Books

We steady ourselves with the past — Lauren Groff: The Monsters of Templeton


Animal from Lauren Groff's homepage

Hey, it’s that beast from Learning GNU Emacs, but what is it doing here? I found it’s flipped twin in the background of Lauren Groff‘s webpage. Her designer seems to be inspired by O’Reilly book covers – every single page features an animal I associate with computer programming.

Anyhow, enough of the geeky stuff. Why was I on Groff’s webpage anyway?

Because I had just finished her debut novel The Monsters of Templeton — a New York Times bestseller shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Wow!

Lauren Groff: The Monsters of Templeton

Monsters shares similarities with The Tiger’s Wife, the last book I’ve read: both are hyped debut novels; both tell their story non-linearly combining voices from different centuries; both contain fantastic elements (here: a lake monster! a guardian ghost! pyrokinesis!); both were given to us by the same person (thank you, Dannie!); and both are full of violence, rape and suicide. Can it get any better?

In Monsters, Groff weaves together two major themes: How important it is to find your roots in times of crisis and how people reinvent themselves and get ‘reborn’.

Everyone changes, no losers, except one

In the beginning is disaster: after a doomed love affair with her professor (that ends in assumed pregnancy and her trying to run over his wife with an airplane – don’t ask!) PhD student Wilhelmina ‘Willie’ Upton comes back to her hometown Templeton, exactly when the monster of the lake dies and is found floating in the water.

In the end is rebirth and reinvention: Willie matures, and even finds her father, who in the process finds back his virility (after three childless marriages he had thought to be sterile). And Willie isn’t the only one: Her almost-boyfriend Zeke loses weight, becomes handsome and goes off to college. Willie’s mother Vi finds god, new love and a new family (with Willie’s best friend as ersatz daughter). And even the monster gives birth to a new monster — there are advantages in being a self-fertilizing hermaphrodyte!

When I had finished the book, it seems like everybody had won, had grown, had gotten better, had been reborn. Except Marmaduke, who got murdered; but that was ages ago. And he deserved it.

We steady ourselves with the past

What lies between disaster and rebirth? Willie searching for her roots and uncovering the history of her family. It’s no coincidence that Willie is an archeologist. Digging deep is in her blood and at the heart of this novel:

“[…] we need a mass of ancestors at our backs as ballast. Sometimes, we feel it’s impossible to push into the future without such a weight behind us, without such heaviness to keep us steady, even if it is imaginary. And the more frightening the future is, the more complicated it seems to be, the more we steady ourselves with the past” (p347)

I have this theory: every writer explicitely offers the reader the key to understand the book in one or two sentences, either at the beginning or very end of the story. If I am right, the quote above is Groff’s key and The Monsters of Templeton is about how our lives need to stay connected with our history.

Tigers beat Monsters

I really enjoyed both books, but in a direct comparison I prefer The Tiger’s Wife to The Monsters of Templeton. The Tiger sucked me in; I had a much harder time connecting to the people in Monsters. Somehow I didn’t really care. When Willie finds her father in the end, I felt like ‘good, that’s done now’!

Maybe I’m just more receptive to Balkan sadness than to American optimism.

Good, that’s done now.

Florian

Image sources: http://www.laurengroff.com

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