I have rarely enjoyed a first novel as much as I enjoyed William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton, 282 pp., $24.95). I would have liked to say more about the book in the November fiction chronicle, but space limitations prevented me.
The novel’s action is in the style. To write in the voice of a man willing “to be berserk in service of the heart,” Giraldi says that he had to unshakle himself from “the safe influences of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver and to embrace a more thrilling, disobedient mode of narration.” Or, as his narrator Charles Homar puts it rather less politely, he renounces sane and Presbyterian English. One character — a reader of his “fanatical” memoir, which is published in installments in a national magazine that sounds suspiciously like the New Yorker — complains that the style makes him dizzy.
Giraldi insists that style is subordinated to character, plot, and theme in Busy Monsters. “A novel’s language must be the organic outcrop of its storytelling sensibility, its creative vision,” he says. But I don’t entirely believe him. This sounds like the kind of thing that is said for public consumption. After all, how many readers are likely to be attracted to a novel upon being told that the most important thing about it is its dizzying prose:
Gather ’round, now. We go forth hexed, a little crestfallen but well intentioned toward an ending always in progress, or maybe just a coninuation from that to this, from there to hereabouts, defying the reaper by courting constant motion, shunning seclusion, inventing love, and then needing to see that invention light up, spin, sparkle.
So begins the tenth and final chapter. A certain kind of reader, weary of contemporary fiction’s polished “craft” being mistaken for distinctive style, will not be able to stop reading when teased with such sentences. Although Giraldi admires (and has been obviously influenced by) the late Barry Hannah — an affecting memorial tribute to Hannah, originally published in Agni, can be downloaded from Giraldi’s website — he is the bastard literary son of Evelyn Waugh.
The title of Busy Monsters is not the only way in which Giraldi’s novel resembles Vile Bodies, Waugh’s second novel. Both are hilarious; both satirize the unruliness and overindulgence of their characters’ lives and yet revel in every minute of it; both are terrified of boredom. The main difference is that Waugh’s Christianity came later. Although Giraldi swears he is no longer “Jesus-happy,” as he was when a boy, his narrator is a “lapsed Catholic,” the “most devout Catholic of all.” And beneath the facetiousness and verbal hijinks, there is a seriousness of Christian purpose to Busy Monsters. As I noted in my COMMENTARY review, Giraldi’s model is the “antithetical fusion” of high and low, superb and uncouth, which Erich Auerbach describes in Mimesis as the “mixed style” of Christian rhetoric. Giraldi resorts to it to suggest the need for something that is missing in most postmodern lives:
All this emptiness, within and without, and we here with a shovel between two nothings, trying to fill, and fill. Our silent Savior’s broken body: in that believe? How? Which way? Is it each way? But we can’t hold it. So in the lifetime of our discontent we worship one another and then wither when left. The paralytic on the corner will tell you: he longs for his legs. He used to feel such comfort when he shouted insults at the Lord, and the Lord, as patient as the grave (is the grave), said back: Oh, child, you just don’t understand. Meaning he one day might. Which he won’t.
This is an ideal language for what William James calls “the sick soul.” Giraldi’s narrator gets his girl back in the end, but she wasn’t really what he was searching for. Happy readers of Busy Monsters have every reason to be excited about the sequel.