s past actions and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Maine also uses one of Winston Churchill’s quotes, describing how colonized people are not actually people (“The dog in the manger”). This message can be a bit overbearing, and it harms the quality of the novel.
While the message is overbearing at certain points in the novel, the last chapter delivers the message subtly. I don’t want to spoil it, so I will give as few details as possible. 100 years into the future, the natives of K.’s island are telling the story of Komo ko, the god of things living (K.) and Kama ka, the god of things dead. The head native tells the creation myth, the battle between Komo ko and Kama ka. The god of things dead eventually returns and takes Komo ko away. Kama Ka comes as a legion of fake humans, who had white, decaying skin. This final chapter leaves you to infer who Kama ka actually is, and it makes you consider the actions taken by characters in the novel. This last chapter and the few two segments of the novel are fantastic, really exemplifying Maine’s writing style.
Maine’s style in this novel can also be self-referencing, disrupting the narrative so he/the narrator can add in a few words. I’m not exactly a fan of these disruptions as it ruins the chance for inference, but they are perfectly timed. Here’s an example; this paragraph shows up right after Billy and a few prostitutes have sex with money:
By now, you might be forgiven for wondering: Are there any normal people in this movie? It’s a fair question. To which the only possible answer would have to be: Are there are any normal people in the world? And if there were, would you be willing to pay good money to sit in the a dark room and watch them?
A splendid observation. It takes you out of the text, but also makes you consider life.
All-in-all, Monster, 1959 is a post-modern, deconstructionist monster novel. That is what makes the novel good: it takes as look at the giant monster story itself. It takes the characters apart, spies into human nature. In the middle of this is K., our star, a monster that barely understands his own nature much less the little pests around him. However, main’s writing and he want to get a point across hampers the narrative and its impact. It’s like someone standing behind you, screaming “Did you get the message yet?!”
David Maine’s Monster, 1959 gets a 6.5/10 from me. I recommend it if you want to read something that is a bit different from the normal monster fair.
….and now that I think about it, it was Phil who showed me the novel. God damn it, Phil.
Buy Monster, 1959 here. Do it. It's a bargain book right now.
Buy Monster, 1959 here. Do it. It's a bargain book right now.