1697 Words and world-building

Ordinary Monsters: A Novel
by J.M. Miro

Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (McClelland & Stewart), 2022
$39.95 / 9780771000027

Reviewed by Jessica Poon

*

I have absolutely no talent for world-building; most of the stories I write involve no more than three people and find themselves in situations that could be described as a poor man’s slightly less heterosexual Sally Rooney. Thus, I have great admiration for anyone who can imagine things that do not currently exist, worlds where non-Earth rules apply, invented vocabularies that don’t sound like crude parodies of the German language. J.M. Miro’s imagination is not lightweight and easily surpasses mine on a good day. In Ordinary Monsters, we have litches — I ran to the dictionary to see if this was a real word — and drughrs — a word which forces you to pronounce vowels that aren’t part of the word — and orchines — there is a dizzying amount of ways to potentially pronounce this word. Ordinary Monsters is conspicuously ambitious and absolutely unconcerned with concision, which I admire in theory. No fewer than two authors called upon to blurb hail the novel as Dickensian, which is, presumably, a compliment. Sometimes I think what people mean when they say Dickensian is: children are involved; they suffer; there is humour; the suffering is rather lengthy. If so, then, yes, Ordinary Monsters is Dickensian, insofar as there are suffering children in abundance; but humour, not so much.

Victoria writer J.M. Miro (Steven Price). Courtesy Centric Photography

The story begins with Eliza Grey, who — given the milquetoast description of “not special, not clever” — is running away with a baby that isn’t hers, which is considerably less milquetoast. No lightning bolt on the forehead here, but this baby can emit blue light that can either melt or mend flesh. Covetable and freaky. Detectives want to bring Marlowe, the blue light baby, to Dr. Berghast’s school of supernatural children, which operates ostensibly for the children’s protection and not for sinister reasons. Meanwhile, Jacob Marber, a dust manipulator mourning his brother and a former disciple of Berghast, wants Marlowe for his own dubious, probably nefarious reasons. For a time, Marlowe exists as a bit of a sideshow freak for profit, along with Brynt, a winsome giantess who predictably has a heart of gold, but that, too, becomes too dangerous as Marlowe continues to be pursued with the tenacity of the kidnapping equivalent of an aggressive suitor. One of the detectives, the euphoniously named Alice Quicke, is a female sleuth who doesn’t conform to narrow ideas of femininity and sometimes, gasp, even has a gun. She, like Brynt, will also prove to have a maternal heart of gold.

Besides Marlowe and his special blue light, we also have Charlie Ovid, a former slave whose body seemingly miraculously heals wounds — as in, fully healing from being stabbed — and Komoko, who shares Jacob Marber’s dust manipulation abilities and sibling-inspired angst, though not his evil.

The beginning of the novel is the most suspenseful, but as the cast becomes larger, the limits of Miro’s brilliant imagination start to show. Once the supernatural children become cronies, in the same scholastic setting overseen by Dr. Berghast, their object-based scavenger hunts and knowledge pursuits seem to go smoothly without ever putting the primary characters in palpable danger. If this is all starting to sound unwieldy and complicated, it’s not. The adults are mostly evil and deeply flawed; the children are the heroes running for safety, and safety is an amorphous thing.

Sometimes a villain’s motivations are downright anticlimactic and thereby inadvertently funny. For example, Glory, the villain of season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is trying to the end the world because, when it comes down to it, she just wants to go back home, which requires unlocking a portal, which naturally has consequences like giving Buffy a new sister who’s really a human key to said portal. When it comes to Jacob Marber in Ordinary Monsters, there’s a lot of potential for him to become legitimately interesting, but he’s just another anticlimactic villain, albeit a brotherless one, and without the fashion sense and cutting wit of Glory. Ordinary Monsters has anticlimactic villains, a purportedly dangerous portal, and extra super duper special objects that function as dei ex machina.  If you like felines or anatomical nicknames, though, you’ll be heartened to learn there is a prominent-ish cat featured and also a minor female character who goes by Ribs.

One of the reasons why True Blood, the HBO show adapted from Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire series, became literally dreadful and less delightfully campy, was the frequency of Faux High Stakes Danger the protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse, found herself in. If you ask the audience to care, don’t patronize them with situations where you know the un-killable protagonists will survive; we need to fear for their lives. In the case of Ordinary Monsters, which, unlike True Blood, takes itself seriously, I never feared for Marlowe and Charlie. Faux High Stakes Danger runs through the novel like I do from an actual job.

As for Komoko, the young Japanese girl who shares Jacob Marber’s gift, she mostly seems to exist to wholesomely hint towards a budding interracial adolescent romance and occasionally exhibit a gregarious outspokenness against race stereotype — which, I suppose, are legitimate functions — but I’m a little beleaguered by and consequently cynical about transparent diversity efforts pretending to do more than they really are. In any case, if Ordinary Monsters ever becomes adapted for film — which I believe it likely will; the world-building screams cinematic potential — Komoko’s existence is a pretty good excuse to film scenes in Japan.

J.M. Miro at the Malahat Summit

Charlie observes Komoko as follows: “She wasn’t white; he’d seen Chinese workers in the rail yards in Natchez and there was a likeness there, maybe. She had a slender face, wide shoulders. Her long hair was black and shining and had been plaited in a braid that fell all the way to her waist. … Her eyes were as black as her hair” (p. 305). On the one hand, the explicit mention that Komoko is not white is a welcome respite from the tyrannical, yet tacit, dictum of If Not Explicitly Stated, The Character Is White By Default. Unfortunately, Charlie’s observation of Komoko feels comically similar to J.K. Rowling’s depiction of Cho Chang from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, wherein Harry observes that “A very pretty girl with long, shiny black hair was standing in the doorway smiling at him: Cho Chang, the Seeker on the Ravenclaw Quidditch team.” Want to describe an Asian? Make sure to note the hair is shiny. And black! Sigh me a river. I don’t need to be smacked in the face with improbably shattering uniqueness, but these tawdry descriptions are about as bad as “almond shaped eyes.” At least, though, we are spared these Asian female characters resembling geishas, getting blepharoplasty, and placidly servicing men.

In Lena Wolff’s novel, Carnality, an idiosyncratic nun notes that “Everyone will use certain words more than others, and if you listen to someone long enough you can work out what those words are and gain a more profound understanding of the person in question in the process.” I observed early on that one of the words Miro favours is weird and weirdly. For example, “And she blinked her eyes rapidly to clear them and saw, weirdly, a black smoke seeping through the crack under the door, and dissipating, and then seeping through all four sides of the door, growing denser, darker” (p. 141). And on the next page, “But it was swollen, the skin mottled and purple and weirdly soft, like a monstrous eggplant, and it would take no weight.”

The monstrous eggplant is quite good and I would most definitely read more about monstrous eggplants, given the opportunity; however, since we probably know the texture of eggplant, “weirdly soft” seems joylessly redundant, a shining example of what happens when your favourite adjective has not been culled by a ruthless editor who doesn’t care about your darlings. Judging by the length of Ordinary Monsters, most of the darlings survived to live another day. I’m sympathetic to letting the darlings live, but I’m wondering why the editor was, also.

Arguably, this sentence might be the most egregious instance of an over-loved adjective: “Then through the weird snow she saw him” (p. 199). What’s weird about the snow? Is it turquoise or shooting sparks? Tell me what’s weird; don’t just say it’s weird like a fifteen-year-old whose every laughably dull anecdote features inaccurate uses of the word random when the word banal would be more fitting.

The apparent crime of loving your wife too much has a word: uxorious. There is no husband equivalent, which suggests perhaps loving your husband too much is not possible, and/or actually desirable. But what of loving a word too much? Is there a word for that yet? Germanophiles, help me out here. Look, I have every confidence that Ordinary Monsters will be adapted for cinema, which I think will be more than ample succour for the lack of generosity on my part in reviewing this book, which in any case is so high-profile as to carry praise from Joe Hill, one of Stephen King’s two scrivener sons. Altogether, Ordinary Monsters is more normal than weird; I just wish it could embrace that more fully.

Though mercifully lacking in didacticism, the novel does seem to want to impart this message: embrace your freakiness, for that is what makes you valuable; that, and a good heart. I can get behind that message, surely; I’d be a monster not to. While Ordinary Monsters does offer escapist thrills and showcases an admirable imagination, remember also its considerable potential to be a powerful weapon indeed, for this book is lethally heavy, weighty with darlings.

*

Jessica Poon and Wolfy

Originally from East Vancouver, Jessica Poon is a writer, former line cook, and a pianist of dubious merit living in Toronto. She is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. Editor’s note: Jessica Poon has recently reviewed books by Bri Beaudoin, Tetsuro ShigematsuKatie Welch, Megan Gail Coles, Ayesha Chaudhry, and Gillian Wigmore.

*

The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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