Graywolf Press, 2010
By David Wanczyk
At seventeen, I had a job scraping paint for $5.25 an hour. I'd jab through layers of beige, back to original blue, through the strata of decades that had accrued on the colonial houses of the town where I grew up. This was utterly satisfying, tangible work. Most days—happy to earn the $44—I left with a grin (and a latex glob) on my face.
In his pleasingly peculiar new book, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, Ander Monson performs a similar kind of scraping. Instead of a long-hidden coat of Sherwin Williams, though, it's the buried layers of his own personality that he uncovers. In his nineteen essays, he approaches those “iterations of Monson” by writing about an old notebook, a favorite pop tune, Dungeons & Dragons, Deep Blue Something, and a forgotten flavor of Doritos. Even a giant ball of paint draws his essayistic attention, and all of these scrapings—“each element of et cetera”—seem to represent a different version of “Ander,” part of “the pockmarked surface of the I: that's where the good stuff is.”
But he wants to move past memoir's typical I speaker, too, toward a kind of we narrative. In my favorite essays, Monson explores the group dynamics during the funeral of Gerald Ford, or he writes exclusively in found-language from other memoirs, or he revels in the many-souled reaction to a woman's great karaoke performance. He's always happy to let his own story recede for a page (or forty), and he argues that nonfictionists should take that stance more often, should concentrate on “actual evidence of actual lives.”
Monson is fascinated by overlapping levels of information, of selfhood. Interestingly, then, he's preoccupied throughout the book with that multilayered ball of paint, The World's Largest(!). In his conception, this ball of many coats symbolizes how our own slivers of memory, and peccadilloes, and trinkets, and favorite songs all glom onto each other to form the expanding, stratified muchness we call our culture. “And it continues to expand,” he writes. “Because of you. And you. Because of all of us.” He's painted many layers on the giant ball, he tells us, and he carries some of its scrapings with him, too.
If, ultimately, Ander Monson is like this giant ball of paint (as he'd have us believe he is), well, then, I enjoyed peeling away at the layers of his enigmatic, frenetic intelligence. As he uncovers different versions of himself in Vanishing Point (and in its corresponding website, otherelectricities.com/vp), he proves that no one makes inquisitive, associative leaps quite like he does.
Back in my actual scraping days, I worked for a time in Monson, Massachusetts, with a guy named Erv, who, because of his advanced age, or love of Ray Charles, or both, involuntarily hummed the first two notes of "Georgia on My Mind" with each summer-strained breath he took. Um-Hmmh. Georgia. Though I resisted, I eventually found myself humming along with each thrust of my paint scraper. We both kept working away at the years of built-up acrylic paint, and after a few hours, Georgia, I had an odd little tune planted in my head that partly made me who I was that day—it was just one more thin coat of personality. Um-hmmh. I figured that job was okay. In fact, it was the best kind of strange. Georgia. Plus, Monson was always an appealing place to hang out for awhile.
David Wanczyk has a Ph.D in nonfiction from Ohio University and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Lake Effect, New York Quarterly, Quarter After Eight, and Shaking Like a Mountain. While writing this review, he wore a very old, paint-stained belt.