Stranger in a Strange Pageant: A Review of Monarch by Candice Wuehle
Imagine a work of fiction that nods to Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto. Now imagine the through-line theme of the novel taking to heart Haraway’s statement that “the cyborg [operates] as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality.” Combine this with child/teen glam-pageants and it sounds like a recipe for a great read. Monarch by Candice Wuehle begins to fulfill some of this promise while also offering unpursued potentialities.
Wuehle may not have read Haraway’s manifesto, and I say this because ideas therein, now in public consciousness, are missing in the novel. I find this discouraging because the author’s strength is exploring ideas in a smart, uncanny novelistic arena. What starts out brilliantly in a landscape that would include Jon Rafman’s Dream Journal videos, slips for most of the second half closer to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
“What requires reengineering are the memetic parasites arousing and coordinating behaviours in ways occluded by their hosts’ self-image; …. What requires reengineering are the memetic parasites arousing and coordinating behaviours in ways occluded by their hosts’ self-image.” — Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism
Let’s avoid confusion: Monarch is a work of science fiction. I presume it’s not being billed as such to try to maximize sales beyond the genre. We find this out well into the book when characters are revealed to be fem-bots. This is no particular revelation nor is the novel particularly helped by us knowing this. A door is opened into potential meta-reflection, both arising from Jessica who reflects on her status as a cyborg, and arising from considerations of the current state of fem-bots, given that a mainstream narrative is being set by Hollywood, which in all of its submission sex-object narrative deserves to be confronted. In the novel the first is handled somewhat well, the second is lacking. So, while Monarch strives to involve some theoretical underpinnings, it is not theoretical enough. I am not suggesting the novel needs to be a journal article, but the ideas are out here, they have become normative and as such I presume they would be potentialities for novelistic fodder, in terms of influencing characters’ thoughts, for a book written in 2022. I would suggest as most foundational two articles: Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto 1985 and Laboria Cuboniks Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation (2019). Obviously, this is all 20/20 hindsight but again, my leitmotif in this review is unpursued potentialities.
I first want to promote Monarch’s strengths. When, in the first few pages, an author writes “a story is only the shape of a story,” I know I’d better sit up. And when the author follows this with, “it impresses me when a person who traffics in images is adept at rhetoric,” I think I’d better put the coffee on because this is going to be good.
Jessica Clink is the ‘daughter,’ or cyborg we learn, of the chair of the Boredom Studies Department who happens to be missing. Jessica hypothesizes he was ‘disappeared’ because he had made too much progress in his work and that film directors, editors, and video game designers were desperate to silence him. She imagines herself as a little girl at beauty pageants reciting Les Chants de Maldoror. This is all sweet, sophisticated humor, for us who Jessica imagines to “possess an above average tolerance for trifles and trauma.” She says about the story she’ll tell, “My hope is that after you hear what I’ve done, you won’t forget it. My hope is you’ll follow suit…” At this point in the novel, I thought, ‘sure, I’ll follow suit because in my fiction I like verve and literary gymnastics. Thus, I found it as no surprise when, again, early in the novel throughout one sentence she travels into ‘the heart of the country’ [nod to Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country)]and goes to ‘the end of the road’ [nod to Kerouac, On The Road] and they arrive “somewhere dry as the breath of a long snake.” Later, there is more. “The other girls at the Mayflower [a witty dormitory name — think about it] were infatuated with the triple suicide [Eugenides, three of the five die the same night, The Virgin Suicides] They were like red roses with white worms rotting inside of them” [Blake, The Sick Rose] wearing “expensive sweats from a lingerie store in the mall — words like Pink or Juicy were written on the ass of each of their garments in a glitter crust.” When we trust an author, we can go far with supposing they thought all of this through.
“I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” — Donna Haraway.
Jessica the fem-bot is a hyper-simulacral robotic woman seeking the Ur-self and the Ur-word. As her father Dr. Clink says, “I was born into a system and I never saw it from the outside.” So good luck to her Cartesian musings because, at her core, she’s both human and cyborgian, so what’s the self? Here’s where the pageant relation makes sense. Her makeup and her skin are a mask, an armor against her fleeting recognition that, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (Italics in original). She understands, as Tricia Rose said in Black to the Future about Kraftwerk the:
“use of the robot was an understanding of themselves as already having been robots. Adopting “the robot” reflected a response to an existing condition: namely that they were labor for capitalism, that they had very little value as people in this society. By taking on the robot stance, one is “playing with the robot.” It’s like wearing body armor that identifies you as an alien: if it’s always on anyway, in some symbolic sense, perhaps you could master the wearing of this guise in order to use it against your interpolation.” (pg. 213–214)
I wish the pageant had been a greater more streaming-through part of the novel. It offered a wonderful analogy because they are a weird, robotic phenomenon in and of themselves. Cited in an article by Karen deWitt, Ted Cohen, President of World Pageants Inc estimates that there are over three-thousand pageants in the United States per year in which over 100,000 children under the age of twelve take part. (All Dolled Up, The New York Times, January 12, 1997, D4). Beauty pageants are also the site of commodification and consumption as commercialized by their position within the global industry. So, ideas such as following artificial skin or the cybernetic cannibalism as possibly streamed through pageants, that is superficially alluded to really made me want more, again in novelistic form. But nope — whoosh, the pageants are gone.
When Jessica recalls her studies with Chancellor Lethe wonderful Deleuzian catechism ensues:
“Jessica, how do you make 2+2=5?”
“You collect the excess energy of the equal to symbol.”
“And how do you know you’ve done it?”
“Very good. The asterisk indicates the world must never be spoken, but the math can still be done.”
Eventually Jessica takes a job developing photographs, and in one batch, she finds documentation of a murdered girl. She decides to track down the killer. At this point, she begins to discover her fem-bot identity by scratching out a small chip out from underneath her skin. In fact, she has been a sleeper-cell.
“As is often the case when seemingly stable boundaries are displaced by technological innovation… other boundaries are more vigilantly guarded.” — Anne Balsamo, Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture
Interestingly, the fem-bot is not a subversion of normative narratives, but supportive of a “white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to use the words of Laboria Cuboniks. The pageant realm is an acceptance of normative feminine ideals epitomized by a managed facade within a directed framework that, as a whole, is a subset of that capitalist patriarchal society. To an outsider, the contestants at such pageants might appear to be to be robotic in their actions and desires. In Monarch they are hired by the CIA for their “strong propensity for obedience, discipline, manipulation, and self-effacement,” turned into programmable robots, and who undertake assassinations, it seems, although this is not detailed. Society may be seen to program people from the start, and in Monarch, the cyborg program turns those who are most receptive to being turned even better meat puppets, to riff on Nick Land’s accelerationist thought in Fanged Noumena.
Jessica, who was deprogrammed at age 18 in 1998, retains some of her abilities, such as the Multi-Dimensional Identity Acquisitor, i.e. physical shape shifting. She cuts her hair, changes clothes, and becomes Lee, a guy who continues to see Jessica as a separate person. They now function as two people with two sets of thoughts and viewpoints. Jessica/Lee, now has the vaguest recollections of past assassination activities. After they kill the girl’s murderer, they travel to Rome to seek out her father. At St. Peter’s Square, they think, “it occurred to me maybe everyone on earth was programmed and always has been,” to which they recognize her friend would respond, “no, shit.” But of course, Haraway already said, “We have never been human.”
Jessica says, “At the end, there is no chaos. At the end of the world, there is only order.” And this provides a nice finality to the novel.
However, a strange novelistic order that contrasts the start of the novel arrives slightly before the half-way point of the novel. The writing suddenly changes to a straightforward, plot driven form. Jessica assassinates the little girl’s murderer; she begins to question who she is and for that answer she seeks her disappeared father. The whole search and final struggle is much too John Truby beat sheet — this type of predictability gives me plot-fatigue. More baffling is that the wordplay disappears. The wonderful literary turns of phrases and strange associations disappear. The wackiness of invention disappears. Gone is the ghost in the machine, or the machine in the ghost. At any rate, the machine of the novel shifts from accelerated beauty to idle. We get a fem-bot phlegm flop. What the digital hell happened? How could the brilliance of the first few chapters go dark like a power outage in Times Square? It is for me a noticeable and detrimental shift in the writing voice. Perhaps a heavy-handed editor got involved or perhaps the writer just lost the flow. At any rate, something significant happened and it’s unfortunate. I remain confounded.
“We are all alienated — but have we ever been otherwise?” — Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism
I also can’t let the cover and title pass by with comment. The title, Monarch, attempts to relate to a caterpillar morphing to a butterfly, or relating to the brief fragile life of a butterfly. This is a flailing attempt at thematic resonance. It does not work and I wish for a more resonant and evocative title. The cover picture is equally problematic for me. The image presents a Barbie-ish face looking through a foggy shower glass (as done with a Photoshop filter) with smears that look like pseudo-matrix lines. Beyond the sort of DeviantArt/reddit-popular cliche of faces looking through a steamy, dripping shower glass and this image leads to expectations of chick-lit. I nearly didn’t take a second look at the book for this reason. But of course, this may have been the result of a marketing decision not to publicize the book as science fiction. I doubt the decision was to bait and switch chick-lit readers. Finally, to pick on various blurbs and comments, this is not a thriller, and it is not DeLillo (although if I were to compare, it’s very close to Zero K and far from it White Noise). Also, the writing is definitely not even close to Pynchon — aren’t we getting tired of every book released that is even slightest literary leaning being promoted as Pynchonesque or DeLilloish, (DeLilloesque, DeLilloian, Delilloputian)?
“The task of collective self-mastery requires a hyperstitional manipulation of desire’s puppet-strings” — Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism
My goal is not to problematize the entire novel because the strengths deserve attention. In a generous manner, I can accept the unrealized potentialities as benefits, especially if one of the goals of art is to provoke and raise questions. Through this lens I would agree with what Kiera McCarthy says about artist Lee Bull’s hanging cyborg sculptures, that are:
a perfect embodiment of cyborg theory, which delights in the undefined, ambiguous, and hybrid. They are contradictory and resistant to categorization, opening up multiple possibilities for connection and interpretation. They pose poignant questions about our existence in the age of technological mediation: what is a body, and what does it look like? What does a female body look like? What makes a human? And how does our interaction with technology change us and how we exist in the world? — Keira McCarthy, Cy-Candy: Female Bodies and Cyborg Theory in the works of Fan Xiaoyan and Lee Bul.
In such a view, with the lack of relevant depth and hanging questions left unanswered, the novel becomes a coherent if flawed machine. In Monarch, in the first few chapters, the strengths such as masterful word-crafting and a promotion of the uncanny make for a delirious read.