'Busy Monsters' weird, wacky fun

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 24, 2012

By Cindy Hesprich
SALISBURY — After spending a year working my way through Agatha Christie’s oeuvre — 80 some novels and more than 160 short stories — I walked into the library and found myself lost. Where do I start, if not on the C shelf?
Thank goodness for the clearly labeled New Fiction rack. I picked up a little book called “Busy Monsters” by William Giraldi because it had an eye-catching cover and promised to be pretty much the opposite of the quaint and courteous world of tidy murders I had been immersed in.
“Busy Monsters” is ostensibly a memoir, or the memoir of a man writing his memoirs in weekly column form for a slick magazine, and starts off with a quirky improbability: the love of Charlie’s life, Gillian, leaves him for a giant squid.
And then it gets weird.
Technically, she leaves him for a marine biologist who promises to help her find the Kraken, the elusive giant squid, the cephalopod object of her lifelong passion. This is the story of Charlie’s quest to win her back.
“A person requires a quest in order to doodle yarns,” he explains as he takes off across the country, chronicling as he goes his occasionally R-rated misadventures for his faithful readers. Not that he wants to chronicle them (although he does appreciate the paycheck), but as a writer, he is driven to record everything that happens, everything he feels, everything he thinks, everything he thinks he feels. He just can’t help it.
Repeatedly taking the astonishingly bad advice of his childhood friend Groot, Charlie’s clumsy, crackpot, ill-considered attempts to turn Charlie the Christian Democrat from Connecticut into Charlie the virile Odysseus that will bring Gillian running back to him (after all, she, too, is surely following the weekly installments of his quest) result in a farcical tale of woe cluttered willy-nilly with monsters — real and imaginary, internal and external — listed here in no particular order: Gillian’s giant squid, Sasquatch, the death of his brother at a young age, a prison cellmate obsessed with the Loch Ness monster, a near-murder turned suicide, UFOs and a midget ufologist, a libidinous bodybuilder, alienation (no pun intended — or was it?) from his father, the subsequent death of his father, and, oh, of course, ghosts.
Thank goodness Charlie is aware of the unbridled inanity of his tale and acknowledges as much to us, his readers, so that we are not left to juggle the precarious suspension of our disbelief all alone. He is as agog and astonished as we are, if not more.
“ ‘Excuse me,’ I said, [he said] and put down my duffel bag. ‘Pardon me,’ I repeated, and mashed my eyes. ‘I’m sorry, but this is simply a piling-on of the absurdity. I don’t have the room in my narrative for ghosts.’ ”
Charlie’s pilgrimage is what used to be called picaresque — an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough but appealing hero — but in this case, so improbable as to be ludicrous. This too, is not lost on Charlie: “ ‘Groot,’ I said, ‘we are moving beyond the absurd and into the slapstick. This cannot stand.’ ”
Improbable both in plot and in word play, “Busy Monsters” is an exquisitely well-worded absurdity. Charlie speaks with a stilted syntax and an esoteric vocabulary that had me reaching for a pocket dictionary by page 4, followed almost immediately by the unabridged Websters which I then kept by my side for the duration of the book (a point in its favor, in my opinion).
I wondered for a few chapters if Giraldi had set out to imitate the late David Foster Wallace’s style: fastidiously untidy, precisely chaotic, crowded with situational, emotional and verbal mayhem.
Intentional or not, he didn’t entirely succeed — which is another point in its favor. “Busy Monsters” is far less hopeless, way less confusing, has an actual plot AND, huzzah, a character that grows, and one that the reader can like and, ultimately, admire.
As Gillian finally begins to hint at reconciliation, our hero, still not trusting the staying-power of his emotional progress, turns to his readers: “Should your Charles,” he muses, “trust the damsel, walk on eggshells and risk more coronary cataclysm? Or shuck such worry of possible rupture and lunge back in, a high-diver undeterred? Yes, I was having a moment here, one of hesitation and ambivalence I’ve heard some heroes are prone to, and one essential to the development I lay pondering. I quantum, she cosmic.
“Also, how was I going to allow this drama to conclude? Because, despite my perky nerves, I was feeling emboldened, capable of taking over and dictating the outcome. … It was my responsibility to facilitate an ending both realistic and not too unlawful, which I knew might prove difficult in my off-kilter condition. She loves me, she loves me not. She needs me, she needs me not. She won’t do it again, she will do it again. Would I day in, day out be walking on eggshells?”
This is William Giraldi’s first novel, but apparently he writes prolifically for — of course — magazines. I think it might be entertaining to find out if Charlie is just a persona, or if in fact, Charlie is actually William.