Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
(HarperCollins, January 2012)
A Perfect Misunderstanding
Lysley Tenorio may be the only writer ever to have two stories appear in The Best New American Voices series. Monstress, his debut short story collection, includes both pieces—“Superassassin” and “Save the I-Hotel.” The former story, from 2000, is about a teenager who uses his fascination with comic books as a means of coping with the world around him. The latter, from 2009, is about an unrequited gay love affair that takes place over five decades. What the stories share is Tenorio’s sly wit, careful characterization and insight into the unique dislocation Filipino Americans experience.
The world of Monstress is a world divided by an ocean and united by shared history and dreams. From a B-minus movie actress who moves from Manila to outside Hollywood, to the only English-speaking resident of a leper colony adrift in the Pacific, Tenorio’s characters are always unexpected yet grounded in the familiar ways their desires conflict with reality. The result is a collection of eight memorable stories held together by the inventiveness of their premises and the stark realism of the prose.
In the title story, “Monstress,” Checkers Rosario is a Pilipino Ed Wood and the story’s narrator is his girlfriend Reva. She performs as a creature in his films (playing Squid Mother, Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen, Werewolf Girl, Two-Headed Bride of Two-Headed Dracula) and helps keep his flagging dream alive by working as a secretary in a dentist office. When Gaz Gazman, a wannabe director from America, falls in love with Checkers’ movies, he volunteers to fly Checkers to America to work on a film. Checkers insists that Reva must come, too. She does, and in Gaz’s mother’s basement in Pasadena, the American tells Reva how lucky Checkers was to find his “monstress.”
“I am not monstrous,” Reva says; it’s a perfect misunderstanding. Fantasy crumbles under the burden of two languages—and the impossibility of creating a self that’s comfortable in either is revealed.
In “Felix Starro,” which first appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, Felix is the grandson of a faith healer making his first trip to United States from the Philippines. Felix shares his name with his grandfather and finds out that his grandfather hopes he will soon share his profession. While Papa Felix’s business is all about sleight of hand, Felix’s plan is to magic the profits away in hopes of buying a new identity that will allow him and his girlfriend to disappear into America. The chicken livers and carefully concocted fake blood (“Like ketchup and water mix-mix.”) lend believability to the ceremony Felix performs: the Holy Blessed Extraction of Negativities. But as the luminaries Papa Felix healed in the Philippines learn, Felix knows the beneficial effects wear off quickly. The decisions Felix must make—betraying Papa Felix and taking a new name—weigh on him until his grandfather performs a ceremony on a pregnant hotel maid that Felix cannot abide.
“Save the I-Hotel” is the one story in the collection told in third person. The story utilizes flashbacks and flash-forwards to take us from 1930s to the late 1970s in San Francisco. Here Tenorio’s gift for dramatizing exposition reveals the intricacies of a friendship that lasts five decades—from a world where a non-white male could be arrested for just walking down the street with a white woman, to the last days of the hotel that was their haven from bigotry for so many years.
The humor in the story, as in most of Tenorio’s stories, is saved for the character’s dialogue. When the two friends meet at a taxi-dancing club, Vincent tells Fortunado, “Never pay for dances. That way, you find out which girls want your dimes and which ones really want to dance with you.” From that first moment, Vincente is glib and free. Fortunado is neither. They share one kiss but Vincente can never fully requite Fortunado’s love. Violence and betrayal eventually erupt in a poignant scene:
Fortunado had never struck a person before, but there were times in his life he wondered what it might be like, and now he knew: the force of everything you are in a single gesture at a single moment; the hope that will be enough and the fear that it won’t. No different than a kiss.
Seven of eight stories in this collection are told in first person, a strategy that grounds each narrative and allows for the plot to crash against the characters in unpredictable yet logical ways. Delight comes from the shifting perspectives, the feeling that you have no idea where the next story might take you.
“My brother went on national TV to prove he was a woman,” the second story in the collection, “Brothers,” begins.
Once more, Tenorio is leading you somewhere you never thought you’d go.
Jason Sattler is a graduate of University of California, at Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies and received his MFA in Fiction from St. Mary’s College of California. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his two overly photographed beagles and his wife.