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19 thoughts on “Neck Deep and Other Predicaments

  1. Neck Deep and Other Predicaments by Ander Monson was probably one of my favorite books I have read so far this semester. I was struck at his ability to alter the standard creative nonfiction narrative form in a way that read so poetically while still adhering to foundational elements of craft through storytelling. Throughout the different essays, I was holding onto each word in a way that I wouldn’t in other novels. However, I found that Monson’s attention to language – each sentence, format, or sound of a word – was what made each section so complex, illuminating seemingly trivial aspects of everyday life into multi-dimensional narratives focusing on obsession, all on their own.
    It’d probably be difficult to talk about the book as a whole, even though some themes were similar throughout (obsession, memory, order, and destruction, being a few I noticed). Before moving into close readings of a few essays, I think it’s important to point out the ways in which Monson is using form as a narrative device in this book. It’s obvious that this novel is far from linear. With how he constructs several essays, the first “Outline” in the book, or “Index for X,” there are purposeful ways in which he places certain sentences or words that provide insight an entire chapter in a novel would be able to. Namely, I found the longer lists within “Index for X” powerful in how they displayed fixation for the speaker, giving us a “reflection” that we may find in other creative nonfiction.
    Two of my favorite essays in this collection are drastically different from one another. The first, “Fragments on Dentistry” works in how it is zooming in on a particular event, in this case, going to the dentist. Throughout this essay, Monson creates fragments on different ruminations on dentistry, almost like little teeth of thought. By starting out on his own viewpoints on teeth, we are immediately given an “in” to his character, or placed within the collective “I” mindset – a mindset fixated on the failure of teeth. From here, we go deeper into another section, into a dream state of smashing teeth. His language throughout these first few sections are visceral and violent, starting with the very physical – “smashing, shattering, splintering.” From the physical, we move onto the meditative, providing thoughtful context and questioning to teeth through the history of toothpaste or fluoridated water. This is a powerful contrast to the personal flashbacks and fears of Monson. One of the most striking parts in this essay also plays with contrast – using his wife’s expensive dental care in relation to moving land and assimilation. The next section is only two sentences – “In the absence of a controlling hand, everything will find its way back. Entropy and all” (82). Monson’s ability to zoom in and out throughout this essay is best showcased through his poetic language and historical context.
    The other essay I found interesting to analyze was “Failure: A Meditation.” This essay has a similar form to “I’ve Been Thinking About Snow” that showed up earlier in the book, using periods in place of white space on the page. By focusing on the idea of failure in this essay – whether it be the reoccurring car crash or male sexual enhancement drugs – Monson is doing a similar analyzing of the micro into the macro. The idea of construction is illustrated through engineering, where failure into success is conceptualized through the Spice Girls. The form in this essay works especially well in that it illustrates a collection of these streaming thoughts, bouncing from either side of the page as ideas and memories bouncing off one another. Still, there are moments where the periods do not fill up the entirety of the page. On page 128, there is a collection of sentences all together as a meta-narrative on the essay itself. There are moments where he inserts parenthesis for more abstract reflection. These unique uses of punctuation and space allow for the pacing and focus of the narrative to adjust. Most noticeably for me as a reader, the last page of the essay states, “and maybe it is better to have failed at this than poured it all out on the page” (133). Whether it be personal failures, historical failures, or imagined failures, Monson’s act of “pouring” it all out on the page works because of the form and placement of the seemingly disconnected thoughts.
    A few questions I have:
    Are there any points where the “experimental” nature of the text is taking away from the content?
    How much do we see from him as a character? There are moments where he appears more vulnerable – “Index for X,” or uniquely personal – “The Long Crush,” but I feel as if I am seeing a world through his eyes rather than experiencing it alongside him.
    There is a powerful sense of place throughout Neck Deep, as prided on the back of the book. How is Michigan, as a space, threaded throughout the more “subject” essays?

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    1. Hi Maddy, I am on one accord with you about the difficulty that this book may pose for class discussion. Although, I did not understand some of the author’s intended meanings, in a strange sort of way, I totally enjoyed the attempts to decode Monsons’ literature.

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  2. Renee’ Drummond-Brown
    ENG 533 Readings in Creative Nonfiction
    Instructor: Dr. Sheryl St. Germain
    Neck Deep And Other Predicaments
    11-3-2018

    Author Ander Monson’s book Neck Deep And Other Predicaments is both masterful and whimsical. It requires a great deal of analytical thinking and understanding to unravel the author’s intended meaning behind the books message. For this author to take the Roman Numerals and create a narrative that flows and works well together, reinforcing his craft is sheer genius. On p.3 of the book the author crafts a theory of the mine vs. the mind using peculiar phrases when he writes “never felt the top-down structuralist method of constructing writing to be useful or effective; the mind, so idiosyncratic, unusual” (Monson 3). The concept used here was masterfully created to keep the reader guessing as he skillfully navigates the readers mind into his world.
    Personally, I believe that his concept combined with his creative writing style gave meaning to the adventurous essay that we have been discussing in class. I also noticed that the author methodically uses the “I” refrains throughout his book as well. His word choice is simplistic and yet complex because his manuscript is illustrated like a plethora of hidden coded messages. The sentence structure and focus in his literature causes one to get lost in thought while trying to decipher his intended meanings.
    The author’s word choice “I HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT SNOW” (Monson 3) reflects memory. And yet, simultaneously, paints us a three-dimensional “picture perfect” “image” of snow against the pages of his book, because of his use of “white” blank space (and black…). His fragmented thoughts (barren, cold, void and pure) along with his intentional use of space, (especially, on pages 24-25) create an effect on the reader.
    “Fragments: On Dentistry,” page #75, peeked my curiosity, especially, since I have had three recent root canals. In terms of craft the author skillfully depicts sensory details in “prescribing” a list for readers to follow on page 82 of a straightforward procedure.

    Questions/Statements:
    1. Personally, I loved this author’s refrains as they related to the letter “I”, however, I would like to know if anyone thought they were a bit overused at times?

    2. I would like to know what audience this book was written for?

    3. Was there anything that the author could have done different in his craft to make his book have a much better flow?

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    1. Looking forward to discussing your questions in class. One thing to remember is that this is a collection of essays, not a linear narrative so if we discuss the question of flow we’ll need to think in terms of how the essays are working if one reads them “in order.” I’m not sure Ander would care what order one reads them in, and of all the books we’ve read this semester, I would say this is the one where it doesn’t really matter how you read it.

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      1. Dr. St. Germain, I totally agree. This is a book that I will have to re-read, without any time restraints attached to get a better understanding of the author’s intending meaning(s) within his body of essays. Renee’.

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  3. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and Other Predicaments is extremely refreshing in its use of the adventurous form, the uncommon structure, to tell his personal narratives. I see it giving the Literati a headache. I hope it’s not a fad!
    One of my immediate favorites is the outline essay on page 3. This form is a slippery slope because the writer runs the risk of this particular container (the outline) overshadowing the content and other craft elements necessary to pulling it off, i.e., becoming the dry, formal, uncreative type of outline that we all know and have used for structuring research papers. However, he manages to use imagery, repetition, and reflection, as well as memory. It was engaging.
    From the same piece, he also uses lists (page 6-7) that are extremely effective. I enjoy how he takes certain craft elements that the reader normally sees thrown in at strategic moments in narratives and makes them a focal point. He also does this in his Abecedarian on page 57. It reads edgier, like a middle finger to the literary arts for all their rules!
    And then there is Snow (on page 13). I know we discussed this piece in class but I love this piece. The vivid images pop out that much more with his grand use of white space drawing the reader’s attention to his nostalgic, and humorous, descriptions of what snow means to him.
    From page 29-56, Andon uses a mixture of the braided structure—his experience with history—and also employs bullet points and numbers to separate sections.
    The Abecedarian is also atypical in that it employs lists, and both short, staccato sentences, as well as longer ones.
    The Fragments essay on page 75 is a discontinuous collage made up of dialogue, explanation, description, and also employs research and personal narrative, which looks like a bit like a braided mosaic.
    Now, while I am appreciative of his use of adventurous structures because they appear reckless while not being so, I do have a criticism. While these forms are useful to get the reader drawn inside the essay, they also promote navel-gazing, which happens when the narrator lingers over information or experience that is ONLY important to the writer, not the reader, and that maligns the narrative with this burning focus.
    This happened in the Outline essay on page 3 (6-7), the fragment essay on dentistry (page 82-83), especially on page 82 with the numbered section. Maybe I’m missing it, but why should I care about someone’s teeth? Although, I did enjoy the flashback section in this essay because it brought cultural research into it, it brought something historical into the segment.
    Another instance when he just goes on staring at his navel is in the Abecedarian, making information that means nothing to the reader a focal point in a long list of words without context under headings of letters.
    My question is: How do you know when your story is passing beyond the invisible line of interest and purpose and stepping into the shady land of navel-gazing? I would think that having outside readers, a writing community, would help with this. However, I cringe having written my last criticism because I think all writers have the same worry: Make the work universal enough that people who read it care about it, but still personal enough that sharing your experience adds to the conversation of it.

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    1. Hmmm. I had thought one complaint about these essays is that there’s not enough about the narrator as in a good number of essays the writer seems to be focusing on what is outside of him. What, really, do we get to know about the writer through the essay on teeth? Is it really just about his teeth or is it a cultural meditation on dentistry? I look forward to hearing more specifically how you see this as having his ego dominate the piece. How would these essays compare with chapters of The Recovering that focus exclusively on the author’s experience? Could it be that some of us are just not that interested in dentistry whereas we are about addiction/alcoholism?

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  4. In Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, I found Ander Monson to not always the most likeable narrator. Sometimes the self-referentiality to other essays was unnecessary, or his search for meaning/ rhetorical questions felt –I’m struggling for the right word—a bit of a stretch. However, mainly through form and sentence structure (mainly long sentences and lists, though there may be some series or catalogues) the reader experiences an immersion into specific and somewhat mundane subjects in essays like Fragments: On Dentistry, The Long Crush, and Four Annotated Car Washes, and I really appreciated this about the book.

    I don’t have the same recurring fear of the failure of my teeth as Andrew Monson, however, when reading “Fragments: On Dentistry” I found myself involuntarily clenching or sucking my teeth at certain points. (See: having them curb stomped.) I like the way outside research flows inside of the segmented essay, as it keeps the pace of the essay moving forward. It doesn’t feel like as much of a plod, as say, Leslie Jamison’s book. In part, this is because Monson is still adventurous inside some segments, and therefore they aren’t uniform. In doing so, Monson is able to go deeper into the subject than he would otherwise, and the reader feels submerged or immersed in the topic. In addition, some generalities which wouldn’t come off well in a normally structured essay avoid that in this essay because they are buffered by moments of closer analysis.

    On the sentence level, Monson employs very long, grammatically complex, sentences rife with both em dashes and parenthetical asides and colons. Seventy-five percent of the time, they work every time. Especially when dealing with outside information like Michigan’s ten-cent deposit on carbonated beverages, or the long list of toothpaste names. Occasionally his use of parentheticals got in the way of the sentence’s intent. (This is true throughout the book.)

    Finally, Monson’s conversational tone tends towards humorous moments which I enjoyed. For example, Monson’s restraint in not suing the Chick-fil-A or the doctor v. dentist: fight. (Again, throughout the book there were moments similar to these I found humorous and appreciated.)

    In general, I like the form of Subject to Wave Action, particularly the way it is broken into two parts and Monson includes a summation (?) of what the section is generally about. Having never read Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, the included quotations are not that effective for me. I would have preferred lyrics from the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which is referenced and I’m more familiar with.

    Furthermore, Monson is particularly effective in his handling of place/space aboard the ferry boat. Having been on a few, there is not a lot there in terms of action or interesting descriptors. However, by focusing on even the smallest details such as standing by the bathroom exhaust fan, or his coffee cup cozy, or the sight of the water after pushing through the Push Hard: EXIT door, Monson is able to make the boat feel like an expansive, interesting space worth exploring. In fact, Monson’s attention to the sensory aspects of the ferry ride, the churning of the water, the sensation of the freezing rain on his skin, the sound of the motor and kids etc is so effective that the loss of sound and motion at the end of the essay is felt profoundly by the reader. The same is true in terms of the felt isolation of the boat and subsequent re-entry into the world.

    Once again, I enjoyed the tone of the essay, for example, when Monson uses a space break and directly states that is what he’s doing. As is the case through most of the book, Monson employs a number of long sentences, once again allowing (or forcing) the reader to slow down and go as deeply into a subject as he has.

    Q: Did people prefer the more adventurous essays (the Harvard Outline, Thinking About Snow, The A-Z index etc) or the more narrative stories? Does Monson need to include the more narrative essays? What would the book look like if it was only very adventurous essays? Would it be more effective? Less?

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    1. I like your point about his focus on small, seemingly unimportant aspects of place, and I wonder if that might be considered one defining trait of his approach to essay writing. Instead of, for example, focusing on the larger landscape of Michigan, in Thinking About Snow he focuses on one small part of it–snow–to get at much larger issues. Same with the essay about teeth/dentistry.

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  5. It is hard to know where to start with Ander Monson’s Neck Deep. The essays in this collection cover so much ground, so I’m gonna just dive right in.

    Coming to this book as a poet, I think my favorite essay may have been “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline.” I really appreciate the way Monson uses space in this essay. I’m very conscious of the “real estate” I allow a poem to take up, and I’ve been experimenting more with allowing my poems to move across the page and take up space (this could be a feminist tangent, but I’ll reel it in). I really enjoyed how self-referential this essay is, starting with addressing the Roman numeral I in the first point (3). Similarly, Monson describes “all those steps out and down across the page” as his words cascade inward to the right of the page (4). One downside to this format was the way I found myself having to backtrack to remember what the inner most points referred back to.

    I wanted to enjoy and understand “Index for X and the Origin of Fires” more than I did. With some of the indexed items, I struggled to see how they connected to the X in question. Mostly, this essay made me think of things in my own life I could index in an essay, though I don’t know if that is a path I want to explore.

    My favorite essay of the collection was “Cranbrook Schools: Adventures in Bourgeois Topologies.” This essay is certainly one of the more traditional ones, but I did enjoy Monson’s choose your own adventure reference which lead me, perhaps foolishly, to the page I was already on. I also found the anecdotes section to be a more palatable version of adventure, allowing me to follow them easily. I especially appreciated the way the anecdotes are connected, informing each other to make a more complex picture. This is one of my favorite techniques in poetry collections, allowing poems to contradict each other while still being true, and I found that to be the same case for this essay.

    Just today, Hannah Kinsey showed me a poem of hers where she uses a similar technique to Monson’s in “Fragments: On Dentistry.” Monson writes punctuation as a word instead of the symbol itself. I was particularly drawn to “what could be growing out slash in there?” (82). The purpose of this seems to be forcing the reader to pronounce the word instead of simply pausing while reading. It also forces the reader to slow down and it narrows their interpretations. Admittedly, I wish it was more consistent through the essay or the collection, but I do appreciate the sonic influence of this technique.

    I think that adventurous essays are a bit difficult for me to conceptualize because I use my most artistic ideas for poems, while I find myself writing essays to accomplish something larger than a poem can hold. As a poet, I’m grounded in telling a story, so this also influences my perspective.

    That being said, here are my questions for the group:
    Did anyone else struggle with keeping up with some of the longer, more format-driven essays?
    How did the shifting method of storytelling influence how people understood the collective image Monson provided up with (in terms of landscape and a sense of his character, specifically)?

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    1. I also really enjoyed the Cranbrook Schools essay. It is sort of a “portrait of the artist as a young man.” This is perhaps the essay where Ander reveals most about himself, and especially important, for the writer, is his desire to break walls, break into things, outlaw his way to some kind of personal…truth? insight? or just for fun?

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  6. I really have no idea where to begin or what to say about “Neck Deep and Other Predicaments” by Ander Monson because I find my thoughts, much like his, are kind running around each other, through each other, and parallel to each other all at the same time. I feel like I’m really working in overdrive to try and make sense of everything I just read, so I think I’ll just go for it and see what comes out.

    It seems to me that those of us who are more familiar (intimate?) with poetry are more aware—maybe more understanding—of the choices Monson made in writing the outline essay. I think I was near the end of this piece before I really caught on to the movement (going left and right) of the lines and how Monson uses these indentations to link multiple threads of thought into “one” narrative. I won’t lie; I found myself getting confused often because I wasn’t always able to keep up with the placements and relations between these threads. Even so, I found that I enjoyed and admired the ease of moving between these threads solely based on space alone. Additionally, I enjoyed how the spacing and indentation often seems to match the movement suggested by the wording itself. For example, on page 8, as Monson is talking about the mines, the text moves inward as he says, “the further in you go,” and on page 9, the text becomes bound toward the right-hand side of the page as he mentions that the structure “either binds you in or wants to expel you like a sickness.”

    After the slight confusion with the outline essay, I was pleased to move to “I HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT SNOW” because we had already picked apart this essay a bit in our craft class (sorry Liz). As I said then, I really enjoyed how the punctuation, like snowflakes, builds up and around the text on the page. My favorite part of this piece is pages 24 and 15, where you can see (and almost feel) the isolation on the pages. I can’t think of another way this level of demonstration could have been achieved on the page. I kept expecting to find a big moment like this later on when reading “FAILURE: A MEDIATION,” but I found that the form didn’t work for me as well in that piece. I was certainly interested in the ideas and the stream of consciousness feeling of the essay itself, but in this case, I found the punctuation distracting. I’d say the only time this form worked for me was during the use of white space. I certainly felt the power of that contrast in the sections without the lines of periods (pages 116, 118, 120, 121, 125, 126, 128, 131, 132), my favorite being on page 118 where the words, like what they are saying, are spread across the white space as if they’ve been dropped there, allowed to settle away from one another.

    *OTHER THOUGHTS*
    • I noticed that when Monson uses lists, especially in “Index for X and The Origins of Fires,” they are in alphabetical order. To me, this displays so much thought and control over the text to be that meticulous in your wording.
    o Speaking of “Index for X,” I wonder what everyone thought of the (loose) narrative in this piece. How many different stories are actually in this piece? The title suggests two, or two main stories, but I found myself picking up on some others. Certainly, the one about Jesse and Liz and about Monson’s pension for starting fires are obvious, but what about the relationship with his father and brother, or the loss of his brother’s arm(s)?
    • I found that Monson carried a similar voice throughout most, if not all, of his longer essays, even the fragmented ones. I noticed him use a lot of dry humor. One example that comes to mind is in “Fragments: On Dentistry” when he is talking about losing part of his took on a waffle fry from Chick-Fil-A. Though I have to admit that I’m partial to this fragment because I’m feeling rather homesick lately and come from the state in which CFA was founded, I still found the description, “…from the Southern, God-fearing (closed on Sundays) fast-food chain…”, of the chain and his reflection on the experience after, “As I am an American, I thought about suing them over this…I did not. Dear chick-Fil-A Management, consider this a warning…,” (81) to be rather funny.

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    1. Your comment about getting lost in the form suggests to me we should talk about the various “intelligences” of the forms he uses, especially the outline and the index. What might these forms be really good at getting to? Or is it rather that the very use of these forms in this way (a way they were never intended) is more importantly the point, like climbing up a slide instead of sliding down. And to what end?

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  7. Meta Monson

    While reading Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, I found myself captivated as I navigated one fascinating obsession after another, regardless of the change in pace, sentence structure or format. I believe this is due to Monson’s ability to stay in control of the content and maintain an irreverent tone throughout. His skill allows the reader to entrust that the experience will be worth it—however scary it may seem at first. For me, it started with the dedication, which is an actual definition of a book dedication from the Chicago Manual of Style. Hilarious!

    My favorite pieces were “I Have Been Thinking about Snow,” “Index for X and the Origin of Fires,” and “Fragments: On Dentistry.” I won’t go into detail about why the first essay rocked my socks off, because Roupp already pointed out in class a lot of the reasons why this essay is amazing (ellipses = snowflakes). “Index,” like “Snow,” forced me to think of form in a way that poetry always does and prose doesn’t normally. Here, Monson explodes the idea of a list and what it can do. And I love me a list. This is what I appreciated the most from the adventurous essays in Neck Deep.

    In “Fragments: On Dentistry,” Monson’s use of violent verbs like “smashing,” “shattering,” and “splintering” create a heightened sense of anxiety so that both reader and writer share in the same fear of “failure of the teeth.” Additionally, the seamless integration of data and research helps answer a lot of questions as one travels through the piece. And yet, it also creates a whole slew of additional musings, which keeps the frenzied momentum going.

    The overall tone of this essay is deliberately conversational, which creates a more captive reader, one who gets a titillating sense that they are listening in as the writer lies on his therapist’s couch and free associates. With this very strategic craft choice, Monson implies that maybe all writing forces the audience to listen to an author’s random thoughts, which indicates that “it is all about control” (page 90). This essay begs the question: Is an essay construction or destruction? Maybe we have taken the essay for granted… Perhaps the adventurous essay is a “filter of a filter that obscures the form with another layer” (page 91).

    For Dorothy Allison devotees who prescribe to her Church of Place, as I now do, I was delighted to find that I never questioned place throughout. Even though Monson doesn’t linger in any one scene or setting, the reader still gets a real sense of feeling, emotion and context, through the consciousness and desires of the narrator.

    If it’s true that sometimes fragments “align themselves into useful constellations,” then Ander Monson is proof that sometimes our writing could use a little adventure.

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    1. I love “Meta Monson”! And your brief discussion of his comments about essay embedded in his own work suggest we need to talk about this so-called “filter of a filter that obscures the form with another layer” more deeply in class. I wonder if it’s really “obscuring” or if it’s more like “disguising”? We all know masks reveal as much as they conceal. What do his forms reveal?

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