Reading Monson’s Vanishing Point is like spending an afternoon surfing the web. Monson places daggers above certain words throughout his collection of essays—words like ball, space, bonus, place, North (always capitalized), and book. I log on to Monson’s site, otherelectricities.com, and read additional meditations on the dagger-marked words, their significance, and their web of connections.
The world’s largest ball of paint forms the core of Monson’s “assembloir”–an assemblage of “many stories and many points of view.” Located in Alexandria, Indiana, the ball is a famous roadside attraction operated by Mike and Glenda Carmichael. Visitors can leave with a shaved off piece in exchange for a donation. In order to start writing this review, I search Vanishing Point for the essay “Interiority,” in which he discusses the ball of paint. I interrupt my brief re-read to re-follow a dagger. I type “ball” into otherelectricities, and find Monson further meditating on the ball and even connecting this strand of thought to AC/DC (“we’ve got the biggest balls of them all”). Within his brief online essay I find and click on a link to the Carmichaels website, which asks me to imagine an ordinary baseball and picture that ball with 22,300 coats of paint on it. Only then can I understand the ball and its true magnitude. I view photos of the Carmichaels posing with the ball in a room with frightening clowns hanging behind them. At the time of the photo, the ball resembles a large tomato. However, each new layer of paint changes the color; the ball is constantly transforming.
At this point I’m supposed to refocus on the Carmichaels, then back to the ball, back to Monson’s online essay, and back to the book about which I’m attempting to write a coherent review.
I first read Monson’s additional online essay on the ball a few weeks ago. Now when I’ve returned to read it, I no longer remember it well enough to know for sure if I’m reading the original version or if the text has been changed. The permutations of the web and its constantly evolving nature form the basis of Monson’s desire to use the Internet as an extension of his book. Readers sort through the extended features, commentaries, and short documentaries to get the complete experience. Vanishing Point is thus similar in scope to the special collector’s editions of the Lord of the Rings dvds. In fact, this book and those dvds may cater to a similar market: one essay, “Geas,” meditates on the life and death of Gary Gygax, founder of Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax’s death allows Monson to reflect on the roles he plays in his own life and the job at a university that he’s leaving. However, Monson simultaneously minimizes his meditation: “I have to admit that the idea of reckoning with the loss of Gygax is a reductive one: it’s naïve, a lack of specificity, of deep engagement with the subject. I don’t think of him that often, and I’m not even sure how to pronounce his name.”
The cover of Vanishing Point declares in bright orange letters that it’s “not a memoir.” The essay collection reinforces this statement in an ironic sense when the letter “I” literally comes out of the book–a flyer featuring a large capital “I” surrounded by prose poetry sat on the inside of the front cover when I first purchased it. I took the “I” out and placed it back in the center of the pages so it wouldn’t keep slipping out as I read. Writers and readers are permanently stuck with the letter, for better or for worse.
Monson excels at taking the seemingly superficial details of daily life and giving them meaning. He thrives on the points where various cultural threads come together and change forms. In “Transubstantiation,” one of the strongest essays in the collection, he examines Doritos. “I have a thing for things that taste like other things,” he writes. “The ambiguity that sentence suggests is, I hope, pleasing.” The essay is definitely pleasing, although perhaps unappetizing. He goes on to describe the American Classic flavor of Doritos—a 2007 experiment that resulted in chips that tasted like Burger King’s charbroiled burgers. The purpose of Monson’s essays isn’t to come to a clear realization of the current state of U.S. popular culture. In fact, clear-cut resolutions of any kind are absent from his work. What Monson does instead is ask the questions, create the ambiguity, and allow the readers to think about the significance of things like a huge ball of paint sitting in Alexandria, Indiana.