Lizzy Acker’s book Monster Party is hard to categorize. Is it a fiction chapbook? A novella? A story cycle? Maybe a fictive autobiography? Maybe a collage of short-shorts? Or should we call it a badass bildungsromanesque manifesto with a poetic ode to the 90s computer game Oregon Trail thrown in? Whatever it is, it’s a must-read. Especially for all you 20 and 30-somethings who grew up on He-Man and Nick at Nite. And you literary types who have always wanted to do something gnarly and totally against-the-rules with metaphor. And especially all you who may be considering boob tubing it tonight—Acker’s protagonist would—but are thinking it’ll be loads more fun hanging out for eighty pages with a slacker tomboy named Lizzy who drools sarcasm, shoots Fourth-of-July bottle rockets out of her mouth, and accidentally participates in the murder of a possum because she thinks it’s mortally wounded when the poor critter is just playing dead. Trust me, friends. This hipster hip, tough girl, love-rock, indie narrative word-thing is for you.
The type is big. And by the looks of the coloring, book font and vintage-looking playground graphic on the cover, you’d think it was a young-adult read. But the book’s playful façade, though certainly representative of a charming childish innocence, disguises something gritty and dark. It’s not quite as sad as it sounds. Possum aside, Acker leaves serious tragedy off the page. But the narrator’s life is so painfully mundane, hopelessly aimless, and unrequited in every way that Acker’s sparse prose is a sliver of metal that slips through your skin, enters your bloodstream, and pierces your organs again and again and again.
She starts with the story “The Basement,” which gives us a quick glimpse into the lives of a pack of ethnically-diverse children living in the same apartment complex. They test the limits of how hard they can pump their legs on the swing set without clearing the top metal bar and follow Ricky into the basement laundry room where he demands that the little girls pull down their underpants so he can flash pictures of them with his animal cracker box camera. He explains that he can sell the pictures to his uncle, who works for Playboy, and make them all famous. The juxtaposition of simple childish language and the uncomfortable turn toward sexuality at the end kicks off the collection with a quick glimpse into the protagonist’s childhood. The innocent logic and poetry of minimalist observation speak softly but leave a trail of chills.
Acker hurtles us through Lizzy’s childhood quickly. By the third story, “Shark Week,” she is a teen adrift in her hometown. Her parents have moved, so she surfs couches, trying not to piss off her hosts. She hangs out with a bunch of dude friends, making up drinking games to the sitcom flop Sister, Sister. And she is excruciatingly in love with Joe, whose glasses are just a bigger version of hers, who owned a Razor scooter at the same time she did so they rode “around town like a two-man gang,” and once fell asleep with her in his parents’ back seat coming home from a Scandinavian Festival. As Lizzy waits for her boyfriend to arrive at a hotel room she’s rented for two nights, she drinks wine with Joe. Acker writes, “and the lights were out and I was whispering something in Joe’s ear about Painting with Bob Ross and he said, ‘That IS strangely hot but I don’t know why.’ Then I went down on him, even though my best friend from third grade had to go on antidepressants after she broke up with him senior year and also everyone knows that back when he tried to break the record for masturbating the most times in a day and he got somewhere like forty-six times, he did permanent damage to his penis.” I know no other writer who so authentically and sympathetically inhabits the teenage mind.
The fourth story “Fall” is brilliant in what it leaves out and how it situates a humdrum month of Lizzy’s college career against her past and future. It is the October she stops eating and “spen[ds] the month walking around Seattle.” She turns a college party into a costume ball via mass e-mail, spends weeks making her costume, and admires the sexy way her shoulder blades stick out from it at the party. Acker ends this two-page short-short: “This was before the summer, when I rode my bike in the middle of the night to the Mennonite church twenty miles out of town and slept under a tree and waited for Ben to call me on my cell phone. Before he didn’t, when I rode back home in the dark.” This story hints at significant plot points in Lizzy’s life, but it opens more gaps than it fills. The gaps offer a certain poetry that sings of the sad familiarity we have with our own memories, so chronic and packed with worthless meaning, untranslatable outside our own heads. Yet somehow here Acker’s unfamiliar references to moments in Lizzy’s life hit painful notes of nostalgia—for a time of starvation and wandering, a time infinite in its isolation and loneliness.
Later in the collection, Acker seems to switch style and genre completely. Take the story “Alien Vacation,” which opens: “The two aliens are at a Bingo game. They are confused. They are not used to Bingo games and they are trying to understand Earth culture but Earth culture is very hard to understand.” Acker describes the alien’s jaunt through San Francisco, the number-one tourist location for their species. Other hot spots include Taco Bell and the edge of the highway. But something magical happens at Bingo. Acker writes, “Alien One lets her hand glide over Alien Two’s hand, slowly. She feels the texture of his skin. He feels the texture of her skin. Her hand stops. They hold still like that, one hand on top of the other. They are having alien sex.” Has Acker slipped into sci-fi mode? Hardly. She’s doing clever things with metaphor instead. Is teenaged Lizzy telling herself this sci-fi narrative in order to exoticize an uneventful adolescence? Or is this adult Lizzy looking back on an innocent teenaged interaction, an experience whose eroticism is wholly foreign to her grown-up self? The metaphor functions in manifold ways. And again, in two pages, Acker works magic, creating a powerful ache with what seems at first glance to be simple sentences and a silly plot.
Acker’s tight sparse stories, with their enlarged font and generous use of white space, seem simple and sweet and youthful at first glance, but with each page you realize that the way she manipulates and complicates language and emotion, retrieving that special brand of adolescent torment, powerlessness, and disappointment from all of our pasts, is nothing short of brilliant. Her style is wholly unique and new. Get the term Lizzy Acker-esque ready. There’s a new literary monster on the block. Her debut is a huge accomplishment unto itself and predicts great things to come.