Monster Portraits (2018) by Del and Sofia Samatar

“How deformed can something get and still be a story?”

Oh, Sofia, you have my heart when you say things like that.

Many, many apologies to Rose Metal Press who kindly sent me this little ditty earlier this year in exchange for a honest review (…although if it were a dishonest review, who would know? Let’s be real, here.)

This is the third book I’ve received and reviewed from a publisher, if anybody’s keeping tabs.

I’m posting it here, at the ol’ From couch to moon site because this is the one that existed when Rose Metal Press contacted me, and it is more thematically relevant to shelve this review here, plus this site has the most traffic (‘most traffic’ being extremely relative), which RMP might appreciate. It’s not like I’m reviving my former FC2M frequency, so you will have to come over to moondanity if you want to see more of me… which, in all honesty, isn’t THAT much more.

I have held off on reviewing this, ehhh, novelette(???)(it’s super tiny!), because it seemed so slight when I first received it, I couldn’t imagine myself digging right into it. Half of the pages are lovely illustrations that to me, being a weak graphic reader, made interpreting the story a great deal more daunting than probably makes sense to most people. So I set it aside for when I felt ready to focus. Like really focus.

As is my M.O. of late, I orbited it for a while. And then late summer came and I thought, ‘you know, that would make a timely Halloween-themed post. I’ll just wait a little more.’ So here we are. I totally put this off for most of a year because seasons.

Monster Portraits opens with the premise of Sofia enlisting Del, her artist brother, to aid her in trekking through the monster otherworld of their pasts in order to document the species they’ve encountered, been bewildered and scarred by, throughout their lives. Because most monsters are camera shy, Del’s bold B&W sketches capture the images of these powerful beings. Opposite the sketches are page-long vignettes encapsulating Samatar’s encounters with each monster, her thoughts, her confusions, the way each encounter has shaped her and impacted her worldview.

At first glance, Monster Portraits brings to mind Italo Calvino’s mesmerizing Invisible Cities, with its travel-journal-memory-landscape premise, though it’s not nearly so meditative and geographical. Instead, Monster Portraits is a riddling of personal history and fable, social ills and personal identity. There’s little that meets the eye here, and far less if that eye happens to belong to a privileged white woman like myself who has to dig in a little harder to see it as more than its disguise as a children’s picture book/monster dictionary. In some entries, Samatar is generous with her context, in others, the essence of some monsters still eludes me. This is okay. Privilege is to demand comprehension of everything; good literature teaches us to be open to the inaccessible, to let ambiguity flow over us.

And besides, the most intriguing anecdotes always have an aura of riddle about them.

“The grotesque confuses categories.”

Further intensifying that ambiguity is the role-switching that plagues the Samatars’ experiences. The story begins with an entry into the monster world via a mirror, but there’s more than enough evidence to question whether she ever actually stepped through to the otherworld. What might begin as Samatar facing a particular monster, might linguistically and contextually transform into Samatar herself becoming a monster– a monster whose body and experience is at the mercy of those who label and define and control. For a narrative that relies on thought fragments and truncation, the role-switching is fluid and unstable, the message being that we are all monsters, but some monsters define reality while other monsters are subjected to it.

“According to the logic of collection, the monster always belongs to others.”

I don’t feel competent enough to assess the art, but Del, as a BFA-toting, practicing tattoo artist, has a particular style that goths and metalheads and fans of Guillermo del Toro might dig. More importantly, there’s a sense of volleying back-and-forth between sister and brother, a chicken-and-egg kind of quandary that makes the project feel organic and natural, with the portraits informing the words informing the portraits, etc.

It’s a lovely little book that says subtle things in creative ways, though I’m not sure I’ve overcome my initial disappointment in its size and contextual weight. It does the hybrid thing very well, the endnotes are a fascinating maze of bunny trails, but when I think of similarly -formatted and -themed collections like Calvino’s Invisible Cities or Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, I can’t help but see an unachieved potential in Monster Portraits, most apparent in its lack of commitment and intensityIt’s only fair to guess that the subject matter is still too painful or activating for Samatar to do more than dance around each encounter, but it’s also important to consider that Samatar might say it’s not her job as a writer to expose her personal traumas as baldly as the audience desires, and to demand such a thing is to behave like the tong-administering monster collectors she so cleverly taunts in these vignettes. It’s tiny, but it’s enough to chew on, so can that be enough?

Thank you Rose Metal Press for the chance to review this unusual book.

And the rest of you, I’m over at moondanity now, if you’ve been wondering what’s become of me.



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