No, I can't do it. I can't give you "the rundown". Because telling you what I liked and didn't like in such a format would be untrue to the book. It wouldn't do it justice. The only thing I can say in this little cutesy frontmatter part I usually do would be to say this: Sea Monkeys is a book that deserves your attention and your respect. I've underestimated Kris Saknussemm's ability as a writer, and this is coming from someone who absolutely loves his work. This is a book you didn't know you needed to read, or maybe it just hits me on some personal level where I live, and for all of you it'd be for naught. But it deserves a try.
But I probably should warn you about some of the dangers of the book. So. There are stories that are disturbing. There are stories that are twisted. There are images you may really not want to see, and there are points that are absolutely wrenching to read. The book is someone's memories on sensory overload, which is very difficult to process and sometimes difficult to hang around. So...be warned, I guess. Not all memoirs are created equal. Some wind up like this.
Full review below.
"Experimentation. Discovery. Risk."
This book did something to my head. I'm still processing what that is, but while I process what in God's name happened to me, I have a duty to you guys out there to put my thoughts to paper.
I first came across Sea Monkeys back in January of last year during one of my little trips down wormholes on Amazon. Because I'm a huge Kris Saknussemm fan, and because the book sounded like a surrealist answer to another favorite book of mine (In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash), I put it on my wishlist and gently nudged it up the queue. When I received it as a present this year, I thought it was just another memoir, another crazy and vulnerable book about the life of one of my favorite authors. Honestly, the subtitle "A Memory Book" struck me as a little weird and maybe high-minded.
So I started reading it slowly, maybe ten minutes here, a couple of stories there. Nothing too investive. It kind of read as an interesting series of vignettes. Something akin to the lovechild of David Lynch, James Ellroy, Jean Shepherd, and Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.
And then the book took hold and sucked me in.
Sea Monkeys isn't a memoir, not quite. It takes the shape of a series of images or small snatches Saknussemm remembers. These images and small snatches expand and unfold into full memories-- part remembered, part real, part fictional. Each small sketch builds on the last and on how Saknussemm became the person he is today in some weird way. And, as the book moves forward in time, events start to call backward. A cuckoo clock that held a central plot point in an early story comes back when he sees a worn hassock that reminds him of how he stood to reach the clock in a later one. But as events move forward in time, they also become more melancholy. The earlier chapters are full of light and life and some really silly setpieces (there's a great bit about a young Kris trying to understand why the wife who pops out on the half-hour in the cuckoo clock looks like a man wearing a dress), with only hints of darkness. But the hints start to roll over, and soon the book takes a darker tone.
Sea Monkeys isn't so much a book as it is a collection of short stories that work as a meditation on memory and how it works on a person. With each of the individual works, we're driven more into Saknussemm's headspace. And, inside that headspace, it starts to...unlock things. Because of the way each memory is presented, in a very sensory, poetic kind of stream-of-consciousness, it touches the brain on a very deep level. It brings things up. It helps lock the reader into the stories, and it locks into the reader with its own understanding of them. In short, it leaves a door open between it and the person reading it. And through this door, all manner of things may come.
The first thing that hit me is the way Saknussemm uses language. He's colorful with it, but not in any kind of obscene way. For instance, he describes one man's perspiration similar to the sweat someone would see coming off a block of cheese. Or describing one character as entering a room smelling like "barbecue, cigarettes, and pussy". Every small detail gets a strange description, and it helps on an associative level. Saknussemm is open about his background in poetry, and it shows. It felt somehow beautiful and profane to read, and certain pages reached a point where the details cascaded down the page in some kind of tumbling cadence, a list of all the things Saknussemm noticed. It helps the book dig deeper into the head of whatever version of the author is narrating the piece*. I haven't seen this level of poetry in a prose work since maybe Helprin in Winter's Tale or Bradbury in Something Wicked, and only Bradbury gets close to the strangely tangible madness on display**.
Second, I love the emotion that bleeds through on every page. The work is dreamlike, the vignettes half-remembered and some only a single page in length, but each one has a certain vulnerability to it. When coupled with the surrealistic, sometimes dreamlike patches of brutality and horror (the rhododendron bushes, the chamber where Saknussemm's father got a treatment in the hospital, and others), it hooks into an exchange of energy that further connects one into the book. Saknussemm concentrates on the feel, on the way the feelings hit him, the way his memories and dreams come into play, and uncovers deeper things than just the way things feel to him. In setting a scene, he can tell more about how he feels than he ever could just by spelling things out. It's "show, don't tell" taken to its logical extremes, and done quite brilliantly.
And finally, to me, this book isn't a book so much as it is a roadmap. It touches on something, maybe because I had a very surrealistic childhood myself, and as the book opened up, so did my own memories. Scents and tastes, like the girl who "tasted like salt and summer melons". Moments like the little boy with the stuffed animal he took everywhere and made talk in a squeaky voice. I don't feel like I connected with Kris Saknussemm on any kind of level, that'd be a little arrogant, but I feel like I connected with the book. That I let it in, and it let me in, and kind of altered things. That I feel like I brought something out with me. I know, it's an odd way of describing it and kind of arrogant for me to assume such a personal connection, but that's how I felt about it. It touched me on a personal level. I think it'd touch us all on a personal level. There's something oddly familiar about the experience.
But I should caution you, the book is brutal. Both in emotion and in some of the scenes. There are some really nasty scenes, or scenes that are written in a very strange, unsettling manner. When I compared Saknussemm to David Lynch and James Ellroy, I meant it. There are some interesting scenes that mix the dreamlike quality and the surreal horror quality well, but they're very unsettling scenes.
But, should you not be faint-of-heart, and in the mood for a good disjointed, haunting, beautiful memoir with teeth, buy this book. Even if you're not in the mood, buy it and read it when you are. It is a crime that more people are not reading this man, and if Private Midnight was too creepy and squirm-inducing, if Zanesville made you go "Huh. Why would they do that?", maybe this one will convince you. Or maybe you just don't like his work. That's quite all right, too. But then it's my duty to tell you that by not reading this, you're missing out on if not a great experience, a unique and singular one that deserves your attention.
After all-- Experimentation. Discovery. Risk. Isn't that what life's all about?
- Rise of the Iron Moon by Stephen Hunt
- S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
- Hell's Horizon (The City Book 2) by Darren Shan
- Nocturnal by Scott Sigler
- City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte
AND NUMEROUS OTHERS
*Okay, I switched up partly for variety and partly because writing out that name was giving me fingercramps. Sue me.
** Sorry, Helprin fans, but he is the grandmaster.