I could describe Candice Wuehle’s debut novel, Monarch, in a hundred different ways, each as enthusiastic as the last.
Jessica is a teenager in the “middle of the middle”—her father, Dr. Clink, is a professor at a Midwestern University; her mother, Grethe, sells Tupperware (sort of).
Jessica is like a lot of teenagers—she spends an absurd amount of time studying herself in a mirror. Until the age of 13, Jessica dedicates her life to the mother-daughter pageant circuit. She masters the art of mimicry, becoming what the pageant judges want her to be. She sheds her “original face” and replaces it with an empty vessel, ready to perform exactly as she is asked.
Jessica recounts her late-‘90s coming-of-age story from the remove of 10 years…
She recounts her late-‘90s coming-of-age story from the remove of 10 years, but the story is firmly located in the end of the twentieth century. Grounded in the sugary violence of sensational true crime, MTV, and AOL free trial CD-ROMs, her story revolves around the immaculate, insane boredom of a blanked mind.
Halfway through the book, Jessica becomes a college dropout and an ex-beauty queen with a tanning addiction. Her high school experience seems to be mostly redacted from her own memory. Then she accidentally develops brutal crime scene photos. Suddenly, the holes in her memory begin to fill.
While she thought she was training for pageants, she was actually training to be a MONARCH, an assassin for a shadow government. Her blank mind is a screen onto which any number of personas can be projected. These personas are trained fighters with agendas of their own. They take over Jessica’s body to complete missions, then deliver her home, where her memory of their actions is wiped clean—or almost clean.
Monarch has been called “kaleidoscopic” in more than one review. That’s a good word for the way the images, emotions, and events in the book dance together. They shift into one another like tightly wound spirals, mesmerizing and impossible to tease apart.
I could tell you that Monarch is the kind of novel only a poet could write. Candice leans into fragmented leaps. She writes absurdity with a level hand that refuses questioning. She embraces etymology and white space on the page. She incorporates fairytales, parentheticals and Ouija boards into a story about domestic abuse, the bloom of the 24-hour news cycle, and the deep state.
This kind of writing, intricate as any conspiracy theory, is ripe for misremembered details and threads left hanging. But Candice is not lazy; Monarch is tightly woven, with no gaps that Jessica doesn’t recognize and comment upon herself.
I could describe Monarch as “queer John Hughes meets James Bond.”
I could also describe Monarch as “queer John Hughes meets James Bond.” I scribbled that observation in a messy notebook I kept while I stayed up all night, compulsively turning pages. Nestled within the thriller is the love story between two teenage beauty queens. Jessica’s girlfriend, Veronica, sees past Jessica’s blank, bored, programmed pageant face. Veronica lets Jessica be the silly girl no one else in her life wants her to be.
After observing nuns in Vatican City during a self-imposed mission, Jessica muses that “maybe everyone on earth was programmed and always had been.” Monarch is self-consciously scattered with Foucaultian musings about seeing and being seen, watching and being watched, being blindered, performing.
Take the “Night Games” for which the neighborhood kids don identity-obscuring ski masks, or the strategic reveal Jessica makes to Veronica’s religious brother. What we reveal about ourselves—or don’t—what we allow others to witness, is always a choice, whether conscious or not.
And in turn, what we allow ourselves to see and what we choose to ignore—or are unable to focus on, due to systemic structures out of our control—affects the way we behave. Jessica’s “mentor,” the Chancellor, her pageant trainer, and her parents try to shape her into a perfect, blank canvas, with various methods of exposure therapy and memory erasure. But her babysitter, Christine, exposes Jessica to ideas about selfhood, suffering, and the power of artistic expression.
What you have to do is make them feel the feeling.
“You don’t have to understand who you are or why you are that way to be an artist,” Christine says. “You don’t even have to tell people how it feels. What you have to do is make them feel the feeling.”
This gets at something pertinent about action (making) but also about audience (them). As a child beauty queen, Jessica’s audience was judges. She knew exactly how to manipulate them to get what she wanted—to win. As a spy, her actions went necessarily unseen. Her audience was her victims, and the hidden camera that relayed her actions back to the Chancellor.
But when Jessica gains self-awareness and reclaims her almost-erased memories, she also gains a sense of community. She decides to act in a certain way, for certain people—her mother, Veronica, Christine, the dead girl in the crime scene photographs. In other words, she recognizes her audience.
“I already know who I am,” she says, refusing the Chancellor an opportunity to tell her an origin story of herself. “I invented myself.”
When she performed for the judges and the shadow government, she was exactly who they wanted her to be. While we know as little as she does about the exact nature of her actions, we can imagine they led to some end that the Chancellor had in mind. She creates something, achieves some agenda—someone else’s.
Suddenly, Jessica has a sense of purpose.
But when she performs for her “real” audience, the one for which she can be authentic, she begins to make herself. Suddenly, she has a sense of purpose. She makes decisions which tangibly shape not only her, but the world around her.
Action is creation, Candice tells us through Monarch. But without an audience, that creation is as empty a vessel as an AOL free trial CD-ROM.
© Hannah Lamb-Vines (8/4/22) Special for FF2 Media®
READ MORE/DO MORE
Monarch is available on Bookshop.org and Amazon, and at Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore.
Visit Candice Wuehle’s website for biographical information, blog and more books.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured image: Photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash