“An Ancestry’s Worth of Broken Hearts”: On Tiphanie Yanique’s “Monster in the Middle”
By Erik GleibermannNovember 29, 2021
Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique
But dislocation in this richly layered novel is a far more complex theme. The author also tells a complementary story of an African American family from the South that endures its own ongoing geographic and psychological displacements over 40 years, the two family stories unfolding within an unmoored interracial America marked by a string of disruptive historical events, from the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion to the Columbine High School mass shooting to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The novel careens magically across the American landscape, shifting ingeniously between literary styles as it charts the trail of impaired loves in these two uprooted families. When Yanique then brings the families together through the bodies of their two second-generation characters, the emotionally sensitive Stela and Fly, we are left to wonder what sort of love can ultimately grow from such destabilizing histories.
The novel is built around couplings, evenly divided between the families, telling the story first of how Fly’s parents came together, then Stela’s parents, and finally Fly and Stela themselves when the two struggling artists meet in New York City in their late 20s during the current pandemic. Equally important is the backstory of each character’s previous romantic relationships, which range from honest and loving to troubled and creepy. The disruptive personal experiences that challenge these relationships include being orphaned, rape, cancer, war trauma, addiction, and mental illness. Fly’s father, Gary, is dislocated within his own mind, fighting voices that periodically overtake his thoughts. Though he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, in the otherworldly universe Yanique draws, we sense he might also be channeling something from beyond.
We could view the novel in broad scope as the encounter between the Caribbean and the African American South, though we actually get little feel for life in the Virgin Islands. This is a US mainland story. Stela’s parents both grew up in the Virgin Islands, but they meet in Atlanta at a joint Spelman-Morehouse HBCU freshman orientation. In this sense, Monster in the Middle reverses the viewpoint of Yanique’s first novel, Land of Love and Drowning (2014), which is suffused with island lore and in which the American mainland is a remote place, one islanders know only from television, with returnees describing their experiences of racism and with colonizing American transplants buying up beachfront property.
The waters are what bring the islands to life. Stela’s mother, an orphan since childhood after her family drowned at sea, symbolically challenges the ocean’s deathly presence by taking the name Mermaid. But the story’s true water spirit is Stela, “who would pick the sea over anything.” As a teen, she falls in love with a white American, Johann, as they explore rocky outcroppings and dive to observe sea urchins. In high school, she becomes a marine-obsessed artist who paints whales, coral, shells, and beach sunsets.
The sweetness of the Caribbean-based mother and daughter romantic narratives (humorously diluted by their compulsive swearing) differs strikingly in tone and style from the earlier sections that trace Fly’s family history, as though these two families inhabit emotionally and spiritually separate worlds.
The first chapter is an edgy satire on race, religion, and sex, with a slightly fantastical and apocalyptic overlay. Taking the 1989 San Francisco earthquake as a dark biblical portent, Gary flees from the West Coast Sodom and Gomorrah with his girlfriend Ellie on a desultory cross-country road trip that ends in a rainstorm as they try to rent a room at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The journey becomes an absurd racialized religious mission. Gary turns Ellie into a Noah figure, claiming that “I am the animals you saved,” while she thinks, “Gary wasn’t as dark as an African. But still he was Africa to her — in a way.”
This curious interracial satire presages Fly’s relationship 20 years later with Suzanna, a white proselytizing student at a Georgia university. Yanique portrays Fly as an exquisitely vulnerable character and deftly explores his sensitive but confused efforts to decipher the school’s culture amid an array of half-cartoonish characters. The religiously deluded Suzanna fervently recruits him to church services, then sexual intercourse — though she directs him to somehow preserve her virginity, as she must save herself for marriage.
None of the later chapters feature this kind of caricature. The novel’s tone, style, and point of view constantly shift, with no two of the dozen chapters having quite the same narrative voice. One chapter employs a satirical tone by using syrupy language (“[T]hey have been drinking alcoholic drinks, and it is beautiful, and this, everyone knows, leads to making love.”). Another chapter, by contrast, describes sex using an adolescent colloquial register (“LaToya and her guy were already doing, you know, it.”). Yet another has an omniscient narrator who reflects sweepingly across time and directly addresses the reader. In the most poignant chapters, Stela’s father and Fly’s mother tenderly recount their love in what read as confessional letters to their children.
These individual chapters hold up well as set pieces, and Yanique actually published a number in prominent literary magazines, including The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, AGNI, and others. The shifts are sometimes jarring and that is exactly the point. The fragmented architecture is yet another strategy to create dislocation, a form that mirrors the fractured and stunted loves of the two families and the nonlinear path that brings them together. In a lesser author’s hands, the project could feel forced and fragmented, but Yanique brilliantly unifies the novel through her scintillating, consistently lyrical language, whether using lampoon, introspection, or tense social drama.
The shifting styles also allow Monster in the Middle to approach social critique on issues of race and religion from different angles. The book’s most intriguing take on race appears in the university scenes, where Fly tries to figure out the alien identity ambiguities and pseudo-intellectual performances. Jews claim not to be white, for example, and Suzanna appears to him as Black when he watches her sing in the gospel choir at the multiracial church. Her best friend seems to be Asian, but he never says. “All the people of color were camouflaged,” Fly thinks. The dreamy racial uncertainty of the church and university as institutions suggests an America lost to its own self-understanding. Stela enters an early marriage with Steven, who is Black, but who was adopted and raised along with three other Black boys by white parents who wanted to imbue them with Blackness in very white Vermont. They earnestly teach Steven about African nationalist heroes like Kwame Nkrumah, pepper dinner table conversations with Swahili, and insist that the boys come from the motherland, though they were adopted from a Texas orphanage. Stela ends up feeling more racially and culturally distanced from Steven than it appears she ever did from her earlier white boyfriend, Johann. Further confounding the relationship is their alluring shared lover Malaika, also Black, but ethnically unlocatable. She tells Stela she’s Ethiopian but tells Steven she’s Kenyan. There are clues she may be from South Africa or possibly San Francisco, and a scholar publishes a paper that refers to her as “transnational African.” Malaika comes to signify both the identity confusion of the dissolving marriage and the muddled social world that surrounds it.
Fly, who is the most psychologically well-realized character in the novel, is also the only one who tries to examine his own racial identity, which he begins to do in college after growing up tortured by sexual and spiritual hungers. In one haunting chapter, which enters Fly’s mental stream as a young boy, he falls under the spell of a frenzied, itinerant pastor who preaches out of a Dodge Caravan. Fly channels the preacher’s Christian hype through his precious marbles, which become resonating spiritual bodies. Fly imagines that “there were two entire worlds in his pocket. He wondered how many saviors these worlds might need.” In the following chapter, set in high school, Fly begins to discover his sexuality, and pornography becomes a replacement religion and, eventually, an addiction. He keeps separate magazine layers in his closet, one of Black girls and one of white girls, with a Bible resting beneath. These pages contain more power than his ritual marbles ever had, especially when he masturbates high on spiked gummy bears.
Fly remains lost throughout college, but when he finally discovers Invisible Man in an English class, we hope that Ellison’s novel might offer more healing for a young Black man adrift than the Bible or porn. Indeed, he becomes obsessed with the book as he enters adulthood and moves to New York, keeping 12 different editions on a bookshelf. But, like Ellison’s protagonist, Fly remains obscured from himself. We never learn what the story means for him as walks New York’s streets, a silent Trump sympathizer who performs Black masculinity in his developing partnership with Stela. At one point, he passes a group of hospital workers at a 2020 racial justice rally and spontaneously hands Invisible Man to a South Asian man. But the solidarity feels empty. “It was never mine,” Fly announces to the man cryptically, and he “felt perfect, just perfect about how he’d performed it all. He went on now with a fly-boy swag in his walk.” What makes this moment and so many others in Fly’s journey so sad is the subtle way Yanique conveys that the self-observant young man perceives that he’s only feeding his own pained isolation.
As Fly and Stela come together, with “an ancestry’s worth of broken hearts between them,” we want to believe in their intimacy and hope that the accumulated lessons of all the previously flawed romantic quests we’ve witnessed might bear fruit for these two vulnerable people sheltering in the impersonal discord of New York’s COVID-19 lockdown. But Yanique constrains our hope, as she does throughout the novel. The couple’s most decisive moments come unchosen, under the threat of violence, in an agonizingly tense scene in which three edgy, maskless white police officers interrogate them in her apartment. This menacing police presence can be interpreted as one expression of the monster of the book’s title, a looming, unnamed force that threatens human bonds, and which Yanique’s various narrators refer to only obliquely. This monster, yet another manifestation of human dislocation, imposes itself on tortured psyches and searching hearts in a feverish America.
Erik Gleibermann is a San Francisco social justice educator and journalist.
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