William Monahan, “Light House,” and sleight of hand

*SPOILERS* are contained herein. You have been warned.

The corpulent Mr. Monahan

I first read the name William Monahan during the end credits of The Departed. A healthy obsession with Scorsese would have been enough to send me off on the hunt for that film’s writer, but there was another layer of interest driving my search in this case: The Departed had a good screenplay, in fact a damned excellent screenplay. It was inventive, convoluted, created its own fictional world with ease and then populated that world with characters and dialogue that remained surprising clear until the end. It was a script that was at no point lazy. A scene in which a septuagenarian Jack Nicholson has a bi-racial ménage-a-trois is described thus:

INT. A BEDROOM. NIGHT

Costello fucks…and fucks weird.

The Departed bore the signs of an active and outstanding storyteller, and unsurprisingly, these are chronic symptoms of Monahan’s work.

In addition to winning a Pushcart Prize in short fiction and serving a stint as the editor of Spy Magazine, Monahan has provided screenplays for Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a couple of other notable, A-list projects and is at work currently on his directorial debut, London Boulevard. For a majority of his career he was a magazine journalist and “attempted man of letters.” He broke into screenwriting with a spec script about the Battle of Tripoli (that one’s being developed by Ridley Scott as well) and, most interesting of this whole convoluted resume, he has published a novel.

Light House (two words) was written by Monahan in 1991 while he was studying Jacobean drama at the University of Massachusetts. It was serialized in 1993 and then published as a novel in 2000.

I’ve dug up some reviews from the New York Times and the Washington Post, but on the whole Light House is still an intensely obscure novel and its author seems fine with keeping it that way.

Light House was optioned to Warner Brothers shortly after its release, but Monahan used his first screenwriting paycheck (a tidy half-million dollars) to buy back the rights and put a lockdown on any hopes of producing the property. There has been no printing of the book beyond the initial release, and despite Monahan’s success there appear to be no

plans as to changing that. Light House is an enigma, and rightfully so.

The plot of the novel ostensibly follows the adventures of one Tim Picasso: 22 years old, just out of college, boasting “a healthy knowledge of Western civilization and a well of unused talent” but nevertheless “not ethnic and not homosexual enough” for an artistic fellowship. Picasso takes a friend up on an impromptu trip to the Caribbean, accidentally winds up with a large amount of cocaine, cashes this in for a healthy 1.5 million dollars and then sets off to New England with the vague ambition to live in Italy as a gentleman painter.

This gets us up to about page 25.

If there is one adjective that should keep its sorry distance from Light House, it is “slow.” The book moves at the pace of a drawing room comedy, of a farce. In its scant two hundred pages, Monahan manages to cram in no less than a dozen principle characters. There’s Picasso (we’ll get to that name in a minute), the alcoholic innkeeper, the innkeeper’s momentously fuckable wife, the drug lord, the drug lord’s dominatrix, the college professor with aphasia, the literature student with a thing for black guys, and the happily bigoted light house repairman with a thing for women’s clothing.

These characters become boxed by a fierce nor’easter into the vicinity of a New England bed and breakfast, and then set into motion by a series of alternating dashes for money, sex, and literary prestige. In case you haven’t noticed, there is a preponderance of writers populating Monahan’s New England, something that is clearly no mistake.

One of the chief charms of Monahan’s fiction is his merciless deployment of intellect. The protagonist is named “Picasso” for a reason, just like the inn is named “The Admiral Benbow” for a reason. The innkeeper starts talking about “Marat’s bath” for a reason and the train station is inscribed with quotes from Emerson for a reason. Within two pages Monahan is comfortable describing an acrobatic session of coitus, and a compelling theory on the relationship between Sigmund Freud and the middle class. One gets the impression Monahan has spent the past years consuming the whole of Western culture in voracious gulps and is now spewing it out as measured bursts of snark. Light House is rife with retching sarcasm, and a majority of this sarcasm is reserved for Monahan’s fellow authors.

In addition to Picasso—who we are told has a talent for writing, just as he has a talent for all things “art”—Light House is populated by a pompous literary professor and his talentless acolytes, a sniveling practitioner of autobiographical fiction, an alcoholic whose poetry isn’t “avante-garde” so much as it is “crap,” and the ghostly presence of John Wong, the Western world’s greatest fiction writer who never makes an appearance in the book, but nonetheless floats about its edges, alternately an object of the characters’ scorn and admiration. It is with a similar mix of praise and vitriol that Monahan treats his rogue’s gallery of (mostly failed) scribblers.

One gets the sense that Monahan is mostly setting his characters up as objects upon which to exercise the violence of his wit. The egotistical professor Eggman is not only eviscerated metaphorically, but he is eventually decapitated as well; the innkeeper/failed poet winds up vomiting into the Atlantic and lamenting the fact that he really had no talent after all.

At points this cast slips into caricature, but for the most part Monahan is judicious about mixing just enough humanity into his farce to sell its fantastic mix of coincidence. Even if you don’t give a damn about literature and could care less about the allusions, Light House is still savagely funny. Monahan’s characters are such oleaginous creations that it’s impossible to not feel some pleasure in watching them squirm. Add to that the fact that the novel reads at the pace of a screenplay and it turns into a curiously airy yet intellectually testing piece of entertainment. That is, we get to the book’s final pages…

Light HouseUp until its last twenty pages, Light House is conducted in a third person style that follows several characters, but at all times remains faithful to its tone. Despite the farcical elements and the nasty characters and the outlandish twists, by the end of the novel I was genuinely curious as to what was going to happen. The briefcase full of money was a MacGuffin of the first order, but I still wanted to know who wound up with it. This is precisely when Monahan pulled out the rug.

Fifteen pages from the end, the point of view makes a lurching about face and the author starts talking about himself. Out of nowhere two female characters begin fucking each other and the narrator informs us that this progression has occurred because he “just doesn’t care anymore.”

Huh.

I can get behind the notion that the author intervening in the text is some sort of meta-joke, but to have gone through an entire novel only to encounter a sharp diversion at the end left me feeling sort of…cheated.

The narrative does eventually resume its previous tone, but now question remains as to whether or not the ending of the book is really an ending all and not just some intense meta-fictional fuckery. It’s like watching Silence of the Lambs only the entire cast breaks into song at the end of the third act. The effect is jarring, frustrating, and leaves me kind of baffled as to what it is Monahan’s doing.

To all methods of measurement, it seems like Light House is, up until its final fifteen pages, a highly intellectual book, but a book comfortable with life as a sophisticated farce. There are references to Thoreau, but these also take place in the midst of an increasingly goofy sea of plot contrivances. However, with the interjection of the author in the final act, the whole proposition of the book changes. The plot was never the novel’s most important element, but it was still a plot. Though there are some holes in Jonathan Franzen’s “contract” theory of reading, by the end of Light House I felt like the unspoken agreement between Monahan and myself had been breeched. So, the question becomes: Is this brilliant or just frustrating?

The meta-commentaries in Light House may be tongue-in-cheek, but they are still commentaries. And at least in some cases, I think Monahan means it. He is smart enough to eviscerate the jealousies of autobiographical fiction, and the blatant chauvinism of “racial” fiction, so why not add an enthusiastic skewering of avante-garde “meta”-fiction into that pile? Abandoning point of view in the book’s final act is surely another thumb in the face of lettered prudery, but in this case I’d argue that it breaks the spell Monahan has spent the novel conjuring.

Because of its final chapters, Light House falls short as entertainment, and it isn’t because of the feistiness of Monahan’s gear-switching either. In Don Delillo’s White Noise, another stellar example of meta-level wit, the sarcasm fairly reeks from the page and narrative expectations are treated with an attitude that could be described as cavalier at best. However, Delillo maintains his fiction’s cohesion. Monahan fails to pull off a similar effect, and I think he does so somewhat by accident.

Had Monahan maintained the pacing of his fiction up until its end, the book would have been a comic masterpiece, but as it is, the whole business falls apart due to an unintended revelation of its split agenda. Monahan the man of letters can’t let Monahan the storyteller run completely rampant. The two wonderful possibilities of the book are sabotaged because its author tries to have his cake and eat it too.

In his screenwriting work, Monahan has mostly resolved these differences. Kingdom of Heaven sticks to the basics of its story and The Departed retains some of Light House’s breakneck pace, but unifies it around a strong narrative. Though Light House winds up being a frustrating case, it would be dishonest to give it anything but its due for being wickedly entertaining. Monahan is a storyteller of such amazing energy that, despite his flaws, it’s clear that he was due for success.

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