Michael Mungiello: Love In Monsterworld
We live in Hell. That said, people fall in love all the time.
That said, people fall in love with monsters all the time.
I picked up Mrs. Caliban because I thought it’d be funny and sad. Boy, is this book funny and sad. It’s by Rachel Ingalls, who is a genius.
The main character is Dorothy. Dorothy is miserable. Miserable! Her husband Fred is a real piece of shit: cheats on her, he’s distant, emotionally and physically abusive. They haven’t shared a bed in years. They lost a young child a few years ago; shortly after, Dorothy miscarried.
She’s in a bad way.
One morning Dorothy hears on the radio that there’s a frogman loose, dangerous, thinks nothing of it. Then, who should drop into her life but this monster? His name is Larry. He’s tall. He has big ears. He eats health food. He and Dorothy begin a love affair. He’s a different kind of monster than Fred.
When we think of monsters we think of:
But actually monsters often look like:
Fred’s the latter. Numbed out businessman, fumbling to fix his tie before meeting his 16-year-old paramour: he’s the kind of monster for whom the most important thing is to always keep your mask on. I hate people like that, I’m sure you do too. Terrible, terrible.
It freaks Fred out that Dorothy is honest. She doesn’t need to hide how she feels. Here’s a lame example cherry-picked to be silly: Fred’s freaked out when Dorothy’s honest about avocados. The background is that Larry loves avocados and eats a large amount of them. One day Dorothy buys a large amount of them, only to find Fred home when she returns. He’s suspicious, and he’s like, Where have you been?
“It took you a long time to get home.”
“I went shopping. What is this? You can call Estelle and ask her when I arrived and when I left.”
“What did you get when you were shopping?”
“Avocados,” Dorothy said. She turned from him, strode to the kitchen, picked up the brown-paper bag and brought it to him.
“Oh, I believe you,” he said. She unrolled the top of the bag so that he could see what was inside. All at once the tight, ironic, play-acting expression went out of his face.
He calls her crazy and leaves. What a jerk!
Fred’s mask is this “tight, ironic, play-acting.” Larry, with his big ears and frog face, doesn’t wear a mask. He’s naïve as apple pie. He’s always curious about Dorothy – not suspicious. “He liked to have her with him to explain things. On some days when she came home from shopping, he would ask one question after another.” How considerate! He’s different from Fred in a lot of ways. Fred waits in the living room for dinner and doesn’t help Dorothy do anything; Larry helps with all sorts of chores: “vacuuming,” “polishing spoons,” “[making] the salad for lunch.” Fred’s macho and doesn’t pay attention to Dorothy; Larry loves makeup and takes Dorothy out on romantic dates (e.g. walks on the beach).
Dorothy thinks, “all during my teens, when I kept wishing so hard for this – to be out in a car on the beach with a boy – and it never happened. But now it’s happened.” Larry’s the man of her dreams and the man she never could have imagined, and the whole thing has knocked her socks off. Even as they go out more and more and the relationship gets routine (as routine as it can get with a frogman), she “still felt like a teenager.” Going out to get Larry’s avocados, she “drove off to do her shopping like a young girl setting out on her first job. Not even the sarcastic attitude of the man in the shoeshop could entirely spoil the outing.” Even their last night together is “full of promise and romance as she had dreamed about it in her teens and as the advertisements had promised and still promised, for her and for everyone else too.”
It’s like Sinatra said: “You make me feel so young.” Dorothy feels young because she’s in love. Larry too: he’s “like a child whose eyes follow its mother wherever she goes.” Of course, Dorothy stows Larry away in the room that was supposed to be her kid’s room. Weird!
It’s weird. Larry’s weird, totally different. He’s like Frankenstein’s monster, he’s innocent but has a mean side. I mean, he’s violent when abused. (As background, Larry’s wanted for murder, because he killed two guys: the scientists who captured him and “[took] advantage of their positions of power in order to force his participation in various forms of sexual abuse.” Later on, Larry will kill a group of teenagers who are being mean to him.)
Anyway – this brings us to the question: what kind of monster is Dorothy, Mrs. Caliban herself? Is she weird, violent, and innocent (like Larry)? Or bougie, repressed, and cruel (like Fred)? The answer is, she’s both and neither, she’s her own kind of monster, she’s not repressed but she’s not innocent either.
What she is, is smart as hell and depressed because the world is awful. Something worse every day, every day, and violence, wars, governments. She talks about this with Estelle.
Yes, Estelle said, and then there were the new religions and the horoscope experts and heaven knew what-all these days; it was getting so everything was as crooked as the real estate business. Dorothy said sure, but then it always was, wasn’t it, and when she started to get really upset about everything, she just went out into her garden and planted something or pulled up weeds. Otherwise there was no end to it.
Dorothy’s an heir to Voltaire: all you can do in this crazy world is tend your garden.
As someone who doesn’t try to change much, she has a lot of time to think. She thinks about history. It’s a bad history! A history in which the villains (men, capitalists) win, a history of oppression and dehumanization. She discusses this history in one of my favorite scenes, wrapping up with a modest defense of modest pleasure.
It was the first question she had failed to explain since her collapse over the subject of industry and progress. She had started out with the introduction of agriculture, the coming of industry, the exploitation of women, the fact that it all started in the home where there was no choice, the idea that eventually robots and machines would release people to live a life of leisure and explore their own personalities; but, just before she reached that point, she forgot how to wind it up. A friend of Estelle’s had once mapped it out for her so that it all sounded so clear, but now she couldn’t remember just how it went. Even what she could recall didn’t seem to make so much sense any more. In fact, it was sort of a mess and impossible to explain. She had stopped, confused, and added, “But what people really want is to be happy.”
She explains to Larry that “for centuries people…kept saying women didn’t have souls. And nearly everyone still believes it.” Women are made out to be monsters. In that way she’s not so different from Larry.
Monsters are made by men, men so powerful they might as well be magic. History, by which I mean doctors, scientists, politicians, and priests, has decided who is what and who deserves dignity, who’s human. And it’s not women and it’s not Larry.
But if Fred (monster maker) and Larry (monster survivor) are both monsters, does the word “monster” even mean anything anymore?
Yes and no. There’s a difference between a monster who hurts and a monster who’s hurt: Dracula vs Frankenstein’s monster. But it’s also a cycle; like Auden said, “Many a sore bottom finds/A sorer one to kick.” Remember, Larry kills – not just the scientists but also a gang of teenagers bugging him on the beach. And Dorothy, cheated on, cheats in return. Monsters create other monsters.
In Mrs. Caliban, the only way people can live together is by recognizing their mutual monstrosity. Look at this, where Fred tearfully confesses his unfaithfulness to Dorothy, while Larry’s in the other room:
He still looked pathetic. Perhaps he wanted to warn her that if the other woman told her such-and-such, not to believe it. Well, Dorothy thought, I have Larry. I can afford to be forgiving.
Dorothy sees desire as what keeps you from being pissed off by what other people want. At the very least, you understand or forgive people for wanting what they want. Not kumbaya, more like live and let live.
So it’s ironic that Estelle says to Dorothy, “You don’t understand the nature of desire.” First of all, what kind of friend says that? Have you ever said that to your friend? Probably not. And second of all, what desire could be natural in Monsterworld? Desire’s created, not found, not just there. Dorothy’s right when she tells Larry, “When we want something it’s true.” So wanting stuff is almost anti-reality, anti-truth. So desire is the big consolation prize to make up for what’s true whether you like it or not.
Therefore, desires don’t have to mean anything to anyone except the desirer. Take, for instance, how Larry gets super into Merce Cunningham. It starts when he sees a dance on a commercial, has no freakin’ clue what it is. So he imitates the dance to Dorothy and asks, “What is it?” Dorothy has no clue. So he does it again (she doesn’t get it), and then they’re watching TV and he’s like, “Look!” That’s it! He asks, “What is it?” Dorothy says, “It’s somebody called Merce Cunningham…it’s an ad, for a dance programme coming up next week.” And he says, “But what is it? What does it do?” She says, “I don’t think it does anything. It expresses some emotion or idea, or gives an impression of an event. It makes variations with patterns. Do you like it?” And Larry says, “I don’t understand it.”
But then he decides it means something. Towards the end, when Larry knows he’s in big trouble (the cops are on his tail) he dances again.
He stood up and did the dance they had seen on television. To Dorothy it looked exactly as it had when he had copied it before.
“Now I understand,” he said.
“Is it different?”
“Yes,” he said, “for me.”
Everyone in Mrs. Caliban gives private meaning to apparently meaningless patterns. Larry to the dance; Dorothy to her absurd life; Fred to his affairs, Estelle to hers (spoiler alert: turns out they’ve been having an affair with each other). The characters’ desires are pictures, projected pictures of what they choose to want. And Ingalls’ characters love it! They love how one picture is just as real as another. The meaninglessness of it, the interchangeability.
Fred’s having an affair with a teenager – but isn’t Dorothy continually compared to one? Estelle’s stolen Dorothy’s husband and tried to be everything her friend is not – but after Fred dies she says to Dorothy, “You’ve killed me….you destroy everything around you. Now I’m like you, too.” The craziest part: at the end of Mrs. Caliban when Fred is dead and Larry’s gone, Dorothy visits her (human) husband’s grave and has a weird conversation with another widow:
“Your hubby?” she concluded, pointing to the grave as though it were something she might sell to Dorothy, if pushed. Dorothy nodded. The old woman looked at the place where the headstone would be.
“Some of these long names,” she said, “it’s hard to fit it all in. Mine was Jim. James. What was yours?”
Dorothy hesitated, confused for a moment. “Fred,” she said, and changed her mind, feeling even more confused. “Larry,” she added. “His name was actually Frederick. But I called him Larry.”
What’s the difference? Both were monsters, one worse than the other, but both are now equally gone. Who cares? One of the first rules Larry learns on land is that pictures don’t mean anything, even though they’re everywhere. “It’s one of the things I find hard to understand; so many things are pictures. You watch pictures, but then you see the thing, and it’s a picture, too…. Nothing ever looks like a picture. That’s what picture means.”
There’s the picture that you have of a marriage. The picture you have of a friendship. The picture you have of what it means to be human. Dorothy believes in all these pictures, at first, but all three are challenged: the first by Fred, the second by Estelle, the third by Larry. And then you have the image of yourself.
Dorothy responds to Estelle’s accusation by saying, “It wasn’t me.”
Knowing how easily one love can be replaced by another, knowing how everything makes absolutely zero sense, Dorothy keeps waiting for Larry to come back. Larry never comes back. She keeps waiting because it’s her revenge on Monsterworld, where the only freedom she has is the freedom to commit to a random desire. But once she commits it’s not random at all, it’s essential. That commitment is made deep inside her, the most inner part, and it’s entirely free from monstrosity.
So what do I think? I think Dorothy’s wacky adventure was worth it. At the end, she understands what desire is. She knows that if it’s anything, it’s unnatural. It doesn’t make sense, she shouldn’t wait for Larry but she does, Larry himself shouldn’t exist but he does. All desires exist in a Monsterworld, where we’re shaped by dark forces we don’t control. It’s all very spooky and sad. All we can control are the random desires we decide to commit to, the pictures we decide are true. In Monsterworld, that’s all we’ve got.