Thursday, January 22, 2009

Monsters in the closet

I just finished reading Lauren Groff's Monsters of Templeton and I found it a joyful read, which is odd because the closest comparison I can make is to David Lynch. It has all the oddity, absurdity and evil-hiding-behind-white-picket fences of Lynch, but has the malevolence is cut by a shrugged shoulders kind of happiness.

The Lynchian weirdness starts on page one where a large monster, to which the title alludes, dies and then surfaces in the lake at center of the town of Templeton. The town is surprised but moves on. You will be no doubt shocked to learn that the title has more than one meaning. The monster rising from the depths is foreshadowing for the various monsters Willie Upton discovers in investigating her family tree.

Willie is compelled to research her family when she learns that her mother did not fact get knocked up by her three hippie roomates back in the hippie days, but in fact, by someone in the town of Templeton tied to her own famous family tree. (The Templeton of the story is a stand in for Cooperstown, and one of Willie's ancestors is an undisguised James Fenimore Cooper.) This shocking discovery leads her to research her family, providing for all sorts of odd stories.

There are some truly dark tales in her family's past, including abuse bordering on rape, multiple murders and even a bit of the old supernatural. My favorite of these stories consists of a series of letters between two 19th century women that starts sweet and kind and then devolves into wicked depravity. Not all are this interesting, but Groff shows great talent in writing in a wide range of voices.

Willie's search feels a bit like a framing device for presenting a mix of linked tales and according to the discussion guide, the book at one point was principally separate stories. By increasing the investment in Willie she also brings in some amusing side characters like the Running Buds, a group of men who are known for jogging together for decades. Their initial chapter is a delightful use of the first person plural.

Again like Lynch, Groff tends to take peculiarity to freakish extremes. The Buds are nearly always running, the librarian looks disturbingly like a goat, Willie's best friend is so small she is mistaken for a school girl and one of the sadder ancestors is alarmingly hirsute. Unlike Lynch, the book maintains a sunniness about life and the future, thanks mainly to Willie's mother. It is part of an impressive balancing act that Groff maintains througout and that which makes this such a compelling read.

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