There Is No Monster At The End Of This Essay

I was 11 years old and visiting Europe with my parents when I first encountered and rejected the reality of my own strangeness.  While climbing on a concrete play structure in Stockholm, an undulating biomorphic sculpture that was matronly, grey, and curved in such a way as to encourage a boy to touch, I was approached by a native.  A Swedish boy, perhaps a year or two younger than I , tapped me on the shoulder and started in, quite naturally and without any pause, speaking in Swedish.

I was mystified, of course, but I did manage to communicate my lack of comprehension by confidently speaking to him in English as if he ought to know my words.  And after a time we came to the only sort of understanding that an 11 year old boy in blue jeans and Ked sneakers and a eight year old Swede wearing proper leather shoes and shorts with suspenders might plausibly come to.  We, both of us, climbed on the play structure, the castle thing that seemed to have emerged from a grey lava lamp, and as we played our conversation grew louder and louder.  We climbed, laughed, skidded back down, and all the while understood that nothing like communication was possible.

I like to think that we became friends.

Still, my recollection is that I took it for granted that it was he, and not I, who was alien.  I was a stranger maybe, but what was really happening was that I was in a strange land.  The realization of my own strangeness in this other boy’s eyes did not convince me that I was odd, and instead of wondering if what I took to be solid was just a seeming, if what I took to be necessary might be contingent, I looked to my parents and felt confirmed in my position as their son.  I felt proud to be an American and somehow managed to perceive the scene from some imaginary cloud, or as if it was all happening on television. I smiled at how indecipherable and strange the Swedish boy, with his ruddy cheeks and woolen pants, had turned out to be. Sweden was a funny place and this explained why God didn’t usually watch this channel.

That same summer I spent many hours reading books that I’d brought with me on the plane.  For instance, I recall reading the Secret Garden and The Mouse and the Motorcycle during that trip.  However, what I don’t remember reading, but what I’ll bring up now regardless, is a picture book put out by Golden Books and the Letters PB and S back in 1971.  What I didn’t read that summer was the classic: There is a Monster at the End of this Book.  Still, it is this book starring lovable old Grover that holds the key to what went wrong on that playground in Sweden, and Grover also holds the key to understanding what went too well.  In The Monster at the End of this Book Grover reads the title page, is frightened by the promise of a monster, and sets about trying to stop the book he’s in from being read.

Again, I didn’t read this book during my first European vacation, but I associate Grover’s terror, the drawings of him stacking cartoon bricks in order to stop the reader from turning pages, with the Swedish boy and that concrete, egg shaped, play structure.  This Sesame Street picture book proves that breaking the fourth wall just propels the plot forward.  That is, even though Grover can see that he’s in a text, even though he knows that he’s being read by a stranger and that his future is set in advance, he nonetheless struggles as if he believes he’s free.  Even as he admits his fictional status, Grover becomes more and more afraid, more and more convinced of his own existence, and more committed to the initial premise in the title.

The ending, the moment when Grover realizes that he himself is the Monster mentioned, is deflationary.  What had scared the little muppet no longer frightens because he assumes that being Grover is the most normal thing in the world.

Grover says, “Well, look at that!  This is the end of the book and the only one here is…ME.  I lovable, furry old Grover, am the Monster at the end of this book.”  Grover should be overwhelmed by his own fictional status. He should be devastated to realize his own monstrous strangeness, but instead he remains lovable and furry.

Visiting Sweden, reading the title of the book we’re in, hearing the words we speak as a foreign language, stopping the pages from turning, these forms of alienation are apparently not quite strong enough to propel us out of the ideology or story we’re stuck in. TC mark

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  • internetstranger

    Pardon?

  • grammaphone

    your/you’re

    don’t get it twisted y’all

    • http://twitter.com/ThoughtCatalog Thought Catalog

      Sorry for the oversight.  Thanks for letting us know. Fixed. 

      • Guest

        There are quite a few error oversights actually. This article is riddled with improper structure and extra words that don’t fit in.

      • Guesty

        OH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO IMPROPER STRUCTURE SOMEONE HELP CALL THE COPS

        NO NO NO EXTRA WORDS PLEASE DON’T HURT ME NOOOOOOOO

      • Asdf

        That’s what she said.

  • RAH

    Super interesting.  Love the way you tied your experience into this book, very unusual. 

    • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

      Thanks. 

  • fed

    that book gave me anxiety when i was a kid

  • fed

    that book gave me anxiety when i was a kid

  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    The “alien” and the “monster” are opposite states. A few decades later, the fact that English is so commonly spoken, in Stockholm, that prime-time American TV is shown there without subtitles (right next to the hardcore porn), indicates that there really is a monster at the end of the book of this story: American Imperialism! Of which Grover is only one manifestation (or micro hydra-head)… and you were his Ambassador/ Vector! laugh

    • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

      Where is the opposition between aliens and monsters?  

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        The monster gets to determine who the alien is

        (okay, will re-join the conversation tomorrow… it’s 1:30 am here!)

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        So, my thoughts: the traditional use of the Monster in The Story is as The Thing to be Overcome; the Monster is the Dragon /Sphinx/ Troll/ Giant. And the traditional role of the Alien (or Fish Out of Water) is to do the Overcoming.

        A good example is Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Jack is such an Alien on the premises of the Giant’s castle that the Giant (Monster) can even *smell* him (“fee fi fo fum…”).  The Alien is often the stand-in for the Audience (a popular narrative tradition in modern film, but not always obvious: the Alien in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is not the Alien; Clint Eastwood as the “man with no name” in all those popular spaghetti westerns was the ultimate Alien while Lee Van Cleef was usually the Monster). One distinguishing characteristic of the Monster is that it is in control (until the Alien comes along and overcomes it). The Monster is sort of a terrible landlord, usually (think Kurtz in Apocalypse Now), and the Alien is a trespasser (think Martin Sheen’s character).

        In The Story, here, I think you’re telling it from a switched perspective… (like Gardener’s Grendel?)… and The Story stops in the middle, not the end, because The Monster hasn’t been overcome yet… (laugh). I mean: Grover is a very modern monster: look how cleverly he preempts any discoveries we might make (and use against him)…

        That’s just my wacky perspective!

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        So, my thoughts: the traditional use of the Monster in The Story is as The Thing to be Overcome; the Monster is the Dragon /Sphinx/ Troll/ Giant. And the traditional role of the Alien (or Fish Out of Water) is to do the Overcoming.

        A good example is Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Jack is such an Alien on the premises of the Giant’s castle that the Giant (Monster) can even *smell* him (“fee fi fo fum…”).  The Alien is often the stand-in for the Audience (a popular narrative tradition in modern film, but not always obvious: the Alien in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is not the Alien; Clint Eastwood as the “man with no name” in all those popular spaghetti westerns was the ultimate Alien while Lee Van Cleef was usually the Monster). One distinguishing characteristic of the Monster is that it is in control (until the Alien comes along and overcomes it). The Monster is sort of a terrible landlord, usually (think Kurtz in Apocalypse Now), and the Alien is a trespasser (think Martin Sheen’s character).

        In The Story, here, I think you’re telling it from a switched perspective… (like Gardener’s Grendel?)… and The Story stops in the middle, not the end, because The Monster hasn’t been overcome yet… (laugh). I mean: Grover is a very modern monster: look how cleverly he preempts any discoveries we might make (and use against him)…

        That’s just my wacky perspective!

      • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

        What we need is a monster who knows that he is an alien.

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        Ie A self-pitying monster! John Gardner’s Grendel!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jesperdahl Jesper Dahl

    Jag undrar vad den svenska pojken gör idag, och kanske framförallt vem han växte upp till att bli.
    Och dessutom undrar jag vart du var.

    Was it any of these sculpture?s:

    http://www.huge.se/comp/artcal/download_page_image.asp?archive_id=1&page_id=58&content_id=157

    • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

      That second one is the sculpture I had in mind while writing this, but perhaps was not the play structure I actually encountered.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/jesperdahl Jesper Dahl

    Jag undrar vad den svenska pojken gör idag, och kanske framförallt vem han växte upp till att bli.
    Och dessutom undrar jag vart du var.

    Was it any of these sculpture?s:

    http://www.huge.se/comp/artcal/download_page_image.asp?archive_id=1&page_id=58&content_id=157

  • http://www.facebook.com/jesperdahl Jesper Dahl

    @Augustine: English is still subtitled here and hardcore porn isn’t shown on TV apart from a few late night cable channels.

    • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

      Jesper! I was there in 2000 and I watched ER without subtitles and hardcore porn on an adjacent channel (as my then-girlfriend dozed) (but maybe my GF had the subtitles off). The English-language-ability of most of the people I encountered in Stockholm was astonishing.

      Yog pratar inte Svenska!

      (I’ve lived in Berlin for 20 years and the TV porn in Stockholm was also astonishing, in comparison)

      • Guesty

        TV porn in Germany sucks.  

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        Haven’t watched it in years but: yeah. It’s very kitsch ’70s-style romps with lots of boobs, sideburns and no FFN

  • http://www.facebook.com/jesperdahl Jesper Dahl

    @Augustine: English is still subtitled here and hardcore porn isn’t shown on TV apart from a few late night cable channels.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    It’s great to revisit childhood with a new perspective.
    Great article.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ecnadac11 Constant Writer

    I LOVE THIS BOOK! I used to get my teacher to read it to me over and over again when i was a kid because she could do the voice just like Grover. I actually found it at Walmart a few months ago and made an impulse purchase. Thanks for sparking that memory :)

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