Julia Wertz, “The Infinite Wait and Other Stories” (2012) & Stephen T. Asma, “On Monsters: An Unnatural History Of Our Worst Fears” (2009)

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As a trio of short stories, The Infinite Wait does some interesting interweaving – although all three are fully readable and self-contained, Wertz has them loop through the events of the others (especially the first two, “Industry” and “The Infinite Wait”), so while the stories and characterizations are consistent, or sometimes repeated, they are brought up in different contexts, giving them slightly different meaning. For example, we see two takes on Wertz’s time working at a pool hall – but the more detailed account in “Industry” shows it more as just another one of her many jobs, and “Infinite Wait” positions it as part of the fallout of her diagnosis with lupus. The details are largely the same, but because the stories have different trajectories, the same events can be seen in different lights. Of course, giving multiple angles on these stories also allows her to wring as much humour out of them as possible, which is also a noble goal.

“Industry” and “Infinite Wait” could have possibly been merged into one chronological story, but that could have robbed them of a lot of their punch, with far too much to keep track of – they tend to go in several different tangents within the course of their stories, so on a sheer readability level, separating them gives them more room to breathe. Thing is, we all have a tendency to compartmentalize things in our lives in a pretty similar way, even when they are all part of a single time frame, and Wertz uses that here in order to maintain clarity in these stories. Even so, reading through all three (with the final, shorter story “A Strange and Curious Place” being a kind of coda that provides additional context to the previous stories) we can see a pretty straightforward narrative – how her relationship with her family, her work experience, and finally her struggles with her diagnosis led to her career in comics.

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Of special note here is constant presence of her family, both in the story and in the meta-narration of the book. Autobiography is a tricky subject because, in the end, you’re writing almost as much about other people as you are about yourself, and as confident as Wertz seems to be in describing her life, she always makes it clear that she fully expects the rest of her friends and family to be reading the book as well. This leads to some pretty funny stuff peppered throughout – putting in a special shout-out to her mom when she covers up some particularly lewd panels, or the constant presence of her brother both as a character (and the goofy rapport between Wertz and her brother are the most consistently entertaining parts) and even as one of the pull quotes on the back of the book. The further one gets into the stories, “The Infinite Wait” especially, the more comes to see those relationships as the main anchor of the whole thing.

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(I picked up this book because it was included in the bibliography of the last few books I read.)

In On Monsters, Asma uses a very broad use of the term “monster”, linking both fictional creatures from ancient and modern stories or a descriptions of a murderer or criminal (or the outdated epithet against the deformed.) The fact that monster has such a wide breadth of uses and meanings actually goes hand-in-hand with some of the main ideas in the book – monster as a concept is important in both fiction and reality, and in some instances bridges the gaps between them. After all, the peoples of the ancient world through the middle ages (and beyond, in some instances) had as much reason to believe in dragons and giants and men with faces in their chests they hear of as any of the actual strangeness or deviants in their own lives – the things one can see can give life to things one cannot. They existed in that state for quite a while, too – even post-Enlightenment, it was not easy to determine why a chimera isn’t real, but a platypus was.

The book regularly talks about monsters as liminal beings, strange others that exist between states we see as “normal” (for example, life and death,) a disturbance in our perception of reality. In a way, it’s almost a super-generalized version of the uncanny valley – we have distinct parameters for what something is supposed to appear or behave, be it human or animal or vegetable, and anything beyond that provokes only fear and disgust. In this way, a deformed calf, a demon that appears in our sleep (a liminal being between waking and dreaming,) and a unrepentant criminal all fit the working definition – deviation from our ideas of appearance or understanding or morality is considered monstrous. Especially in the times when all three of those things would be considered “real”, they were all given some sort of magical-symbolic element as well – calves with “human faces” were omens, and criminals and other deviants were often believed to be possessed by demons or otherwise affected by the magical forces those demons embody. As mentioned, “monster” became a go-between for physical and metaphysical between all of a civilization’s collective fears – a place where dangers real and not-so-real real could co-exist and justify each other.

Of course, as western societies changed and natural sciences became more pronounced, the monsters of old were often dismissed, only to be replaced with new ones – once the secrets of gestation and illness were slowly unraveled, and foreign lands thoroughly documented (and verified again and again, as to not repeat the exaggerated travelogues of the past that disseminated less-than-truthful ideas), it only left us with the realization that there was only more to discover, and so monstrous theories often rose up to fill in the gaps. We also had a tendency to create our own monsters where there were none before – the Frankenstein story would become the precursor to most of our modern futuristic monsters, the genetically engineered and the mechanical beings that always seem to creep around our desire for progress. That also brings about other alternative interpretations – if “monster” is even a useful term, when moral relativity is and alternative explanations for things like crime offer up ways to take the monstrousness out of monsters and make them more understandable. Asma seems to reject that idea in some instances, but the possibility that either everyone or no one are monsters – which, of course, is questioning the liminal status at its root, leaving no middle.

That’s a hardly a new thing, though – the book itself shows how interpretations of even longstanding ideas, like the dog-faced men said to live in Africa, changed over time – one of those dog-faced men became a saint, after all. The rise of Christianity itself reinterpreted many monsters and monster stories on their own terms – the story of Beowulf can be read as either a pagan story of a brave warrior killing a gigantic monster, or a Christian tale of a prideful man learning humility. That, of course, is one of the most interesting journeys in the book – introducing religious, scientific, or postmodern lenses allows the same monsters (sometimes in new forms) to find new meanings.

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