Saturday, January 31, 2015

They all fall back to hell - an attempt to get some more people to read When Mystical Creatures Attack

When Mystical Creatures Attack by Kathleen Founds, a 2014 comic novel.  Not the kind of thing I normally read.  Blurbs point to or are written by George Saunders, Wells Tower, Karen Russell, and Mark Leyner (who is known, it seems, for his “fearlessness” – rest of y’all writers are cowards), which probably helps pin down Founds in some way.  I have never read any of these writers, barely know who they are.  I paged through the book, thought it was funny – in fact assumed it was more of a kind of humor book than it really is – and bought it.

It was the chapter of Methodist church cookbook recipes that got me, dishes like Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake:

Directions: As the cake rises, call the kids around, and tell them about your girlhood, when you had polio, and Dad made a special sleigh to ride behind the donkey during plowing season, so you could mash manure into the ground with a stick.  We never had luxuries such as Death by Chocolate Cake!  During the winter of ’38, we were so hungry we ate the seed corn.  Then we ate the milk-cow.  Then we ate Andrew.  Andrew was our dog.  Ask the children if they know where Hush Puppies come from.  Then give them their dessert.  (51-2)

Meanwhile, other recipes are actually moving along two stories, one a kind of crisis not of faith but works by the pastor(from a lamb chop recipe: “Ask yourself if, in your longing for clarity and order, you have negated contradiction and paradox…  Fry three minutes on each side.  Garnish with rosemary,” 55), the other a struggle between Janice Gibbs and her new stepmother (“Reply that you do not even consider this cooking,” 54).

The latter is part of the larger story of the novel, the bad decisions and hard times of Janice and a schoolteacher she had for a few months.  Various parallels are made between the two women.  The story is advanced by means of school assignments, email, a misguided advice blog, fiction within the fiction, and regular old fiction.  Many of these would be gimmicks if done badly.

My idea of what the novel was changed a lot as I read it.  A big change came in the chapter where the teacher is writing about her (bad) father:

Dostoevsky Give Us Some Hope

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky tells this story:

A stingy old woman served only herself, save this – she once gave a turnip to a beggar…  The intercessory spirit petitions God, who says:  take that turnip, see if it will drag her out of hell.  (30)

The woman grabs the turnip, and another soul grabs her, and another and another:

“My turnip!” the old woman shouts, when she sees linked souls looping behind her.  She kicks.  She thrashes.

The turnip breaks.  They all fall back to hell.

The teacher, cataloguing her father’s rare acts of kindness, suspects that he, too, would kick and thrash.

Dostoevsky, or his character Grushenka, tells this story in Part III, Book VII, Chapter II, “An Onion.”  Constance Garnett has “onion,” not “turnip.”  Maybe translators disagree.  Maybe Founds thought “turnip” was funnier (it is).  The troubled Grushenka says “it’s a nice story” and identifies herself with the old woman.  She calls herself “wicked,” aside from one good deed.  Typically perverse Dostoevsky psychology – by the end of the story, few readers will find it so reassuring or “nice.”

When Mystical Creatures Attack ends with a heretical inversion of Grushenka’s parable of works and grace that is the farthest possible extension of the idea of novelistic sympathy.  It is an audacious scene that would be worth seeing even if the rest of the book did not seem particularly funny.

I have been discussing the book with nicole at bibliographing.  It has not been reviewed much by book bloggers.  We worry that there is something wrong with the marketing.  Maybe the graphics, all done by Founds herself (see above, borrowed from her website), or the blurbs, make the book look like something it is not, or something that it is but not merely.


  1. Although I'm convinced of the potential interest of this work given your post (you had me at hush puppies!), the cover art alone would have indeed been a big turnoff for me had I come across the book in a store (those author blurbs, while somewhat less of a turnoff, wouldn't have swayed me either). Of course, I'll have to try to be more receptive to annoying artwork on a book after having enjoyed Bely's great Petersburg and discovering that the Ableukhovs' coat of arms was of a unicorn goring a knight!

  2. Somehow I saw the inside of the book before I saw the outside. Certainly before I looked at the blurbs. That helped.

    Those animals on the cover (the title, too) are redeemed within two pages. Students are asked to Write a one-page story in which your favorite mystical creature resolves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time. One student's is "How the Unicorn Stabbed Danny Ramirez in the Heart Seven Times, Which Is What He Deserves, for Breaking Up with Me Like That"; another's is "How the Giant Squid Made Me Stop Being Pregnant." So any sense of pure cutesy is quickly darkened. There are some parts of this novel that are quite dark, as we say now. I would read something especially brutal and turn to the back to look at the smiling author's photo - you wrote this?

    The unicorn makes a triumphant reappearance near the end, when it saves some of the characters from a rampaging horde of statues from a Christian wax museum. "Judas crumpled lifelessly to the cement, a gaping hole where his heart should have been."

    So, a lot like Bely's Petersburg.

  3. I'm going to be laughing over the Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake all day. Will have to look out for this one!

  4. I have always wondered about the name of that cake. Give me the dessert that keeps me alive, please. Yes, Stefanie, try to scrounge this book up - if you liked that joke, you will like lots of the jokes.

  5. I'll have to look for this on if the rest of the book is as good as the selections you've printed here. I do agree with Richard about the cover art. Covers matter. I know we claim not to buy books based on their covers but we all do, at least in part.

  6. The objections to the cover may have more to do with the subject than the artwork. Somehow, unicorns have devolved from the bloodthirsty beasts of medieval bestiaries into My Little Pony. I don't know how that happened, but they do inevitably suggest that the intended audience is little girls, not bitter old men who sit up late sipping scotch and reading Apollinaire (for example).

    Founds's website indicates she's promoting the book through book clubs. Maybe that's how it's done now. At any rate, good luck to her; she sounds good.

  7. Doug, exactly - unicorns are killers! If the book were simply as cute as its cover, it would not have showed up here.

    CB, I think you'd appreciate the book as a novel about teaching. You might appreciate, for example, the happy fact that you teach younger students than the poor teacher in the novel.

  8. "
    "unicorns ... the bloodthirsty beasts of medieval bestiaries "

    Which mediaeval bestiaries?
    Not according to T. H. White's translation of A Book of Beasts, the most widely available bestiary now. There the unicorn is depicted as an exemplar of Christ and Christianity.

  9. There is a medieval line of thinking in which everything is a Christian allegory. Wait till the humanists get hold of the unicorns; they're even worse.

  10. I can't thank you enough for pointing me in the direction of this book. If there's an ideal audience for almost-despairing teacher humor about idealism and what it means to want the best for young people in the world and how you can pass anything on when you're barely keeping it together yourself, and above all, the importance of reading and responding...well, I'm it.

  11. Wonderful, Jeanne. I was laughing again, just reading the excerpts you had used.

    I have wondered if this is a book that teachers will surreptitiously pass along to each other. A warning, a cautionary tale. If you are wishing too hard for that phoenix, get out now, before it is too late.