You Are Among Monsters came to me in the mail a few weeks ago, and although it was the first I’d heard of it, I ended up racing through it in two days. Thank you, Palimpsest Press!
What made this book so compelling (and fun to read)?
1) The creep factor was huge. Not only does the main guy Ian work for a funeral home, but he also comes to be “stalked” by a teenage girl, Athene. Ian was one of the men who came and took her mother’s dead body away 5 years ago after she had been murdered by her husband. Supposedly Athene is looking for answers, but Ian doesn’t have any for her. Instead, he finds himself attracted to her against his will, for which he constantly berates himself.
Even in this moment the reptile opportunist part of my brain is considering the possibility that there exists a place where I could have sex with this girl. It’s not a conscious plan or desire. Just a thought that happens somewhere in the worst part of my mind. I want to attribute this to being male more than to being evil. But maybe I’m forgiving a lot in myself.
2) Like I said above, Ian works for a funeral home. Not only does he prepare corpses for viewing and cremate others, but he also has to drive around picking up dead bodies and bring them to the funeral home. This job can get pretty messy and awkward.
We call it a transfer. Getting the terms right is a big part of the job… Euphemisms are one of the primary services the death industry offers. Kindness and lies in language. Also, we deal with your dead. I say “we” when I have to speak to the bereaved. I say bereaved and not mourners. Or dead guy’s relatives. I say “we” because people are comforted by the concept that I am part of something larger and organized and that it’s not simply me and my partner loading their dead into a back of a van and taking them away.
This is our profession. We fleece their grief. This business is the domain of monsters.
3) Ian and Becky have been together for a long time. Becky is an academic, but has failed to get into the local university since moving to small town Alberta for Ian’s chosen career. From the very beginning of the book we get the feeling that things are not going well in their household. (They have not had sex in three months.) Becky is not at all cut out to be a stay-at-home “wife” and is slowly going cabin crazy. Her desperation to get into the university leads to some ethically questionable behaviour and drunken nights at home in front of ‘The Jetsons’.
She hates cooking. She hates cooking for him but she’s at home and he’s at work. She often feels she should. And hates the obligation and the guilt. It’s nothing he’s said. But he expects it. Or she expects that he expects it.
But very little is hers anymore. Her life has shaped itself around him. Even now, these words, these thoughts she angrily stirs and turns over define her against him. She exists in this place because of him. It is not his fault, exactly, but sometimes she hates him for it. For his hunger and his smell on clothing in the hamper. The flecks of his beard in the sink. The fact that none of it is malicious or purposeful from him makes it worse, somehow.
4) A lot of questions arise that the reader wants answered: Is Ian going to stick with Funeral home work even though it seems to be hollowing him out? Is Athene a sociopath out to ruin Ian’s life, or is she just a confused teenager? Is Ian going to do something really stupid? Will Becky be able to pull it together and take charge of her life? Will Ian and Becky figure out how to make it work, or are they as doomed as they seem?
Athene is horrifying. Some days I feel like she has intentional control over me. That she has scripted every gesture, every shift of weight, tilt of hip to keep me looking for her mother.
And Becky threw a bottle at my head the other night. She doesn’t know about Athene, she was just drunk. She screamed math at me and wheeled a bottle into the archway behind my head. I’m spending a lot of time at the parlour when I can. Telling my stories to the transfers [i.e. dead people].
You Are Among Strangers is quirky/odd/wacky/off-the-wall, which is a nice change of pace. Unpredictable. I’m always up for something a little off the beaten path. Its tone reminded me a little of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh; darkly comic, disturbing, and sad.
The thing that struck me most forcefully, beyond the expected gruesomeness of his stories, was how euphemistic Mark’s new world was. He never said “bodies” or “corpses” or “charred baby” (very different lives). Instead, Mark referred to remains as “transfers.” Mourners were “bereaved,” urns were “receptacles,” and bodies being filled with embalming fluids and having their mouths sewn shut were “in our care.”
What are some off-the-wall surprises you’ve come across?