A Greater Monster comes at the reader phalanges sputtering and mandibles agape, ready to suck out your spinal marrow and replace it with saltwater taffy and gummy worms.
This book will alter your molecular makeup, steal your car and get your cat pregnant before it skips town.
All that being said, the second novel from Chicago author David David Katzman is not an easy read. It is not some enjoyable fluff you can knockout in three days reading on your lunch break or on a long train ride home.
This is not a leisurely story. In fact, it is less a traditional story and more of a philosophical and spiritual exegesis of modern values—in particular, the value of real empathy and its staggering lack thereof in our lives. There is a story here, but it is simply a starting off point for the further and weirder internal expedition ahead of the novel’s protagonist. His narrative begins with him as a typical, self-absorbed, bordering-on-misanthropic white-collar worker in a sales office. Our main character gets through the day-to-day drudgery by putting in overtime and indulging in somewhat humorous contempt for himself and anyone else he encounters. He encounters a homeless man who offers him a black lozenge and upon swallowing it, an act the protagonist himself doesn’t truly understand, his mind begins to disassemble and we begin our ride, which is an impressive one at that.
Much of the rest of the novel is devoted to this labyrinthine undulating dreamscape and its often insane and hilarious denizens.
The protagonist becomes some new world’s Dante making his way through Technicolor cantos in a pop art inferno.
Reoccurring themes are the animals and devices, basically anything we encounter on our journey, being rendered in an anthropomorphic lens. Another idea that keeps bubbling to the surface is that of change or evolution. The main character himself is perpetually in a state of flux, whether it be the suits or helmets he cloaks himself in or the way he tells his story. Not only are the main character and the increasingly bizarre environments he finds himself in always shifting, but also is the style of the book itself.
We begin in First Person, but soon enough we have chapters telling us what we’re doing and what we see through the Second Person “you.” There are portions told through Third Person narrative as well. But even more interesting are the large sections of the book told in manners that break away all together from traditional narrative structures: parts where the single letter “I” fills up the entire page and continues to be the only word in smaller and larger sizes on subsequent pages, and parts where we’re offered scattershot poetry with nightmare cartoon imagery and little else in way of storytelling. These are challenging sections, but often rewarding once you give in to the book and the way it wants to present information to you. One thing A Greater Monster really succeeds at is displaying how fractured a mind under the influence of either strong psychotropics or the undertow of a fertile dream state can be. By the time our character reaches the circus, one of the more enduring portions of the trip, there are parts of this book told entirely in wordless illustration and there are links to websites with music created just for this novel.
Luckily Katzman has such a strong voice as a writer that none of this comes off as gimmicky. He sets the tone at the beginning right away before we leave the earth, that this novel will be about empathy and how we relate to others. With these seeds sown, all the dizzying transmogrifications of style the novel attempts and all the freak-out scenes the novel depicts are grounded as one big allegorical conceit for the main character and hopefully the reader’s burgeoning sense of empathy, compassion and maybe even singularity with all the rest of existence. That is not to say that the novel can’t be exhausting.
As previously stated, this is not an easy read.
Meaning that you can’t casually plow through this in a week while lounging by the pool, nor should you. Katzman’s wordplay is deft and bent and easily the star of the show, and you have to read slowly sometimes, even re-read to really let it sink its fangs in.
There’s some sort of dilapidated alchemy being conjured on these pages.
Everything appears broken or busted apart, yet kept in check with an invisible harmony. If you’re in band and are looking for a name, open up any random page in A Greater Monster and you will find at least four sentences that contain more than serviceable word combinations. If it worked for Steely Dan and Burroughs, it can work for you and Katzman.
Katzman reads like William S. Burroughs by way of Maurice Sendak.
Which means less transcendental buggery and even more between the lines morale smuggling. For the most part it works; in fact, the only time it really doesn’t work is when you try to read A Greater Monster like any other book you’ve read before. You can’t sit down and consume A Greater Monster. There’s just too much to process on every page for you to Kobayashi this thing. Savor this book, swish it over your teeth, let it dance across your tongue before you take your next sip. It’s like a Mars Volta or King Crimson album. Take a little break before you flip over to side two. Trust me, you’ll need it.