Saturday, July 30, 2011

French (ed.), Monk Punk (2011)

A. J. French (ed.), Monk Punk. Static Movement, 2011. Pp. 214. ISBN
978-1617061165. $15.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Before considering the stories in this anthology, questions loom large, prompted by the audaciousness of the book’s title: Monk Punk. What is it meant to be, and does the book achieve it? Editor A. J. French wants to introduce a new sub-genre, to add to the list of mixed and matched writing that speculative fiction broadly allows within its eminently flexible remit. In his lurid and highly personally enthusiastic introduction, French outlines what he believes to be monk punk’s position. First of all, French seems to come to the conclusion that to ‘punk’ is to subvert narrative convention and expectation. After all, the TV show that is about practical jokes and shock surprises is named ‘Punk’d’.

I am not going to go over well-written ground here, but to summarise for context: French traces cyberpunk’s genesis to the mid-1980s. This was an era of clunky, pedestrian computers requiring large amounts of specialist programming knowledge to create. They were solid objects very much separate from human flesh; tools to be used rather than partially assimilated into the Self; unsexy and awe-inspiring. The idea of the direct connection between man and machine, the sensuality of such and the prevalence of dystopian futures in such a set-up seemed novel. The hope was in the new machines; a cleaner, better, more organised society. Anyone who has worked in a so-called ‘paperless office’ might well dispute that!

Steampunk, too, redirects expectation. In re-imagining a past more technologically advanced, utilising the technology of the 1800s, e.g. clockwork and steam, reads as quaint and even magical. French is right that sci-fi (or more broadly, speculative fiction) will always “comment on the sociological condition of a given author’s present time”. The leap, the ‘punking’ of narrative normalcy is made when a personal element is made: the author expresses beyond what has been tried before. Indeed, fantastic storytelling could be said to have its roots in ancient myth and legend, when amazing events and creatures befell the heroes as a matter of course. These days we read them more as metaphors; earlier civilisations seem to have truly believed that ‘here be dragons’. Making up a story that has no actual truth is itself a fantastic act: fantasy and speculation in storytelling could be said to be storytelling, punking the world of ‘truth’ as it is witnessed.

Considering, then, the rich climate of the liberal, melting-pot magic that seems to be prevalent in the current modern era in the West, there is an extreme of style and presentation in the action-packed sections of the visual arts and a taste for the supernatural, romantic and strange that lies at the heart of many of currently popular narratives. It could be a reaction to the wider social background: if there are fear tactics in politics, wars being fought and worries over financial ruin, is it any wonder people seek more obvious ‘escapism’ in their leisure hours? Perhaps movie studios were hoping that 3D would be the new ‘punk’ of film. So, given all this, can a new theme be said to be able to ‘punk’ modern story-telling anymore?

Some of the stories ‘punk’ the format of the short story by feeling unformed. They read more as smaller snippets of a larger story that, just as one is getting into it, ends, denying one the bigger picture: ‘Wonder and Glory’, ‘Brethren of Fire’, ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Xenocyte: A Kiomarra Story’, ‘Vortex’ and ‘Citipati’ fit this model. Indeed, ‘Wonder’ and ‘Xenocyte’s author bios suggest that these are ideas that are being worked up into longer novels. ‘Brethren’ does not, unfortunately, include an author bio, but I would not be surprised at all if it was a snippet from a larger book as well. Most, though, apply the short story ‘rules’ and have a beginning, a middle and an end!

But do the stories justify French’s enthusiasm for an “evolving foray into Beat literature”?—that is, something subversive in what it presents and how it does it, a ‘spiritual’ punk effort, where the monk’s place in the story acts as a pivot for dualism, a “vibrant dualism” that “stems from an aesthetic of play. With genre. With form. Ultimately with new ideas.” I am sorry to say that, apart from the aforementioned cut-off stories, there is little here that is new in form or point of view in writing, or in ideas, or even in genre bending. French allows for the bigger genres—sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, etc—while claiming that monk punk will take them and play with their conventions. But this simply does not happen.

I was entertained, I was amused, but I was not amazed at a new dawning. And I did not feel, unlike one reviewer, that the stories “hand you your ass in a hat and make you ask them if you look pretty in it.”

Maybe I was missing something. Perhaps I am cynical. Maybe it is because I acknowledge that there has been a huge mixing of Eastern filmic conventions (and with it certain Eastern story-telling traditions as expressed in the clichés of those films) with the West. Eastern martial arts have become the standard fighting style in Hollywood’s far-reaching film factory. Eastern ‘mysticism’ has been camped up and used to explain the weird and wonderful by simply being there for some time: the wizened kick-ass monk, the vibrant fighter, the foolish, clownish character, the earnest warrior-lover. Even George Lucas was apparently inspired by original classic Japanese cinema to create his Star Wars franchise; a sci-fi staple many succeeding generations of films have looked to as their natural ancestor. Thus the ‘Eastern’ detailing in the Eastern-themed tales in the book were not surprising. There were highly choreographed action sequences in these stories: written with an eye to the visual, and easily brought to mind.

Maybe because I have read a variety of fantastic fictions, the suggestions for the ‘new’ worlds and situations presented did not seem to far-fetched at all.

But maybe mostly because I was disappointed that, considering this was meant to be a new sub-genre driven by a spiritual core monk figure, I felt these were actually takes featuring or about monks doing things, interacting with people; not necessarily being the central element. Or the gap within the centre that other non-monks revolve around and react to. (Such an absence would be entirely Zen, after all). I identified action, comedy, sci-fi, android monks (Douglas Adams got there first), alien spiritualists/ monks (Star Trek is a bigger proponent of such), horror, won-ton western (a term I’ve coined to mean a Westerner writing a story in the style of an Eastern mini-epic) and psychological thriller. But these were bigger than the monk-characters involved.

Alas for French, I don’t think this one is going to fly as a new sub-genre, but it is a great collection of fun, action-packed reads.

I am not going to cover every tale; that would dry out the fun of the book immeasurably; you will just have to try for yourself! To pick out a few favourites, though; ‘The Cult of Adam’ by Mark Iles is a short, sweet tale following what seems to be the return of humanity to Earth following a catastrophic war between their faithful left-behind androids and alien invaders. In the space just two sort pages, Iiles wittily turns this potential re-grown Eden into a charnel-house when it goes to show that a lone gatekeeper must be chosen very carefully, and that even among never-failing androids (running on Asimov’s seminal Laws of Robotics; used right across the board in sci-fi as the basis for artificial life) new subroutine faiths can split from orthodoxy! It left me darkly amused and actually appreciating the android’s decision for the twisted yet preserving desire that it was.

‘Nusradin: Desert Sufi’ by Barry Rosenberg reads like a shaggy dog story. One is left awaiting a punch line, and when it comes in the final line, alas it was all too obvious. But the charm is in the obviousness to the reader juxtapositioning with the slightly pompous voice of the main patsy, to whom it is far to say, Nusradin happens. Another tale that made me giggle was the quirky, somewhat sarcastic commentary on religious order life in Gayle Arrowood’s ‘Capital Sins in a Dominican Monastery’, featuring a brilliantly apoplectic monk and a series of events that, were they not in a monastery, would most likely have brought the offenders onto Jeremy Kyle!

Of the more obviously ‘balanced’ and more deliberately monk-ish stories that French seems to want to champion, there is the bloody judgement that comes calling on a repentant sinner-monk among the Himalayas in the form of a mutating doctor in ‘The Key To Happiness’ by R. B. Payne. Here the ‘duality’ comes from the letting-going of the worldly—both doctor and monk will be leaving behind their previous lives. There is the acceptance of rightful punishment by the monk and the joining of male and female to continue a species (the doctor was bitten by a she-yeti). This balancing of events and accepting of them is perhaps what Payne means by being a key to happiness; just as Zen and Buddhism espouse removing desire and thwarted will to achieve peace.

Keeping universal elements in balance is the provenience of the action-dramas ‘Black Rose’ by Robert Harkess and John R. Fultz’s ‘Where the White Lotus Grows’. In each the warrior-monks draw their strength from their spiritual practice and are seen as the moral cleansers in troubled times; defeating the pretensions of the forces of darkness when they would threaten what is otherwise innocent and natural. These read like solid Eastern actioneers: chop-socky, magical powers and wise pronouncements. We are reminded of an added element of balance in ‘White Lotus’: where there is good and light, there has to be darkness to balance it (according to the principles summarised in Yin-Yang). As the hero monk rises and discovers humanity in his nature; fathering a child and taking responsibility for the spiritual direction of a town, so his love is captured and rendered demonic by evil. Where man is seen as purifying, strong; woman once more takes the traditional dialectic role as seducer and vileness. I cannot feel too offended by this rather simplistic effect: the story is about traditional balance and strictly speaking, that has been maintained in this fictional world.

The most confusing stories include ‘Snowfall’ by J. C. Andrijeski; did the human pioneer, returning to a post-apocalyptic world actually fight a dragon or not? Did they just have some variety of spiritual quest through the medium of strange monk-like figures in colourful robes; a sort of bald-headed Polyphonic Spree grouping? Certainly the astronaut appears to land twice; first we follow as she enters the stone castle-like building her ship has spotted. She meets robed figures and sees the devotional aspect of flowers and paper birds left in the lap of a seated human statue; a sort of latter-day Buddha. Then she faints, seems to awake to battle a monster, then re-awakes in her escape pod, hurtling down to the plant for the first time. Clever, but not revolutionary story telling; a fun experience and colourfully written.

Dean M Drinkel’s ‘The Liturgy of the Hours’ by comparison is a deeply disturbing sequence of hallucinatory first-person stream-of-consciousness passages as what emerges as a damaged religious nutter kills and rapes a prostitute.

This latter tale aside, for the most part what I keep returning to is that this was a fun book to read; a lively, playful collection. The play is present, not necessarily for the reasons French hoped for, although play itself needs balance to work. Too much, it looses its appeal; too little, and it is a sorry, fragile little thing in a stressed-out world. Perhaps it can be said that where there is playfulness in writing, there is a desire to re-tip the aesthetic scales a little: produce something irreverent to counterbalance something too serious. But the treatment of the monk archetype perhaps says more about the modern relationship to religious figures. There is something of an awkwardness about them, portrayed in most media as either mystic, wise persons of awe or totems of ridiculousness, subject to all the weaknesses, contaminations and failings of mankind, yet hypocritically hiding behind robes of office.

If French collected these stories with this more in mind, I would agree with him, but instead of seeing this as a response from writer to religious figure, he wanted to place the figure as the pivot for meaning, instead of the subject for exploration. Such objectifying of the monk is more of a ‘punk’ on current social and cultural narratives concerning spirituality and on how much those perceptions have changed. The West was, once upon a time, fundamentally in awe of its holy orders. With Henry VIII’s formal dissolving of the power of the monasteries in the UK, splits within the church and increasing secularisation, it has been a long time since that has been the case. We still relate to them as something separate, but not necessarily part of the main-stream world; no longer part of the building blocks of our cultural identity. This setting-aside allows a certain fluidity of opinion. Sometimes this is playful (e.g. see the Sister Act films), sometimes dire (e.g. scandals that break in newspapers and The Magdalene Sisters). While I cannot quite agree with French’s angle that it is the shaking-up of established narrative convention to create a new sub-genre on its own, if this collection of stories proves anything, it is that the perception and commentary on cultural figures can be punked, through the medium of speculative fiction.

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BarryR said...

Thanks for your comment on my story, Nasrudin.
Years ago, when I was in my mystical phase, I read about the Sufi monk, Nasrudin. He was a real trickster and that idea motivated my story. I certainly had fun writing it.


R.B. Payne said...

The reviewer did a nice job of the thoughts that were lying beneath the surface of my story - THE KEY TO HAPPINESS. I would have liked to have a little more punk with my monk, but alas, that was not where the story went. Overall, the review of the book seems balanced and I appreciate the effort that goes into reading so many tales. Thanks!