What is a monster? Whether referring to Bigfoot or Ted Bundy, the word evokes specific ideas: secrecy, villainy, a departure from humanity in body or soul. A monster may start out that way, or become that way, but they often reveal something we don’t want to see, something we want to hide or shun or quarantine.
In Monsters, Matthew Sharpe’s Playboy fiction story, a disgraced football player commits an unforgivable act of violence, runs away from society and finds a strange solace living in the crawlspace of an unsuspecting woman’s home. As he secretly watches her go about her day, he becomes convinced that she is not only aware of his presence but glad for it. He is, of course, mistaken. Sharpe explores what happens when the boundary between the two characters is finally breached. The story’s surreal atmosphere is equal parts Etgar Keret and George Saunders and hints at a darkness at the heart of every human connection.
Sharpe is the author of multiple novels, including Nothing Is Terrible, The Sleeping Father and Jamestown, and a story collection, Stories from the Tube. We talked via e-mail about meditation and the monstrous, fiction in the Trump era, Japanese poetry and more.
The title, Monsters, becomes a motif throughout your short story: the protagonist is called a monster because of his actions; he acts the monster while lurking in a woman’s walls; he’s a monster to his dog in his own nightmares. We sit firmly in his point of view the entire time—in the monster’s perspective. What took you in this direction? What, to you, is monstrous?
I was sitting in a Buddhist meditation hall when the idea for this fucked-up little story came to me. Contrary to what people may think about meditation, its purpose is not to push away thoughts. Thoughts may become an object of meditation, in the same way a mantra or breathing can be an object of meditation. The writer and meditation teacher Tara Brach encourages people to say “yes” to any thoughts and feelings that arise in their lives, i.e., don’t push them away, or disavow or excoriate them or oneself, no matter how awful or ugly the thoughts may seem. Not necessarily “Yes, I will act on this thought,” but just “Yes, this thought is happening right now.” Brach says, “What we consider unacceptable in ourselves is the boundary to our freedom.” Maybe the monstrous comprises exactly those thoughts and feelings that we banish, as the ex-football player in my story is banished.
The instigating events of this story are so compressed that we blow through them in the opening paragraph, only to return to them at the very end. What made you decide to drop into the story in that manner?
I’ve been sitting here staring at this question for 30 minutes. I’ve typed various answers and then erased them because they were not true. A lot of the decisions I made in this story were intuitive, as they usually are when I write stories. Sometimes I can figure out afterward why I did something, but not always, and not this time. “It feels right” is not much of an answer, but that is my answer.
The protagonist is an NFL player fired for killing his dog. This echoes various recent events and cultural touchstones: the Michael Vick case, the conversation around chronic traumatic encephalopathy, athlete domestic violence. Are you a football fan? What informed your choice to use this perspective in particular?
I played a lot of football as a kid but haven’t followed the sport, though I am aware of the events and touchstones you mention. A friend of mine read Monsters and wondered if there was a parallel between the football player and military veterans, a few of whom I got to know through a vets’ writing workshop I participated in for several years. I think that’s probably true. I heard from more than one of the men in that workshop that they were trained to kill, sent overseas to kill, participated in a culture and camaraderie built up around fighting the enemy to the death, and then they came back home, where suddenly the whole military ethos that had been imposed on them, and which they had embraced and come to embody, was incomprehensible and forbidden. What they had known as valor became, in the civilian context, murder. We as a nation ask our fellow humans to go kill for us and we call them heroes, but we only want them to act like that particular kind of hero—the killing kind—over there. They come back here and they’re supposed to—what?—shut it off, like a spigot? That can be quite literally a hell of a burden to put on someone.
Maybe this story wants to believe that doing dreadful things—who among us has not done something dreadful?—does not foreclose the possibility of being redeemed by and through love.
The nightmarish premise of the story—a take on the urban legend about a stranger living in a person’s house, unbeknownst to them—has a hopeful, romantic twist. If urban legends reflect cultural anxieties, what do you think is being reflected by this story’s optimism?
If this story’s got optimism, then it is a tempered optimism, an optimism that acknowledges what dreadful things humans can do to others and themselves. As a corollary, maybe this story wants to believe that doing dreadful things—who among us has not done something dreadful?—does not foreclose the possibility of being redeemed by and through love.
After they begin a physical relationship, the protagonist describes the woman in whose walls he’s living as “a miniature Christmas tree whose roots went down into the earth, came out the other side and extended into space for millions of miles,” suggesting that he is only understanding the depth of her complexity in that moment. He comes to an understanding of her humanity and desire in a similarly delayed fashion. Do you think this is part of the undoing of his monstrosity, or an illustration of it?
As the poet William Matthews said, “It’s always both.” My narrator pretty quickly becomes interested in grokking who this woman is, and eventually he thinks he knows; he thinks he has her number, but he turns out to be way wrong. And I’m hoping that readers, confined to his point of view—the monster point of view—will be wrong along with him, and will find out they’re wrong about her more or less when he finds out he’s wrong about her. I think we’re all constantly making mistakes about who other people are, and who we ourselves are. These mistakes may have monstrous consequences, but it’s also just a fact that perception of another person will always be a fiction—hopefully a finely calibrated fiction that “approaches asymptotically,” as Jacques Lacan put it, the person. But then the person is ever-changing, and our understanding of them is ever-changing; the ultimate predication of a human being never arrives, even posthumously.
Your novel Jamestown, which came out at the tail end of the Bush administration, portrays a post-apocalyptic New York City. In an interview for New York magazine, you explained the then-trend of apocalyptic fiction thusly: “When you have Chimpy McFlightsuit in charge of the considerable American arsenal….” Now that we’re, you know, here (gulp), how do you think fiction writers will respond? What kind of art emerges from our current political and social situation?
I’m sorry I used that epithet for George W. Bush. He was a disastrous commander in chief, but I’ve come to believe name-calling is counterproductive and toxifies public discourse.
I’m sorry I used that epithet for George W. Bush. He was a disastrous commander in chief, but I’ve come to believe name-calling toxifies public discourse.
Anyway, apocalypse-wise, it’s tough for fiction to keep up with nonfiction these days. I’m not a very good prognosticator; I have enough trouble predicting the past. I imagine the art that emerges from this moment will be something—will be thousands of things—I cannot imagine. Maybe it will include characters rising to the occasion of making difficult decisions about complex and threatening situations and relationships, for the greater good? I’m curious to know your answer to this question, Carmen, since your first, genre-bending book of fiction, Her Body and Other Parties, is coming out this fall. What kind of art do you see emerging from this moment?
I like to imagine that all literary genres will reflect the fact that certain folks’ pessimism about the reality of the world was wholly justified, even prescient. In other words, art will recognize that the monsters have always been here. Speaking of genres, you write both novels and short stories. What brings you to one form versus the other?
Some stories are long and others are short.
A few years ago, you completed a year-long project of writing one microstory a day. What inspired the project? Have you done anything with it since?
What inspired the project was that I was failing at writing a Big Serious Novel. After a while, every time I sat down to write that novel, I played hooky by writing these little nothings, which came out of nowhere and for which I had no plans or ambitions. And the novel was failing probably because so much in my life at the time was failing. I had a crappy excruciating break-up that I handled with noteworthy indelicacy, my mother got sick, and a lot of my way of being in the world was starting to feel pretty poorly adapted to the business of being in the world. I was in a hole. And those little stories—whatever they might be to anyone else—were rungs of a ladder up out of that hole. I was building the ladder and climbing it at the same time.
A bunch of the stories are still up at my blog, Very short stories r us. I think I may be able to announce some happy news about them soon, but even if I can’t, that I was able to write them at all is enough for me—dayenu, as my people say.
What contemporary writers are you excited about? Any book releases you’re looking forward to in 2017?
I confess I’m not keeping up very well lately with books that aren’t yet published. Right now I’m reading Killing Kanoko, a book of poems by Hiromi Ito, whom I met this spring at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. I’d been introduced to her work via the excellent—I would say mind-bending—magazine Monkey Business, which comprises mostly translations of contemporary Japanese short stories. Ito is a pivotal literary figure in Japan. She has written frank, un-idealized poems about women’s—and men’s—bodies, sex, motherhood, death, chaotic and contradictory emotions. The poems have really compelling rhythms—I heard her read them aloud in Japanese—that are beautifully translated in Killing Kanoko by Jeffrey Angles. She has opened up new ways of thinking for Japanese writers and readers and is doing that for me now as I read her book. I hope more Americans start reading her. Here’s the first line of her poem “Moving,” to give you a taste: “Pregnant with a corpse, the hearse goes into heat, heading for the crematorium.”
What are you working on now?
A Big Serious Novel; describing it in public would be like giving a lit cigar to a three-year-old; in this analogy the novel-in-progress would be the three-year-old and I would be the purveyor of the cigar.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, NPR, Guernica, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction and Best Women’s Erotica. Her short story “The Husband Stitch” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson and Nebula Awards, awarded a Pushcart Prize Special Mention and long-listed for the Tiptree Award. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the University of Iowa, the Yaddo Corporation, Hedgebrook and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Artist in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.