Aesthetic Transfiguration

‘Monkey Boy’
Francisco Goldman (Pia Elizondo)

Marcel Proust’s autobiographical novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu opens with an act of memory. The narrator describes his childhood bedtime routine, when he would drift between waking and sleeping, hoping for his beloved mother to come and give him a kiss. Grammatically, the imperfect tense presides. Proust realized the possibilities of the tense, used to describe repeated past actions, in part through his reading of Madame Bovary. There, the imperfect recreates the deadening effect of actions that repeat and never change. For Proust, the imperfect offered a way to show not the past’s barrenness but its fullness, its texture and tone. Time becomes less a series of discrete events than a landscape, even a world.

Francisco Goldman’s masterful autobiographical novel Monkey Boy also opens with an act of memory. In a nod to Proust, the narrator describes his childhood morning routine, when he would drift between waking and sleeping, hoping for his bullying father to go to work and leave him in peace. The narrator, named Francisco Goldberg, is a writer who shares many biographical features with his author, tyrannical father included. Francisco’s narration slips from one memory (the first time his father beat him) to another (the first time he kissed a girl), from repeated action (“Ian Brown used to invite me to his house”) into singular event, as in this lovely memory of visiting Boston Common with his mother and seeing a woman toss a walnut to a squirrel: “The squirrel plucked the walnut up in her front claws, transferred it to her mouth, and ran with it up a tree trunk where she hung upside down, hind talons sunk like iron hooks into the bark, splayed legs elastically stretched, and turned the walnut over and over in her hands, gnawing on it. When her teeth broke through the hard shell, we heard it.” The reader hears the shell crack, too. This is past as Proustian landscape, as world.

Like Proust, Francisco wants to recreate the past in its entirety. “I wish I could remember every single second of my entire life so far,” he writes, “in full 3-D Technicolor and surround sound, and at every past scene reinhabit myself exactly as I was.” This desire arises in part from things passing away. Francisco’s father has died; his mother, suffering from dementia, is in a nursing home in suburban Boston; the working-class town he grew up in has turned into “Silicon Valley East.” (Unnamed, it’s Goldman’s hometown of Needham, Massachusetts.) But the desire to reinhabit the past also comes from Francisco’s lifelong feeling of self-division. He is the son of a Jewish father and a Guatemalan Catholic mother. (So is his author.) He’s reported on the civil war in Guatemala but he also writes fiction. (Same with Goldman.) As an adult, he is known as Francisco and Frankie Gee. As a boy, he was called Monkey Boy, Pablo, Chimp Face, “a dirty kike,” and Gols. “When I was a kid,” he writes, “I never would have dared to say out loud: I want to be just one thing, like a normal person is, though I thought it all the time.” The dream of perfect memory, of reinhabiting every second of the past exactly as he was, seems also a dream of perfect integration. Heal the temporal gap between now and then, he thinks, and heal that other, deeper feeling of a self fractured.

 

The autobiographical novel isn’t the last puff of a dying genre but a form through which to consider the competing moral and aesthetic demands of the real and the imagined.

Like Goldman’s previous novel, Say Her Name (2011), Monkey Boy is a work of what we’d now call autofiction—that winking, is-it-or-isn’t-it-fictional style of writing associated with Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgård, and others. (The fact that Goldman’s first novel, 1993’s The Long Night of White Chickens, could also be classified as such shows that the trend has a longer and less uncomplicatedly white history than is generally assumed.) In Monkey Boy, Goldberg, like his creator, has written a novel about José Martí as well as a book of nonfiction on the murder of a Guatemalan archbishop. (Goldman’s real-life book, The Art of Political Murder, was just turned into a HBO documentary.) Goldman’s blending of fiction and autobiography, though, is distinct from that of its most famous current practitioners. For them, autofiction arises from exhaustion with the fictionalizing impulse itself. “Making up John and Jane and making them do things,” Rachel Cusk has said, came to seem “utterly ridiculous,” “fake and embarrassing.” For Goldman, by contrast, the autobiographical novel isn’t the last puff of a dying genre but a form through which to consider the competing moral and aesthetic demands of the real and the imagined.

Monkey Boy is a fascinating hybrid at the level of plot. It is digressive and meandering, moving into the personal or familial past for a paragraph or two before returning to the narrative present before drifting off again. (All of which is to say, it doesn’t feel terribly plotted.) At the same time, the novel is tightly, almost symmetrically structured, concerned from beginning to end with the possibility, and transformative power, of love. It opens with Francisco traveling from New York to Boston to visit his ailing mother. It ends with Francisco receiving a text message from Lulú, a young woman he has fallen in love with but fears is no longer interested in him. On the one hand, Monkey Boy seems almost an anti-novel. Why make things up when you can borrow from life? Why construct a linear narrative when life doesn’t seem to possess one? On the other hand, it is a quietly traditional, even romantic novel committed to the idea that the self can be changed through memory and love, honesty and vulnerability.

Francisco’s memory work is hard. He thinks back to when his father, Bert Goldberg, taunted and beat and terrorized him. He remembers his mother, Yolanda, sobbing on a hotel bed, leaving Bert only to come back, “keeping her guard impermeably raised” for years. Now that Bert has died and Yolanda is beginning to suffer from dementia, she starts to reveal a little more, including the existence of a short-lived love affair. Through other means, Francisco learns that his great-grandmother was Black; that Bert’s rage was motivated in part by impotence; that his somewhat estranged sister, Lexi, knew more about his own childhood suffering than he’d thought. He remembers and speculates; he asks questions and imagines answers. It’s one of the novel’s many paradoxes: Francisco comes to a rapprochement with the past by visiting a mother whose mental state makes her both more elusive and more vibrantly present than she’s ever been before.

At one point, Francisco tells us that “Proust wrote in his novel that a man, during the second half of his life, might become the reverse of who he was in the first.” After stretches of loneliness and several failed relationships, Francisco longs for such a second act. He then offers another quotation, this one from Hawthorne: “In Wakefield, the magic of a single night has wrought a similar transformation, because, in that brief period, a great moral change has been affected. But this is a secret from himself.” Francisco goes on: “Something, even overnight, has changed you for the better, but you’re not even aware of it.… How will you know? Because someone will love you who wouldn’t have yesterday.” After seeing his mother, after revisiting and reimagining the past, the novel ends with a longed-for text from Lulú: “Panchito, I dreamed we were riding bicycles together.” For our many-named protagonist, this is the final name he is given. “We can grow or evolve or determinedly slog our way out and become lovable,” Francisco writes earlier. It is only by grappling with the woundedness of Gols that Francisco can become Panchito.    

 

The adolescent dream of being “just one thing” gives way to the adult embrace of “a mestizo unity.”

Lest this make the novel sound overly tidy, it’s worth considering the strains that remain intentionally unresolved. As Monkey Boy opens, Francisco looks for the book that he plans to read on the train to Boston, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means. He wants to read it, he says, because it “is set in a London boardinghouse for single working women right after World War I, and [Yolanda] lived in one of those, though in Boston, in the 1950s.” Later, he writes that he’s interested in Spark not only because of similarities between the plot of The Girls of Slender Means and the life of his mother, but also because of similarities between Spark’s divided identity and his own. Spark’s father was Jewish; her mother was raised Protestant; she herself eventually converted to Catholicism. “Spark, too, as a girl growing up in Edinburgh, felt oppressed by the loneliness of not belonging.” Spark’s Catholicism—she “hol[ed] up in her bedsit to read through thirteen volumes of Cardinal Newman’s writings in preparation for her transfiguration”—doesn’t resemble Francisco’s own, such as it is. “The only time I’ve experienced what I believe were strong genuinely religious feelings,” he writes, “was at the Catholic ‘widows’ Mass’ in a sacred Maya town in the Central Highlands [of Guatemala] during the war”:

People came streaming in from far-flung villages and hamlets.… They packed the church shoulder to shoulder, the banner-strung air thick with the smoke of burning incense and the smells of pine boughs, candle wax, dirt, sweat, bad breath, unwashed hair; with prayers, singing, voluble exclamations of strong emotions in those strenuous and eloquent K’iche’ pronunciations that seem so suited for expressing sorrow, as some would say Hebrew is, spontaneous wails, sobbing, quiet tears. In suffering you are joined to Christ in His suffering upon the Cross. Together join your suffering to Christ’s and you are strengthened together. I felt it in every part of me; if I had been the kind of person truly open to that, it would have been a lastingly transfiguring moment.

Francisco is careful to say that this isn’t a conversion experience. Still, over the course of the novel, he joins his suffering to the suffering of others—specifically, to the pain of his mother’s life with Bert—and he is strengthened as a result. He says of one of his favorite writers, “Natalia [Ginzburg] used to say, I am fully Catholic but also fully Jewish.… None of this half-and-half pie slicing.” Francisco is not Catholic, but he’s not not Catholic. “Three-quarters Jewish and three-quarters Catholic, keep a quarter secret only for myself.” The adolescent dream of being “just one thing” gives way to the adult embrace of “a mestizo unity.”

The tension between Francisco the journalist and Francisco the novelist—between the real and the imagined—remains unreconciled as well. Midway through the novel, Francisco remembers how he came to be a reporter. While in Guatemala, he saw the corpse of a young man murdered in the civil war and was, to use one of the novel’s central words, transfigured: “Because to witness something like that implicates you, it allows that reality to go on living inside you, growing darker, more impenetrable, unless you accept the challenge of living with it and trying to make it clearer instead of ever darker and more confusing.” Francisco understands reporting to be a kind of moral witness, but Monkey Boy shows that there are also darknesses that only can be illuminated by the light of fiction. The novel’s central mystery is Yolanda—why she stayed with her brutal husband; what the inner life of a brown immigrant woman in a white, racist suburb was like—and this mystery is seen most truly not through the facts that Francisco uncovers but through the sympathetic imagination he applies to them. Yolanda tells him she had an affair and he pictures, in moving detail, the love she took and then forswore. Late in the novel, he sees a portrait of Yolanda painted when she, pregnant with Francisco, was not yet as hurt as she would become. In the most beautiful section in a beautiful novel, Francisco then imagines what the twelve sittings for the painting would have been like. Yolanda and the painter listen to music together. He shares his own moment of romantic ecstasy—also brief, also forsworn. “It was the first rapture for each of us,” Francisco imagines the painter telling Yolanda. “Like Hemingway wrote in his novel, all things of the night cannot be explained by day. But I’m not going to try to explain. I just want to paint it.” Monkey Boy may not believe in religious transfiguration, but it fully believes in aesthetic transfiguration. Transfiguration tied to reality, yes; transfiguration that doesn’t ignore suffering, to be sure. Transfiguration nonetheless.

Early in the novel, we learn that Francisco’s father specialized in transformations of a different kind, working as a chemical engineer designing prosthetic teeth. The process is “a mix of science and art,” Francisco learns. “Light passes through porcelain in a manner that makes it seem both luminous and internally lit.” This would be a perfect fictional detail were it not a biographical fact: Goldman’s own father worked for just such a company, “appl[ying] his wizardry in coloration to the infinite range of shadings between the whitest and grayest plausible teeth.” Monkey Boy doesn’t jettison fiction for nonfiction, the artificial for the real, but considers the truths of both. The novel is dead; long live the novel.

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Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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