June 29, 2014

Turning Life into Art: A Review of Adam Patric Miller’s A Greater Monster by Elizabeth Paul

cover credit: Autumn House Press
A Greater Monster by Adam Patric Miller
Autumn House Press (2014)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Paul

The title of Adam Patric Miller’s essay collection A Greater Monster comes from an epigraph by Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. Montaigne writes: “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself.” In Montaigne’s tradition, Miller liberally quotes others in his essays, which are penetrating ruminations that embrace a range of topics from classical music and teaching high school to memory and suicide. Also like Montaigne, Miller examines his own experience in ways that help readers to see the world with new eyes. Indeed, Phillip Lopate selected A Greater Monster as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize, noting that Miller “demonstrates all the necessary assets of a first-rate personal essayist.” Although Miller carries on the personal essay tradition, he also makes it his own by drawing on traditions of musical, visual, and literary arts to create compositions that work in non-traditional, innovative ways.

Miller’s essays are composed of segments that are numbered or separated by white space. Often, he employs poly-vocal juxtaposition; his own words are interwoven with those of others: his father, his biological father, Kurt Vonnegut, Vincent Van Gogh, and Webster’s Dictionary, to name just a few. For example, “Blessing the New Moon” is an essay of thirty-two parts including autobiographical vignettes, quotes of musicians and artists, and transcripts of Miller’s father discussing WWII. It incorporates various recurring topics, beginning with Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Gould appears in eleven of the thirty-two parts, including part three, which is this brilliant description.
Gould imbues Variation 15 with sorrow—not the sorrow of regret or nostalgia, but the sorrow of resignation. He reaches, sonically, for something that can no longer be touched. Gould is Orpheus reaching for Eurydice as she is swept back to the land of the dead. Tones repeat. A slow walk, exhausted, shoulders hunched. Tones rise, step by step.
Like the tones of Variation 15, topics repeat and themes emerge, including fathers and sons, art, redemption, revision, creativity, numbers, war, death, pills, puzzles, and the moon. The essay does not argue a point or elucidate an idea, but reveals relationships between seemingly disparate topics. It invites connections, stirs feelings, and cultivates insight. As much as any theme, it is composition itself that Miller explores in his book. Again and again, he interweaves voices, contrasts dark and light, and lets patterns emerge in essays that range from a two-and-a-half-page meditation on his father to a sixty-three-page fugue encompassing insanity, divorce, and suicide. The latter lives up to the definition of fugue because of being both a composition of interweaving voice parts and a disturbed state of consciousness.

In keeping with his book’s title, Miller explores what might be called monstrous in himself and the world around him. The America in A Greater Monster is often callous and crass, artificial and superficial, violent and unjust. For example, in vivid first-hand accounts, Miller illustrates the violence that pervades the urban school where he teaches. In one essay, he describes breaking up a gang fight: “I tried to pry Bub’s fingers from [Andre’s] throat. I could see blood where Bub’s fingernails dug in. The security guard arrived, and he and I pushed Bub down the hall like football players pushing a tackling sled upfield.” Just as troubling is the surreal picture Miller paints of suburbia as a place where a union official compares improving education to giving an extreme makeover, where too-thin girls wear revealing clothes that shout “HOT PROPERTY” and a dinner-party conversation turns glibly to people needing organ transplants: “What if they all agreed to draw lots, and for the winners to harvest the loser’s organs? Would that be OK?”

But Miller is true to the entire epigraph by Montaigne and reveals the miraculous even while examining the monstrous. In an essay exploring his father as monster, Miller concludes tenderly that he was always the son “who loved monster movies, even though they gave him nightmares.” In an exploration of his biological father’s mental instability, Miller traces the idealism of an artist, beginning the essay with an epigraph from Ahmad Jamal: “The goal of every musician is to be free, but freedom is rare.” And throughout the book, Miller reiterates the redemptive power of art.

Miller’s writing is a kind of antidote to the monstrosities of postmodern America. With courageous empathy, he looks tragedy, mortality, and indifference in the eye. With poise, he searches their meaning in a broader composition of living, never raising his voice in the shrill tones of today’s media but allowing things to speak for themselves, especially through artful repetitions. He is critical but not judgmental, and turns his eye for monstrosity on himself as much as others. His acute observation expresses the attention of a father or teacher sensitive to the signs of need from individuals and society.  Montaigne once said, “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces but order and tranquility in our conduct.” As for Montaigne, there is much at stake for Miller in writing. It is part and parcel of living with inspiration and compassion. Through an ear for voice, sensitivity to tone, deftness with language, and fearless curiosity, Miller shares this inspiration and compassion with his readers along with the possibilities of composition.

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