A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I’ve been reading novels of Magical Realism. Since I’m writing my own in the genre, I thought I should see how other authors are managing it. My original post was entitled “Four Magical Realism Novels” but here I am, in Berlin, without any of the novels for reference. They’re all in Vermont. So I’ll have to write that post when I’m back in Vermont. I bought Ness’s novel from a little English Bookstore on Kastanienstraße. You might ask why, being in Germany, I’m not reading Magical Realism by German authors. I tried. Turns out, there aren’t any. For whatever reason, German authors haven’t taken up the genre. A number of Spanish and American authors have been translated into German, but that’s as far as it goes. Rather than wait until I’m home to include this bit of opinion in a larger post, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it on its own.

“A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness may be the story that has struck the nicest balance between “magic” and realism (among those I’ve read)—meaning that the story didn’t create alternate universes but remained firmly in our own reality. The magic was the right measure of maybe real and maybe not. That is, one wasn’t quite sure if the “magic” was imagined even as it seemed to effect the “real world” in tangible ways. My personal opinion is that stories that veer toward outright magic as a manipulable force (along with alternate realities) veer more toward the fantasy genre than “magical realism”.

My main complaint as regards “A Monster Calls” is stylistic. Ness is capable of writing beautifully descriptive prose, as when he describes the Yew Tree’s transformation into a monster, but I all too often felt that he was “writing down” to his audience. He seems to adopt the kind of amateurish (and sometimes clichéd) overstatement and vernacular one would expect from the thirteen year old main character, not the author. It’s possible Ness wrote like this to ingratiate himself with a YA audience but I’m not sure. If it was deliberate, then pick one or the other. Don’t write like an experienced novelist one moment, then a thirteen year old at the next. Otherwise, one ends up with paragraphs like the following:

“Every time the monster moved, Conor could hear the creak of wood, groaning and yawning in the monster’s huge body. He could see, too, the power in the monster’s arms, great wiry ropes of branches constantly twisting and shifting together in what must have been tree muscle, connected a massive trunk of a chest, topped by a head and teeth that could chomp him down in one bite.” p. 49 [Italics mine.]

It’s those very last words that roll my eyes. The majority of the description finds us firmly in the hands of an experienced and evocative writer. Does he really need to wrench me into the vernacular of Conor, aged 13, by then observing that the monster sure could chomp him down in one bite! That sure is one heck of a monster there! Those words belong in Conor’s mouth, not the narrator’s.

Or an example of overstatement:

“It laughed louder and louder again, until the ground was shaking and it felt like the sky itself might tumble down.” p. 83

It sure did. It felt like the whole sky itself—not just the “sky” but the “sky itself” might tumble right down. And sometimes it wasn’t just the school but “it felt like the whole school was holding its breath, waiting to see what Conor would do” (179) And when the monster sat on top of Conor’s grandmother’s office it “placed its entire great weight on top”. Not just its weight, not just its great weight, but its entire great weight. The reader will find this sort of empty and mannered overstatement throughout the book, all in pursuit of something resembling “authenticity”. That is, Ness might think he’s writing like a 13 year old but none of my 13 years olds ever talked like this. Who did? Children in 1950s and 60s movies did. Too much of his writing sounds like the kind of nonsense put into the mouths of child actors by gin-sipping screen writers who went home to cigarettes and noir:

“The whole room was like a museum of how people lived in olden times. There wasn’t even a television.” (108)

Not just the room, but the “whole room”, and who doesn’t go to museums of how animals looked before the whole world was totally obliterated by a rock so big it was even bigger than the biggest mountain ever? And there weren’t even televisions! And who doesn’t go to museums of how people painted way back before you were even alive? And they didn’t even have printers! And “olden times”? Who talks like that? And the characters themselves, by the way, too often behave more like clichéd caricatures—as though Ness not only adopted the worst of Hollywood’s script writing but also their “Lord of the Flies” vision of education. There’s the predictable bully, the bully’s snickering sidekicks and the usual social dynamics that plague all Hollywood schools. Another trope that’s gone stale.

But maybe this is really the way Ness writes? All in all, as a stylistic matter, the best writing occurred when the monster appeared (though later in the book the descriptions flirt with repetitiveness) and during the close of the book when the subject matter’s emotional weight means, apparently, that Ness doesn’t have to try so hard. And while the writing then is at its best, simple and direct, even that is marred in the closing chapter by Ness’s all too earnest and explanatory moralizing. He can’t just let the story speak for itself but flirts with an almost Victorian fussiness.

My other criticism, which is more arbitrary, concerns the first story/fable told by the monster (who declares he will tell three stories, then demand a fourth from Conor). I noticed that readers on Amazon who disliked the story objected to its subject matter: sex and murder. They felt it didn’t belong in a YA novel. That’s not what bothered me. I did find the story silly and forced (even granting that it was deliberately absurd) but that’s not what bothered me. Oddly, it’s that he made the story about Kings, Queens and Princes. Aren’t we done with stories about the aristocracy? Hasn’t Disney done enough to drive that genre into the ground? And while I do get why he did it, I’d argue that Ness could have told the same story without recourse to a worn out trope.

All in all, I wanted to like the novelette more than I did. It possesses all the gothic elements I love. Just look at my poem “Into the Woods” (written, by the way, before I read Ness’s novel). But regardless of what I think, it’s an immensely popular book that’s been made into a movie with none other than Sigourney Weaver. And the reason for the book’s success is no doubt because Ness ultimately tells a good and meaningful story despite its flaws (the book is no masterpiece), interspersed with evocative imagery and an evocative monster. The book tells the story of a boy coming to terms with his mother’s battle with cancer. To anyone who wants to be a successful author the moral is simple: Writing well is optional. Writing a good story is a must.

by Me

Berlin, August 4th 2022