Ander Monson’s The Gnome Stories is a wry and dark examination of the ways that obsessions control our lives. Monson’s characters live in an apocalyptic world of explosions and panic, yet their lives are also filled with ordinary obligation. An urban legend about a garden gnome shows up multiple times in this collection, as do tales of humans who push their bodies to their natural limits. Monson’s characters worry and overthink. His stories examine the many ways that people modify their own bodies, torturing themselves and others—for aesthetics, for pleasure, or to cause pain.
In “The Reassurances,” a man sponsors a stretch of highway in order to propose to his girlfriend. When she dies, he’s stuck maintaining it. Monson pushes the absurdity to illustrate the difficulties we go to in order to move on after death. In “It Is Hard Not to Love the Starvationist’s Assistant,” subjects who enter a weight-loss facility must endure forced amputations if they don’t make weight. In “In a Structure Simulating an Owl,” Monson draws his inspiration for format and topic from an actual patent filed in 1931. Characters in these stories are cerebral and emotional. In The Gnome Stories, every situation highlights the inanity of human existence.
Monson caught up with Alta recently via email to answer questions about The Gnome Stories.
Many of your characters find themselves in obligation traps—escalating situations based on their own decisions. What about this fascinates you?
It’s true that I’m most interested in stories in which the characters often find themselves caught up in their own machineries that they probably don’t realize are machineries, or if they do, they believe they’re harmless machineries. I’ve witnessed it, and find it fascinating to watch people make what may seem to them like a relatively meaningless decision and track how that gradually (or quickly) spirals into an increasingly deranged self-made world from which they may (or more often not) be able to escape from or even recognize. We see this much more easily in others than we do in ourselves, of course, which is one reason why we like to read.
Some of your stories in this collection play with genre and format. What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
Diagrams, most obviously, particularly those from the latter half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century. I’ve never entirely been able to articulate why I am drawn to them, exactly, but their beauty and the obvious care in their precise drawing is part of what moves me. That inspiration is most explicit in “In a Structure Resembling an Owl,” which is taken from a 1931 patent application that I happened on while doing some research for Diagram, the magazine I edit. Something about the drawings and the language of the application just keyed something a little deranged in me, and I followed that as far as I could.
It started curled up in a little story I overheard: the one about being on drugs out in the woods and finding a disabled kid and bringing him back to your camp and feeding him, believing in your altered state the kid was a gnome. Well, I believed in it and told the story to my husband and his friends on more than one occasion. I kept telling it. I clearly loved to. I couldn’t tell you why.
What did you listen to while you wrote The Gnome Stories?
These stories were composed over quite a few years as I worked on other projects, so they’ve been soundtracked by probably a dozen or so different things. In writing these stories—and in working on other fiction projects concurrently—I listened to the Field more often than anything else. Boards of Canada. Loscil. Pretty much only songs that had an ambient or loopy aspect to them. The Field became increasingly important; I can put on any of his albums in a coffee shop and click into that mindset. Though I also added in some Anna von Hausswolff in the final stages of revision, just to give me permission to let things get more catastrophic.
What strange obsessions, connections, or coincidences made it into this book?
Several of these stories feature bits that came out of conversations with friends, particularly my friend Paul, whose whole riff on existential sadness came into the “Starvationist” story about halfway through my work on it and really allowed me to finish it. I misheard something someone said about a Tucson restaurant called Viva Burrito (I recommend the Tejano) as “Beaver Burrito,” which made its way into “The Reassurances.” A lot of the ideas from these stories seem to have come out of jokes or dumb ideas I had that for some reason I decided to see if I could either turn into the idea of a story or work into a story somewhere. It’s probably a way of keeping the self-critical part of the brain entertained. That’s the part that gets too easily bored with narrative or my own inability to write it, and I need to give it something to play with to let me keep moving.
As I mention in the notes, the whole gnome story came to me from a student of mine who was telling it to a group of friends. I became obsessed with it and the way it seemed to propagate, and that idea slowly took over the book and became one of its organizing threads, and ended up giving the book the title.
What books are on your to-be-read list?
Way too many. Kathleen Alcott’s America Was Hard to Find. Fritz Leiber’s Selected Stories, Enrique Vila-Matas’s Vampire in Love, Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, and Hingston & Olsen’s Short Story Advent Calendar 2018 (I finished 2019 and 2017 but am about 14 months behind on 2018).
Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
In a pinch it can be burned.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She interviewed Heidi Van Horn for altaonline.com.
- By Ander Monson
- Graywolf Press, 192 pages, $16