“There is no way to tell the story of a great violence,” writes Candice Wuehle in the succinct introduction to her kaleidoscopic debut novel, MONARCH. The story that follows suggests the opposite is true: there are perhaps too many ways to tell the story of a great violence. As eerie revelations about the “blank spaces” in narrator Jessica’s memories slowly surface, the frenetic media landscape of the nineties hums ominously in the background—Lorena Bobbitt and Nicole Brown Simpson, stories of great violences told over and over again ad nauseam. On the television are Unsolved Mysteries and Homicide set in jarring contrast to the “intravenous drip of art” of MTV. “Like Barbie, Abe Lincoln, and Frankenstein,” Jessica tells us, “I don’t ever remember not knowing who Charles Manson was.”
With the publication of MONARCH, Wuehle is catching a wave of nineties nostalgia and retrospective media criticism, in large part ushered in by the immensely popular podcast, You’re Wrong About, which has entire episodes devoted to many of the novel’s true crime and pop-culture references: JonBenét Ramsey, Monica Lewinsky, the death of Princess Diana, the Columbine massacre, to name just a few. Jessica, like all millennials who came of age during this volatile period, looks back with a vague sense that something terrible has happened—not just the murders and scandals themselves, but something larger and more insidious.
Jessica, a child-beauty-pageant-queen-turned-photographer with a penchant for etymological digressions, spends much of her narration relaying bizarre scenes from her upbringing and late adolescence. Something, we gather, is not quite right. On top of the “blank spaces,” there are mysterious bruises, a strange, bitter taste in her mouth, an episode of apparent spiritual possession. “A subtle panic undergirded the atmosphere of our home,” she writes. Her mother is paranoid and spends her nights locked in a cryotherapy chamber; her father, also paranoid, is a professor whose students occasionally go insane; her witchy, narcissistic babysitter spends evenings “calling people who had wronged her and then channeling her malice into the telephone.” As Jessica begins connecting dots, an MKUltra-adjacent conspiracy emerges, sweeping her into a Bourne-like mission to decode her most deeply encrypted memories.
As much as MONARCH is a conspiracy-theory-thriller, inviting the possibility that an amorphous, terrible something in one’s environment might be located and made legible, it is also a story about piecing together the fuzzy impressions of childhood, watching as they form into a coherent whole the way a photo develops in a darkroom. Wuehle is masterful, in the first half of the novel, at conjuring a child’s perspective—one that perceives but can’t contextualize, that is vivid but uncritical. “I don’t know why Chancellor Lethe decided to mentor me,” Jessica tells us, before dropping the question entirely. Not knowing is the default of childhood; the reader, like Jessica, doesn’t quite know who Chancellor Lethe is or why he’s there, but we catch glimpses of his disorienting lessons, which simply become a part of the landscape: “Jessica, how do you make 2+2=5?” “Subtract 1 from 5 so it equals 4.” “Jessica, how do you make 2+2=5?” “You collect the excess energy of the equal to symbol.”
Throughout the novel, Jessica’s narration is fragmented and discursive. Characters appear without introduction; scenes arrive with only the loosest care for chronology; parentheticals snowball into multi-paragraph scenes. Jessica’s relationship to the reader is permissive and fluid. “Who are you, by the way?” she asks, to disorienting effect, in the middle of yet another lengthy parenthetical. What results is a prose style with a certain lawlessness, one that might be irksome in the hands of a lesser writer. Wuehle, however, is an artisan; one senses while reading her that she has absolute control over the page—could conjure any emotion or image with startling concision, no matter how surreal or uncanny. Here is one such swift summoning—a sadistic exercise inflicted upon Jessica by her pageant coach, in which she is forced to watch footage of pageants that have been inter-spliced with disturbing imagery:
“[A]n image of my father weeping appeared for a split second. Sometimes the images changed and I didn’t recognize the men…Sometimes they were in pain. In one, a man whose hands were my mother’s hands appeared to be choking himself to death. There were often needles and electricity involved. Thumbs and teeth, I learned, were a great vulnerability.”
As it happens, this scene is also an apt metaphor for millennial anxiety. What better way to encapsulate the dawn of the digital age than this? A swirl of violent images and spray-tanned, shellacked pageantry, impossible to make sense of, changing the mind that perceives it in important if inscrutable ways, fed to that mind at dizzying speeds by someone who slowly, hauntingly begins to seem like they might have dangerous motives.
In the second half, after a fitting twist that takes place in the darkroom of a photography store, the novel begins to assume the more recognizable shape of a thriller. Jessica, committing some violences of her own, begins to make scrutable the hazy impression of the world she was raised in, and her discoveries are at once sinister, upsetting, outlandish, and devilishly fun. With the sure hand of an accomplished poet, Wuehle crafts a story that—with all its impossibilities—feels strikingly real. “Some criminals mark the bodies of their victims with tattoos, burns, elaborate scars,” she writes. “Jessica knew this was unnecessary. Visible or invisible, the imprint of the awful doesn’t slide off like lipstick under baby oil.” The awful of MONARCH—the great violence at the heart of it—certainly won’t come off easily, but will stick with its readers a long while after they turn the final page.
By Candice Wuehle
Soft Skull Press
Published March 29, 2022
Lily Houston Smith is a critic and essayist based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Guernica Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @Lily_H_Smith.