Maybe You Read It In City Paper 12 Years Ago, But Michael Kun’s Retooled Novel You Poor Monster Is Leaner, Meaner, And Better Than Before. And He’ll Be The First To Say So.
Longtime City Paper readers have already read Kun’s new book You Poor Monster, published by Macadam/Cage this month. More accurately, they’ve read Our Poor Napoleon, a pre-hominid version of Monster that CP printed in 36 serialized installments in 1993. Kun, whose jovial voice matches his jolly “about the author” photo perfectly, sees little relation between the book that became the apple of his literary eye and its hulking 600-page-plus ancestor.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but it became my favorite the more I edited it,” Kun admits in a phone call from Los Angeles, where he now makes his home after a long stint in Baltimore. “The more I edited it, the more I liked all the characters, the more I liked the story.” He sighs with the satisfaction of a sport fisherman who’s finally landed an elusive marlin after a long—and fair—fight. “I can’t imagine writing a better book.”
Monster begins as a young Baltimore war veteran is seated on the edge of the bed with his new bride, confessing to her about the seven men he killed in battle, how he turned “their bodies to fertilizer and their thoughts to pure blue air.” Years later, the couple is divorcing, and the veteran—the glad-handing, charismatic Sam Shoogey—decides that corporate lawyer and neighbor Hamilton Ashe is just the man to represent him. Ashe demurs, telling Shoogey that divorce law and corporate law are not the same thing, but Shoogey persists, setting in motion a frustrating tug of war between Shoogey, Ashe, and Shoogey’s flexible notion of the truth.
While Ashe struggles to make sense of Shoogey’s frustrating and contradictory stories, superscript numbers dot the text, buzzing around the narrative’s events like gnats at a picnic. The introduction states that reading the accompanying endnotes is optional, but as the novel progresses, the notes’ indispensability becomes clear. As events cloud, entire chapters disappear save their teasing titles, our narrator Ashe hectors his editor, Diane, for ruining his book with her unjustified trims, and Ashe’s neat bubble of suburban familial bliss comes crashing down around him. Shoogey’s compulsive fictionalizing is like a contagion that infects the novel, making it implode into a deconstructed pile at the same pace that Ashe’s life self-destructs.
“It’s a long story, do you have time?” Kun says of his decision to use the endnote technique. After hacking out Monster chapter by chapter for several years, he explains, he put it aside on a vacation to see if he, like Mary Shelley, could really write a novel in a week. The end result of his Frankenstein experiment was The Locklear Letters, a comic novel told entirely in a hapless middle manager’s letters to ex-college acquaintance Heather Locklear. Letters received a fair share of deserved praise and attention (“Dear Heather,” Arts & Entertainment, June 4, 2003), and pretty soon Kun’s editor was calling to ask about his next project.
“I told him I was going to write a book called ‘Footnotes to My Memoirs,’ which would be a novel written entirely in footnotes. There was a long pause, and he said . . . well, he cursed, and I’m not going to curse, but he said, ‘You must be fricking kidding.’ Mark Dunn, another author he represented, was writing the same thing. That’s when I said, and I cursed, ‘You must be fricking kidding.’” Dunn was already several chapters into the novel later published as Ibid, so Kun conceded and decided to apply his idea to the Monster manuscript instead, only to discover the footnote notion pared his original “kitchen sink book” into a lean, bittersweet, and clever success.
Monster is not a David Foster Wallace-style monstrosity, where footnotes sprout upon footnotes like an expanding coral reef and threaten to choke off the rest of the text. Kun’s notes form a parallel voice to the narrative, a transparent overlay that clarifies and deepens the meaning of the book’s events. The first hundred endnotes mostly provide banal definitions that don’t reward the reader’s effort of thumbing to the back of the book (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm” is a particularly tooth-gnashing one), but slowly their tone shifts, providing heartbreaking revelations to the story’s true nature and an essential emotional weight.
“Instead of the idea of telling a story through footnotes, [I decided to] have the footnotes deconstruct the story,” Kun says. “It became a struggle for me what to tell and why I would tell it. But I do appreciate how some of the footnotes are like that saying, that reading footnotes is like making love and having to get up to answer the doorbell.”
True, breaking concentration to look up an endnote that’s less than rewarding is frustrating, but once the reader realizes the author is writing the notes for another character’s (future) elucidation, the book’s rewards become more apparent.
Monster is Kun’s fifth book, and like most of his other books, it’s set in Baltimore (he left Charm City in 1994 to take a plum job as a lawyer with an L.A. firm). Locals will notice familiar landmarks and faces like the Cat’s Eye Pub and Mary Beth Marsden, but Kun throws in a few fictional landmarks, too. Just as Quentin Tarantino devotees eventually notice how all his characters smoke Red Apple cigarettes, sharp-eyed Kun readers start to notice overlaps in his self-created Smalltimore. Heather Locklear’s Locklear Letters refrain “Eat Wheaties!” pops up on a postcard in You Poor Monster, and Hamilton Ashe, Monster’s narrator, shares a name with the tailor protagonist of Kun’s My Wife and My Dead Wife (but in Monster he makes clear it’s a pseudonym.)
“I wanted to [reuse] the name here because I like the name,” Kun says. “The name works better here. It fits in well with the endnotes that deconstruct the book.” It’s true, “Hamilton Ashe” sounds more apt for a lawyer than a tailor, and the “Ashe” portion of the name (even though the accompanying endnote claims it’s in honor of tennis great Arthur Ashe) could refer to the scorched earth Hamilton makes of his life by the book’s end. (As an aside, Kun proposed to his then-girlfriend in the book’s opening dedication, “to my wife.” It appears not to have been, to him, a bad omen to dedicate a fledgling marriage to a book wherein multiple marriages crash and burn. “I didn’t think of that,” he admits. But so far, he and his new wife’s happy union remains unjinxed.)
Even after five books and a smattering of critical attention (as well as fans loyal enough that, when he took a 13-year hiatus from writing, rumors of his untimely demise started swirling), Kun says he still works “8 a.m. to 8 p.m.” in labor and employment law, which makes it hard to find time to write. “When I was younger . . . I could go from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and then come home and write for another three hours,” he says. “I don’t have the energy anymore.”
But perhaps Kun shouldn’t be so hard on himself: This is a man who wrote (or, in the case of Monster, rewrote) four out of his five books in the past two years. He’s also got a nonfiction book about baseball (co-authored with a friend) coming out soon, as well as plans for a book of short stories. For a guy once rumored to be dead, he’s had quite a reanimation.
Besides, Kun notes, practicing law provides a stability that few full-time writers claim to enjoy. “The publishing world is too erratic, too unpredictable,” he says. “I’ve been practicing law for a while. I know how to do it, and I like doing it. And I like the dependable income. So I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds.” And if little else, he adds, writing still gives him an occasional chance to return, Dorothy Gale-style, to a not-so-mythical Baltimore that, despite its tragedies and contradictions, is a lovely place to live.
“I miss Baltimore,” Kun says. “I spent 10 years of my life there. It’s always great to go back, to go to the same old restaurants, the same places. As much as I’ve moved around in my life, I still think of Baltimore as my home.”
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