Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession By Ander Monson
Graywolf Press | 2022 | 264 pages
I don’t like action movies. I have seen very few. I have seen Predator, because my friend and colleague Ander Monson rented our local art cinema house so a bunch of friends could geek out on it with him. I have never played a video game. I already have too many ways to throw my time away. I am repulsed by violence. I am scared of guns, have never shot one, and don’t want anything to do with them. I’ve never been a victim of gun violence nor have I lost someone close to me from guns—among several signifiers of my privilege. My heart is sick that so many among us could not say the same. My heart is sick thinking of parents sending their children to school hoping they’ll live through the day. Mind you, I’m not a misandrist. I love men and have loved intensely quite a few of them. Violent men—no thanks. Bullies—don’t fuck with me. Gun crazed white supremacists—I’d happily take their weapons to the nearest smelter and turn them into garden rakes.
I’ve had students who wrote about the pleasure of shooting assault guns, taking an AR-15 out into the desert and blowing a watermelon to smithereens. I have a friend, a gentle soul, who owns this kind of gun—and others. He’s taken safe shooter training and planned out exactly what direction to shoot when an assailant comes to his apartment door, threatening him and his wife. He wants to make sure in the heat of the moment his bullets don’t go through the wrong wall into the neighbor’s bedroom—and he knows precisely how far the bullets will fly. I understand how people get to this place where they think “when” not “if” the assailant comes. They’ve been fed the fantasy AND reality of gun violence their whole lives in video games, movies, TV, and songs. And increasingly on the daily news. In their neighborhoods, theaters, churches, clubs, and schools.
I’m glad I’m old now because I grew up in a time when this was not so. Sure, we had to duck-and-cover in elementary school and view documentaries of both the Nazi Holocaust and what horror nuclear bombs inflicted. Fire and wind storms of galactic force—and then the long-term burn. Threats were nightmarish but distant. Largely we grew up in a nation that believed in its goodness and that more goodness was possible and likely, given democratic process and smart people who cared about being decent to one another. The nation saw racial injustice and passed the federal Civil Rights Act. The nation saw environmental degradation and passed the Environmental Protection Act. Neither easily won. Surely we were riding that arc turned toward justice. At least I have that model ingrained in mind from childhood, despite how far we’ve come from collective acceptance of a morally informed norm.
So, Dear America, I’m writing to tell you that I have just read Ander Monson’s new book Predator, which is inspired by the 1987 action movie. Monson has long been an influential innovator of the essay form, a writer who keeps on making it new without pretense or posturing.
His generosity of mind and essayistic chops here offer a swirling meditation on violence and hypermasculinity AND the kind of tenderness that is possible between men. A book about seeing. He has SEEN the film 146 times. He has SEEN himself in the film. And he has seen YOU, America, in the film. (Read the book, and you’ll know why the CAPS.) “Predator is a tool,” he writes, “through which America sees itself, or has the opportunity to see itself if it’s paying attention.”
Monson is a white man who grew up in America on movies and video games that make killing people fun. He is a white man who grew up in America whose Congresswoman was shot in the head in a Safeway parking (irony not lost on Monson), whose babysitter was murdered, and whose youth involved a good deal of criminality and—his word—assholery. He has FELT what he had failed to feel. Has become RAW on the page. Not Schwarzenegger RAW, a mockup of INVINCIBLE and BEAUTIFUL manliness. But what Phillip Lopate meant I think when he wrote: “So often the plot of the personal essay, its drama, its surprise consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.”
This is a book about perception. About self-perception and self-deception. This is a book about aesthetics: “I love the moment between the seeming thing and the thing that it becomes, so I keep rewatching this bit on a loop, repeating the procedure: isn’t it fascinating just coming to terms with the very act of perception?” Who knew one could see so much—see it scene by scene, frame by frame—in a gun-riddled America that loves its men bare-chested and oiled up for the camera, an America where the homoerotic gets masked in fantasy violence while the reality deposits its residue of fear and pain. This is a book about the malfeasance of “the U.S. history of fucked up foreign entanglements,” to which Monson paid little attention as a kid. “I’d only understand later,” he writes, “how dark our foreign policy actually was—and had been for a long time. But Predator knows it.” And this is a book about parenting a child in the age of mass murder.
The unlikely angel shedding his light on this project is poet and memoirist Paul Monette, who wrote the novelization of the film while his partner Rog was dying of AIDS. He also was writing Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, one of the most wrenching and beautiful works of the early AIDS epidemic. Monson, never one to shirk a research opportunity, dives into the Monette archive to try to get inside his head. Why write so beautifully in the novelization when one could write trash? “Most art and pop culture is a similar collision of intentions and histories, only some of which are legible to any individual reader/viewer,” Monson writes, in a somewhat different but apropos context. Monette’s presence beautifully complicates the book’s interrogation of masculinity.
Have I made the book sound too ponderous? This is after all, Ander Monson, and so the spirit of play rules as he slows down the film to look and keep looking, way past the time a reasonable person would holler, Enough! But the unreasonableness of the obsession is what I think makes this so captivating, the pleasure of rolling with what Diane Seuss calls “the improvisational nature of thought” into his exploratory journey. And finding there something wonderful, even possibly hopeful, in knowing we never really can see all that is there and when we return again to book or film, we read a different book. “The book hasn’t changed,” he writes, “the reader has. This fact gives me hope.” He sees this as being “really about adaptation, our ability to see ourselves as others do, and to—hopefully—evolve, at least just a little.”
Alison Hawthorne Deming is the author of 12 books of poetry and nonfiction, most recently A Woven World: On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress, the research and writing for which was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Regents Professor Emerita at the University of Arizona, she lives in Tucson, Arizona and Grand Manan, New Brunswick, Canada.