January 23, 2012
Astrophysicists work to uncover a Theory of Everything, the mathematical equation of all life in the universe. Religious zealots describe heaven and hell in florid detail. Tarot cards, constellations, the all-mighty Google. In our search for certainty, whether through belief, proof, or a near-perfect search engine, what is the value of choosing not to know?
In his newly-released nonfiction chapbook, In Defense of Monsters (Origami Zoo Press), B.J. Hollars chooses his words carefully when he challenges readers to consider that infamous creatures such as Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster “may not not exist.” The use of the double negative is deliberate, a strategy employed throughout the collection meant to distinguish Hollars’ challenge from demanding empirical proof. Instead, Hollars relishes the possibilities of such existences, backed by meticulous scientific and field research, while simultaneously exploring a wilder, more sinister proposition in the face of humanity’s fact-hunger: that what we call elusive may be choosing to elude us.
Chapbooks allow writers of all status some welcomed literary flex. Because they tend to be the domain of small, independent presses like Origami Zoo, chapbooks capitalize on limited print runs and e-book formats, which give both writer and publisher greater freedom to experiment with content and form. While many emerging writers use chapbooks to begin compiling or excerpting longer work to test in the literary market, other chapbooks deliberately function within the abbreviated form. They contain wholly developed ideas that operate singularly, and not as a sneak preview of something yet to come. In Defense of Monsters has such an identity in its three heavily-sourced essays, complete with Works Cited pages in proper MLA style. Content and form are healthily symbiotic here, as Hollars has written something closer to a political pamphlet a la Thomas Paine, meant for concentrated circulation, meant to stir something up in those lucky enough to obtain a precious copy. As I read these classically-inspired essays–two out of three using the “In Defense Of” structure–I imagined some cloaked figure thrusting tattered pages into my hands, part of some Lutheran-esque underground effort towards reform.
Each of Hollars’ essays “defends” a different monster, beginning with the familiar Sasquatch (a.k.a. Bigfoot), then moving to the lesser-known Beast of ‘Busco (a giant turtle said to reside in Indiana), and finally returning to the familiar with the Loch Ness monster of Scotland. Yet with each categorized defense using a variety of archeological, biological, historical, and anecdotal evidence to support the creatures’ possible existence, Hollars reveals more about the species who indisputably does: us. And it is our existence that receives both the most tender and critical of Hollars’ analysis.
For example, “In Defense of Sasquatch” reminds us of where we’ve already been shortsighted, with humans having named less than two million of the “10,000,000 plants and animals assumed to exist,” according to the International Institute for Species Exploration, which “confirm[s] a difficult fact–the unknown far outweighs the known.” As Hollars also points out in this lighthearted opening piece, Sasquatch enthusiasts even have precedent for continuing their vigil on the Gigantopithecus that “undoubtedly existed” in the past, since we have already located living species once thought extinct–the New Holland Mouse, Terror Skink, and Coelacanth, to name but a few. “When we swear off Sasquatch,” Hollars writes, “we are admitting that there is nothing left to discover, that human knowledge is complete and carefully indexed, that a Google search is as far as we need to take our searches.”
But “searching” takes on a complicated meaning in the two subsequent essays of the collection, for Hollars understands that humanity too often exploits what it finds. And in such exploitation, Hollars identifies the costs both to the mysterious species we seek and to the humans obsessed with them.
Hollars’ literary game of “hide-and-go-seek” takes us next to Churubusco, Indiana in “Sasquatch in a Shell.” In 1949, Oscar the oversized turtle, better known as the Beast of ‘Busco, made his first appearance in Fulks Lake, spotted by local farmer Gail Harris. As the hype grew with other sightings, Churubusco briefly enjoyed the kind of novelty that comes with any World’s Biggest designation, capitalizing on Oscar’s presence in every conceivable way–Oscar burgers at Pat’s Café, an insurance company’s turtle-y new slogan, and the annual Turtle Days festival still held today.
However, Oscar’s legend has an insidious quality. As the giant turtle’s publicity grew, so too did the demand for his capture, leading Gail Harris to become “a hometown Captain Ahab” who nearly lost his life in the pursuit, and in the process damaged his family’s privacy, their property, and Fulks Lake itself with a full-scale drain that “reduc[ed] the seven-acre lake to a single acre of sludge.”
This propensity for destruction, Hollars claims, may explain why the Loch Ness monster (or Nessie, as she is called in the final piece of the book), still hasn’t risen from the murky depths to possess her one rather flimsy scientific allowance of a genus-species classification, Nessiteras rhombopteryz. Though rationale for her existence is carefully detailed and runs deep with paleontological support, as do Sasquatch and Oscar, Hollars is more interested in answering the central question surrounding Nessie’s elusiveness: “The world wondered, quite fairly: How could modern science–complete with submarine and sonar–fail to find such a large needle in such a very limited haystack?”
But instead of examining where humans on the hunt may have gone awry, Hollars employs one of the book’s central strategies and imagines Nessie as a creature of agency, “allow[ing] humankind its folly,” but deciding “she would play no part herself.”
After all, Nessie was first spotted in 1933, according to the newspaper reports Hollars provides, and as early as 1934, the Washington Post published a profound editorial, of which Hollars excerpts the following:
Indeed it is not without import that the accounts of the giant saurians, which in our youth would have been grand copy, are today relegated to inside pages. The competition is too keen for natural monstrosities. The real issue, moreover, is not so much what we think of the sea serpents, but what they think of us…What has this legendary animal risen from the dawn period of racial memory at just this time?
Hollars, like the Washington Post, is keen to place the discoveries of humankind in historical context. In this case, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany was poised to enact a terrible plan on its own species at the same time that Jim Crow laws in the United States “preferred the rope.” And while Scotland drew up legislation to protect what may lay hidden in fog-laden Loch Ness, Hollars wonders “who protected European Jews or African-Americans in the South?” The theory posed in the book’s final lines do what all resounding literature does, suggesting something surprising, yet inevitable. In this case, Hollars leads the reader to a frightening precipice in his once-playful argument. In the long view, which looks back as well as ahead, Hollars can imagine that humankind’s control issues could become our evolutionary Achilles heel.
Hollars’ essays reminded me of another recent and superb read. In her 2010 memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell recalls her friendship with writer Caroline Knapp, who died of lung cancer in 2002. In the chapter about Knapp’s death, Caldwell’s sure-footed narration breaks when she compares Knapp’s death to “driving a car into a brick wall with nothing on the other side,” calling this moment “one of the most desolate” in her life. “What I took away from that dark alleyway,” Caldwell writes,” was that, when it came to God, I needed not to know–needed the humble ignorance as to whether anything existed outside that grim tableau…I kept thinking of the phrase ‘requisite mystery,’ as though that could capture my necessary position in the universe now, poised on the line between Knowing and Not Knowing, between what seemed to me the arrogance of religious certainty and the despair of a godless world.”
Caldwell hinges her emotional survival on a philosophy of agnosticism, of choosing not to know. Hollars seems to hinge our physical survival on this philosophy, as well. In addition to the wonderment we retain when we embrace our limitations of knowledge as a species, we may too retain our path towards evolutionary enlightenment, rather than a self-induced extinction.
B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (University of Alabama Press, 2011) and the editor of You Must Be This Tall To Ride (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009), Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings (Pressgang, 2012) and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (University of Nebraska Press, 2012).