The January/February 2013 issue of Orion contains the strange and beautiful short story “Destroy All Monsters,” in which a mind unfurls itself onto a windowpane, involving and absorbing the small creatures wandering the glass’s surface. We spoke with the author, Bennett Sims, about hypnosis via punctuation, nature as Danger Room, and reading as a kind of brainsharing. Bennett’s first novel, A Questionable Shape, is forthcoming in May.
Among the first things readers may notice about “Destroy All Monsters” are its length, its lack of traditional paragraph breaks, and its innovative use of parentheses (which had at least one of our proofreaders rubbing his face and looking into an eyeglass prescription). Is there a particular idea or sensation you hope to transmit to the reader through this format?
The block paragraph is a form I adopted from the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, who specializes in unindented interior monologues. A typical Bernhard narrator might spend a hundred pages sitting in a wing chair, relentlessly pursuing every thought (with helpful attribution tags like “…I thought,” “…I thought to myself,” “…I thought again, sitting in the wing chair”). Because Bernhard doesn’t fragment the paragraph, there’s never the relief of white space, no pause where the thinking stops. Every line is a line of thought. To get from one reflection to another, you first have to pass through each link in their chain of associations. As a reader, I find this deeply hypnotic. It’s a concentrated—and at times claustrophobic—version of what makes literature so moving as a medium: that sentences can reproduce thought. That whenever you read, your brain is booting up some other brain’s thoughts. Bernhard’s block paragraphs condense this effect by forcing you to inhabit a single skull, in a single moment, for dozens of uninterrupted pages. In following his example, I hope my readers experience a similar feeling of mental immersion.
As for the nested parentheses, I arrived at them as a typographic compromise. I had just finished drafting a heavily footnoted novel, so I forswore footnotes for this story. But I still needed a technology of digression, some way for the narrator’s thoughts to be able to burrow inward and involute, without disrupting the narrative. Hence the parentheses. Thanks for publishing (and putting up with [and proofreading]) them.
There’s a feeling here of a writer digging and digging, really dissecting a moment of time and mapping it out on the page. Where did this piece begin, and what did the writing process feel like?
The story did begin in a specific moment. I was sitting at a desk in Baton Rouge one night, watching the weird subtropical fauna on my windowpane: a gecko, some mites, a moth. The tableau reminded me of a Godzilla movie, and I indulged in idle speculation regarding mite epistemology (did they “know” the gecko was there?). In writing the story, I wanted to try to map that moment out, as you say: to compress those five minutes’ worth of memories, associations, and riffs into something resembling a narrative arc, and to create a character for whom those memories, associations, and riffs would be meaningful (rather than just masturbatory and boring to read). Part of the challenge was to keep all the different motifs in play, and to braid the narrator’s thought strands together in compelling and climactic ways.
The natural world plays a curious role in this story: all of the characters—human and non-human—are linked by a kind of ecology of death. How does the natural world influence your writing or thinking about writing?
In my daily life, I find myself treating nature—by which I guess I mean trees, the sky, animals, icicles, et cetera—as a kind of observational Danger Room. I’ll often assign myself the exercise of staring at a squirrel for however long it takes me to have an interesting thought about it, and in this way I use nature as a default arena for practicing seeing. It’s the place I go to literally train my gaze. To be honest, I’m ashamed to be admitting this to Orion readers. I’m not all that ecologically knowledgeable, and I suspect that my relationship to nature (one of passive spectating, in which entire ecosystems are reduced to velvet-roped vistas, staging grounds for lyric self-reflection and admiration of the sublime) is a lazy cultural inheritance, uncritically absorbed from nineteenth-century poetry. But for better or worse, that’s my relationship.
Nature plays a similar role for characters in my fiction. Instead of impinging on them in an active or dramatic way (they’re not battling the elements, or hunting down bears), it’s generally just something they look at. A prop for contemplation, a scaffold for their thoughts. And the longer they stare at something, the surer they are to encounter themselves in it. So if the natural world is watermarked by death in this story, that’s primarily an index of this particular narrator’s morbidity. The narrator looks out the window to avoid thoughts of death, but ends up transforming everything in the window into a thought of death.
The narrator projects various stories and meanings onto the behavior of the non-humans in this piece—from gecko to mite to Godzilla. What do you make of this storytelling habit we all have? Does it illuminate the world somehow, or just tell us false things about its workings?
Projection always entails some degree of unreliable narration. The story you tell yourself says more about you—about the emotional structures you’re stuck inside—than the scenario it’s meant to make sense of. That’s why the thought “Ben hasn’t texted back because he hates me!” illuminates my own insecurity, even if it turns out that Ben really does hate me. I suppose I’m drawn to unreliable narrators in fiction because they’re limit figures of this tendency. They dramatize the power the mind has of convincing itself: it can find evidence anywhere it looks, building up the craziest cases patiently, logically, perfectly rationally. If I can convince myself that Ben hates me, then why not that a gecko’s reenacting Godzilla?
Of course, American literature’s patron saint of unreliable narration is Poe. When I was writing “Destroy All Monsters,” I knew that he was an influence in a general way: the fever pitch, the paranoid and pareidolic interpretation of detail. What I didn’t know was that Poe actually wrote his own version of “Destroy All Monsters.” Late in revision, I was delighted to discover his story “The Sphinx,” which involves a death-obsessed narrator staring out a window. He watches in horror as what looks like a giant monster lumbers up a distant hillside. But eventually—in a twist ending—he realizes that this distant behemoth is in fact a common Sphinx moth, magnified up close: it has been crawling along a spider’s thread right before his eye. It’s a horror story about perspective, insects, and death. It’s about our tendency to project narratives, and to be terrorized by those narratives. It’s also only four pages long, with paragraphs.
Is there a feeling, or an idea, or a set of ideas you’re most interested in as a writer? If you could write the perfect story—the story that smacks its reader in the chest, changes them forever—what sorts of things would it say?
I’m attracted to this idea of writing as a repository of consciousness. Part of the reason I read is to experience the world from inside another mind. And so the authors who mean the most to me are the mindful ones: the ones who seem to experience reality in a heightened, sensitized state of wakefulness, and who pay prayerful attention to the kinds of things I take for granted from day to day. When a writer does something as simple as describe a tree—when they see a tree in a new way, and are surprised by it, and transmit that surprise to the reader via careful phrasing—they’re helping to refresh perception. They’re teaching me how to look at trees. In a given day, I might walk past a dozen trees without noticing any of them, so blinded am I by stress and habit and routine. But if I read even a single startling metaphor, I’m suddenly shocked into seeing them again. I like your “smack to the chest” analogy, because there is an electric quality—a shock—to good descriptions: they defibrillate the visible world. And not only the visible world, but also the entire world of conscious thought and human experience. My favorite writing teaches me to re-see all this stuff, long after I’ve finished reading it. It’s crazy, really, the way you can take a mindful writer’s mind inside you. Whenever I’m sitting in a wing chair now, my brain can just boot up Bernhard and think Bernhard thoughts! If I could write a perfect story, I guess a reader would be similarly moved to internalize it. It would become one of their available filters for experience: a new way of being in the world, and of seeing and thinking about Being.
What are you reading now? What are you not reading now, but wish you had time for?
I’m teaching a fiction workshop this semester, so a lot of my reading is for class. No exciting personal projects lined up, but I may start rereading Proust soon. For my first time through I used the new Penguin translations, and now a friend and I are talking about trying to scale Mount Moncrieff together. As for what I wish I had time for—well, everything, right? It’s humiliating to wallow in all the books I haven’t read. Probably I should be studying Poe, to see what other stories I’ve stolen.
Bennett Sims’s short story in the January/February 2013 issue of Orion is available in print and digital editions. Go ahead, subscribe!