Sunday, April 19, 2009

26 Monkeys: Also the Abyss - A Ridiculously Close Look - with Comments from Kij Johnson!

Today I thought I'd look at a wonderful story - the Nebula-nominated "26 Monkeys: Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson. This is a story that got me interested from the first, then just got better and better until by the end I was going "wow."

For those curious about point of view, I'll focus on the fact that Kij Johnson uses third person omniscient in this story (I've analyzed this POV once before in my Ridiculously Close Look at The Sparrow). Omniscient point of view is less easy than it looks, because you have to choose which heads to dip into - and when - and why - and then you have to consider who you are when you're not dipping into various character perspectives. It might be easy to think that an omniscient point of view automatically means a storyteller narrator, but trust me, it doesn't. Tolkien makes his omniscient third person a grandfatherly guy at whose knee you want to sit, but Mary Doria Russell does not - and neither does Kij Johnson.

By the time we get to the end of this, I hope to show you why the third person omniscient voice she chose is perfectly and brilliantly suited to the purpose of her story.

Let's get to the text, starting with the title:
26 Monkeys: Also the Abyss

This title surprised me. Monkeys are always evocative - and setting them opposite "The Abyss" made me immediately curious. In fact, this title sets my expectations perfectly for the story to follow: the story considers precisely this relationship between the absurd and the dire.

Aimee's big trick is that she makes twenty-six monkeys vanish onstage.

I immediately notice the numbering, and since this scenelet is only a single line long, I notice that the entire story is set up as a numbered list. There are several lists in the story, in fact - a fact I'll return to below. This line gives us an instant snapshot of the main content of the story, and firmly establishes the monkeys as benign in their intent. It also makes me curious in two ways: first, I'm not sure I expect a woman with a name like Aimee to be running a carnival show; and second, now that I know what Aimee's "big trick" is, I'm anxious to find out how she does it. Notice that the phrasing is not internal to any character. Any stranger might tell me this in exactly these words. Aimee is the only person who couldn't say this naturally.

In the second scenelet, Kij Johnson gives us more, zooming us in further toward our subject. We watch the act progress:

She pushes out a claw-foot bathtub and asks audience members to come up and inspect it. The people climb in and look underneath, touch the white enamel, run their hands along the little lions' feet. When they're done, four chains are lowered from the stage's fly space. Aimee secures them to holes drilled along the tub's lip and gives a signal, and the bathtub is hoisted ten feet into the air.
She sets a stepladder next to it. She claps her hands and the twenty-six monkeys onstage run up the ladder one after the other and jump into the bathtub. The bathtub shakes as each monkey thuds in among the others. The audience can see heads, legs, tails; but eventually every monkey settles and the bathtub is still again. Zeb is always the last monkey up the ladder. As he climbs into the bathtub, he makes a humming boom deep in his chest. It fills the stage.
And then there's a flash of light, two of the chains fall off, and the bathtub swings down to expose its interior.

This passage fascinates me because it is still quite distant - and it is omniscient, since we are told what the audience can see - yet it is not entirely impersonal. First, Aimee is the only human identified as a named individual in this passage, which naturally puts our focus on her even though we don't experience her thoughts directly. The audience members remain a faceless mass, and the author deliberately uses passive voice to keep the stagehands out of it ("the bathtub is hoisted"). Look also at these details from the passage:

a claw-foot bathtub
people climb in and look underneath
touch the white enamel
run their hands along the little lions' feet

The quirkiness of the claw-foot bathtub definitely draws my attention, as do the people climbing into it, but I'm struck by the quiet sensitivity of "touch the white enamel" and "run their hands along the little lions' feet." I also notice the monkey, Zeb, who is the first entity besides Aimee to get a name - which makes him personal, and prepares him for a key role later in the story.

These details begin to reveal the narrator as a sensitive observer, a person who can notice small intimacies in the midst of a crowded carnival setting. I don't have many options within the story for who these characteristics might belong to, and I can't help but think they come from Aimee. I find this opinion backed up by the opening of the next scene:

They turn up later, back at the tour bus[...]

The choice of "the" tour bus (not "a" tour bus, or "her" tour bus) indicates the tour bus is known information. Who could it be known to besides Aimee? So the narrator is giving us glimpses of Aimee in spite of a generally distant tone. This continues through the scene, with her perceptions of the monkeys coming home, leading us to our first glimpses of her state of mind:

Aimee doesn't really sleep until she hears them all come in. Aimee has no idea what happens to them in the bathtub, or where they go, or what they do before the soft click of the dog door opening. This bothers her a lot.

The interesting thing, at least in my view, is that this is about as close as we get to Aimee. We see her in action at various points in the story, but we never hear her internalized thoughts. Much of the story has this kind of detachment - reinforced by the lists and by the use of colons, and simultaneously mitigated by the use of sensitive details. Here are two more passages to demonstrate:

Aimee has: a nineteen-year-old tour bus packed with cages that range in size from parrot-sized (for the vervets) to something about the size of a pickup bed (for all the macaques); a stack of books on monkeys ranging from All About Monkeys to Evolution and Ecology of Baboon Societies; some sequined show costumes, a sewing machine, and a bunch of Carhartts and tees[...]

Aimee's monkeys:
- 2 siamangs, a mated couple
- 2 squirrel monkeys, though they're so active they might as well be twice as many
- 2 vervets
- a guenon, who is probably pregnant, though it's still too early to tell for sure. Aimee has no idea how this happened

- 3 rhesus monkeys. They juggle a little [...]

The one that really made me think, though, was the list that begins as follows:

These are some ways that Aimee's life might have come apart:
a. She might have broken her ankle a few years ago, and gotten a bone infection that left her on crutches for ten months, and in pain for longer.

Look at the details of the ankle incident and you can't doubt that this is a list of actual events of Aimee's life - yet they're all couched in modal sentences using "might."

When I was first reading the story, I hadn't had a firm handle on the narrator until this point, but this one sealed it for me. The narrator handles the events of Aimee's life, not dispassionately, and not broken-heartedly, but stand-offishly. This voice is not Aimee, precisely. It is not a vehicle for her feelings. Yet it reflects her emotional sensibilities, approaching the most painful areas of her past with a diffidence that suggests she is afraid to approach them too closely. This feels real to me.

I don't really want to provide spoilers here - I want you to go and read the story yourself - so I'll resist my inclination to push my textual analysis any further. However, I do want to share some thoughts on how this narrative voice fits into the story as a whole.

Kij Johnson has chosen to juxtapose Aimee's carnival act - absurd, quirky and inexplicable as it is - with Aimee's terrible grief as a result of terrible events in her life. As the story progresses, Johnson manages to bring the two sides together in a marvelous way, so that they are less contrasting and more congruent.

If she had gone another route, and taken us closer to Aimee's point of view, it would have been easy for us to get mired in the grief itself - and this would have made it far more difficult to grasp the thematic content of the story. By keeping narrative distance, Johnson avoids the trap of protesting too much. She allows us to share Aimee's sensitive observations of the details of her life, and by showing us Aimee's fear of touching her own grief, Johnson allows readers to add their own depth to her story by accessing personal experiences of grief, and of the grieving.

This is more than just a wonderful story. It kept me guessing, and it made me think. And now it has also given me an opportunity to think about third person omniscient in a whole new way.


After I posted this last night, I was lucky enough to exchange messages with Kij Johnson herself, and she gave me her own personal comments on my analysis and the story as a whole, which follow below.


"26 Monkeys" is a very technical story, and as you figured out, almost everything in the story is done with conscious intent. Your thoughts about the distanced narrative voice are solid: we seem never to get far into Aimee's head, except in a clinical way. Except that we do, actually: the narrative voice is entirely into her thoughts and feeling, and the outbursts -- "Because there's always a reason for everything, isn't there?" "Nothing is certain" -- are Aimee's core existential crisis, speaking to the reader without the intervention of Aimee.

People in pain tend to distance themselves from immediate engagement with the pain. Here's an example of displacing: I might be describing a deeply embarrassing moment from my childhood, telling you, "I was telling Eric how terrible the trumpet playing in that song was and he said that was him playing and you just don't know what to say after that. You feel like an idiot." I am uncomfortable enough with what I am saying/feeling that I am trying to push it off onto You.

The narrator is DEEPLY engaged, enmeshed, in Aimee’s feelings; and every time Aimee comes to a really painful realization or memory, the voice pulls back, either into the outbursts, which are clearly You statements -- or, most interestingly (I think) the list of the ways her life might have changed.

The truth of what did happen to take her to this state is the most powerful thing in Aimee's life, so painful and powerful that she (and/or the narrator) not only distances herself by list-making and by switching into the "might have" statements, but even conceals the true reason among a handful of possibilities.

Aimee is most present, and the narrative is at its most conventional, when she's with Geof and Zeb -- who are not part of the core pain.


You say the narrator is "standoffish," and that's very insightful. The narrator is intentionally pushing you away from the painful parts, which sets me as writer a really interesting set of challenges. How am I going to keep you, the reader, interested, when Aimee is apparently distanced from the narrative, and my narrator is saying, "Nothing to see here! Move along!" Three things in play here: The intensity of Aimee's experience compensates for the clinical voice. Also, the narrator isn't doing a very good job of directing you away from the pain: her crafted perspective slips frequently into the angry, anguished outbursts. The third tool is the very concrete, specific detail the story is built upon, as you pointed out. The story doesn’t work without the lion’s feet and the rest of it.

There’s another reason for the highly specific, concrete details that are given, especially the lists and the careful descriptions. Aimee – and the narrator, and I – are fixated on these little immediate details, for all the reasons people in deeply-felt pain get caught up in immediate sensation or observation. The numbers heading each section distance us as readers -- the story rejects immersion by coming to you in small segregated chunks – even as it offers itself as a series of “highly specific, concrete details.”


There’s all sorts of stuff happening with the language and the sentence structures, as well. But I’ll tell you a way that craft sometimes goes right by the board. The story was called “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” because I had to pick an arbitrary number of monkeys, and there were 26 letters in the alphabet. Zeb’s name ends with a Z because it was the last letter of the alphabet. The theory at first was that there would be 26 sections, as well. I cut some of the sections as I wrote, but I never renumbered the monkeys. And that’s cool. The story includes the notion that not everything in life is going to wrap up perfectly. Even if you read the story carefully, you don’t know exactly how many monkeys there are in it.


Thanks for letting me talk about this! :(|)


Thank you, Kij Johnson!