Book review: ‘Monstress’ by Lysley Tenorio
In a smoke-stained San Francisco hotel room, Felix Starro is making fake blood.
Starro is the third in a line of hucksterish Filipino faith healers. Hunched over a plastic jug in the bathroom, he brews corn syrup, water and red dye for a grim ritual known as the Holy Blessed Extraction of Negativites. As he stirs, he remembers how “long ago, Papa Felix made it the same way; because my hands were small my job was to squirt the liquid into the tiny bags and knot them up. We’d stay up all night, diligent and silent, as though our work was truly blessed and holy.”
Of course, it wasn’t. But a long livelihood is bound up in that fake blood — and as Felix plots a defection to California, his family’s imprint is as mysterious and real as his magic tricks are cheap and deceiving.
That’s the real sanguineness of interest to the San Francisco-based Filipino American writer Lysley Tenorio in “Felix Starro,” one of eight taut and beguilingly weird stories in his debut collection, “Monstress.” Tenorio’s stories, set amid mingling nationalities and generations, prompt comparisons to the works of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, who mine similar questions of how a life set apart (via immigration, nerdiness or other myriad reasons) seeps into a person’s sense of self. But the refreshingly wry stories in “Monstress” are rangier and less concerned with documenting the specific experience of emigrating. Instead they’re focused on uncanny moments when a character realizes that something essential to his or her life might be as false and frightening as that bucket of blood. (Tenorio will read from “Monstress” at 7:30 Friday night at Skylight Books: https://www.skylightbooks.com/event)
The Filipino American world of “Monstress” will feel revealing to readers new to its nuances. Tenorio has a talent for wringing universal sentiments from fine-bore, culture-specific scenes. In “Brothers.” one character — a narrator’s transgender sibling — describes his father’s funeral: “I hate the way Filipinos die… Nine nights of praying on our knees, lousy Chinese food and hundred-year-old women keep asking me where my girlfriend is.”
But the real story of “Monstress,” one often central to American culture-mixing fiction, is in the idea of identity as a performance. Tenorio broadly explores it in the book’s two centerpiece tales. In the title story, the Filipina actress Reva Gogo squanders her youth and ambition on her director-lover Checkers, who casts her as various scaly, tentacled beast-women in his micro-budget creature features. A second chance might come from a visiting fanboy Hollywood director. But in a savvy inversion of the doomed Norma Desmond archetype, Gogo’s preference for her life on-screen doesn’t feel deluded. “On film, everything looks real,” she says. “It was true: it did look like Checkers meant to help me up, to pull me to safety, and rescue me from that most hostile of planets.”
It’s one of several stories Tenorio writes well from a first-person female perspective. Throughout “Monstress,” gender and sexual attraction are malleable (as in “Brothers”) yet tinged with power and horror. His use of varying perspectives empathetically accents the idea that coming to know oneself can be terrifying, and irrevocably consequential.
In the droll “Help,” a young Filipino haphazardly helps his uncle with a plan to humiliate the Beatles at the Manila airport after the band cuts a joke at Imelda Marcos’ expense. The young man is far more concerned with scoring an autograph than defending the honor of an autocrat’s wife, but his loyalties are torn.
The disconnect between the uncle’s imagined Filipina-preserving knighthood and the insouciant teenage ecstasy of meeting the Beatles is a validation of humanism over unthinking nationalist revenge (in the end, even Marcos comes down on the Beatles’ side). But then, a grown uncle who takes solace in vacuousness such as Marcos’ adages that “In my case, I see a beautiful flower, a beautiful person, a beautiful smile, by that time I’m just about ready to take off!” is probably in need of sympathy as well, and Tenorio gives it in the parallels between the boys’ pop-star adulation and the uncle’s wall of Marcos photos.
In voicing the idiosyncratic particulars of Filipino Americana, “Monstress” succeeds and makes its dark fringes of modernity feel as known as a childhood home. But its goals are wider and more slippery than mere documentation. All his characters are in the process of becoming, and that leads to some unanswerable questions about who they are. That’s the intersection where “Monstress” works best.
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