Glittering Jewels Along A Cavernous Pathway by Jesse Hilson

MONARCH. Candice Wuehle. Soft Skull Press, 2022. 241 pages.

Like a shell covering the spy plot of Candice Wuehle’s debut novel Monarch, a lattice of tricky, phantasmagorical details has been constructed—poetic nuggets it would be too conventional and unsatisfactory to call “surreal.” Wuehle’s net of insights, jokes, linguistic will-o’-the-wisps push the definition of surreal to the breaking point and beyond. Wuehle is a poet writing a thriller, and the cerebral, beautiful poetry intoxicates the story almost to the drowning point. While finishing reading Monarch I was put in mind of another magical book: Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić, the Serbian poet and professor who in 1984 gave the world this curiosity, a novel in the disguise of a dictionary on the religious history of Eastern Europe. Monarch is not that but its poetic invention, its magical realism, its intellectual content, its wry fantasy reminds me of certain aspects of Pavić.

Where the Serbian writer used his poetic whetstone to grind a tale about theology and history, Wuehle uses hers to hone a set of sharp instruments to cut apart flesh that is more contemporary and more American: what culture does to girls as they grow into women, how our fascination with true crime warps us, the unfathomable relationships between children and their parents, how the pylons of identity are sunk into elusive, insubstantial sand. Wuehle’s short novel takes us on an often frightening and dark journey into the mind, but there are glittering jewels along the cavernous pathway.

Jessica Clink is the narrator of Monarch, and right away we are introduced to a world set at an obtuse angle to our own. Jessica comes from a curious lineage: her father Dr. Clink is a scholar of the discipline of Boredom Studies and her mother Grethe is a Norwegian ice-queen who enrolls Jessica as a little girl into the universe of child pageants. The satirical world-building of these spectacles for beautiful children is the entree into the novel’s imaginative critique of women’s rituals of indoctrination. Over the course of the novel we are simultaneously given illustrations of the effects of such stress on the female body and psyche, and teased with puzzling discourse on bodies and psyches that disappears like the moray eel into a coral reef. Jessica forms relationships with her worldly, gothic nanny Christine and another pageant girl and love interest Veronica that shape her own sense of self, a sense we quickly come to learn is a mirage twisted to nefarious ends.

It would be too facile and lazy to say that Jessica is like a trippy, female version of Jason Bourne’s confused spy in the Bourne novels by Robert Ludlum; that doesn’t give Wuehle enough credit for her originality which is formidable. But it’s unavoidable to say that Monarch is, at its heart, spy fiction. But it’s spy fiction where hard-bitten female operatives tell Jessica things like “I’m trained to survive at the bottom. I know how to get from here to Tijuana with twenty dollars in quarters stolen from a Kotex machine. I know how to walk into a crowd and never come out. I know how to find a safe spot to sleep. I know how to starve. That’s the part that’s going to be hard for you. I’m guessing the worst hunger you’ve ever experienced is the pang between your lunch SlimFast shake and your dinner Zone bar.” Monarch sets up the question: Who can be a girlboss when they’re a personality-implanted soulless instrument of an organization that harvested them when they were a child from beauty pageants “because they already possessed a strong propensity for obedience, discipline, manipulation, and self-effacement”?

Jessica encounters shadowy characters on the edge and experiences a series of revelations that let her know that her body and her identity are not her own, that she has been trained for practically superhuman feats of clandestine activity. This sets in motion a conventional “plot to find out the truth” that might be tiresome if Wuehle weren’t leading the reader into a maze of lyrically breathtaking imagery and storytelling that rivals the stepping-stone pathways across the dream-river in the films of Charlie Kaufman (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synechdoche, New York, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, etc).

There is a formal double-edged sword to this, though. Kaufman’s prestidigitation and excavations of the mind are fitting comparisons, but with such comparisons unfortunately come some shortcomings. If there is a weak spot in Monarch, it is that the symbolism and the fanciful digressions sometimes threaten to bring down the infrastructure of the plot. Wuehle is a dazzling writer and dreamer of characters and observations and scenes. Jessica’s Ouija board fugue state scene atop the college dorm where three female students fell to their deaths long ago stands out, as does the “Dead Ringers” set piece where unsupervised kids from Jessica’s neighborhood in identical ski masks engage in fistfights and Jessica has an out-of-body-experience. But the main narrative thrust of the novel towards the end comes to feel less like a chain pulling the reader along than a frayed rope the reader is trying to reconstruct to pass through a mooring.

However, the style points and marks for originality far outweigh the above deficits. The pleasure of the book is found in the details which proliferate like curlicues and scrollwork on rococo furniture. Dr. Clink’s thirty-foot-long rubber spiral telephone cord is likened to a “black Möbius from his mouth to the world.” Christine the riot grrl asks Jessica to walk in a fashion show where the garments are made out of decommissioned CDs and the women are asked to “cough like [they] had consumption as [they] maneuvered the runway.” The number of passages relaying fascinating tidbits of experimental psychology, which bolster the lore of mind control Jessica and other girls have suffered, are too numerous to recount, and reflect what must have been a gargantuan amount of absorbed research. ‘90s pop culture, espionage, occultism are all bonded in an amalgam of feminist folklore for the 21st century.

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