“I don’t completely understand what that means, but I feel incredibly relieved.”
These words, uttered by a mummy whose body in some sense composites the main characters of Theo Ellsworth’s The Understanding Monster, can be read as the self-proclaimed epitome for this bewildering book’s underlying exultation. Like a kind of symphony, the various meanings encoded in TUM operate most vigorously in real time. From the very first page multiple voices insist on the preservation of momentum. You must go on. Isador must turn the corner. The reader must turn the page. As the narrative urges us forward, resisting analysis, the imagery functions like a counter-parallel. Ellsworth’s intricate panels radiate an inward motive energy, compelling one to linger, perhaps eternally, in the swirl of their complexity. Thus two perpendicular fields of time, the lyric and the visual, operate throughout the trilogy with the discordant clash of linear and circular forms attempting to tune themselves into a stable harmonic phase. Entities languish, snooze, linger, descend, spiral, and fall under the weight of unconscious inertial forces as anxious counterparts lobby for the dramatic abdication of ruts. It could happen in the twinkle of an eye. The movement is slight, though it requires acute psychic effort: like the apparently effortless leap of a dancer, or the tremendous forces involved in launching a shuttle past the clutches of gravity before it can drift away on momentum’s dime.
Diving headfirst into TUM can be a confusing experience. Imagine what you might get if you crossed William Burroughs’ The Western Lands with the Little Prince and then made them devour a stack of Adolph Wölfli drawings for breakfast. The narrative vibrates with frantic stochastic antagonism, paralleling the experience of the protagonists. Disconnection is the ground state for these characters, and the reader is invited to share in their turmoil. There are undertones of gnostic mythology and jungian psychology, but there is also humor, joy, and unaffected sentimentality. TUM builds on far more structure and intention than it appears, the story just grounded and intimate enough to make us care about its spiraling flights of fancy, its endless stream of character incarnations, its digressions and loose ends.
One good anchor for tracking the entangled narratives is paranoia, a mind-disease inflicted by the memory presence of “the mean kids.” In TUM thoughts often spiral out of their thinker’s own control. As the experience of fear disconnected from genuine danger, while often causing a danger of its own, paranoia functions like an allergy–the inundation of a hyperactive autoimmune system. In this weakened state the mind becomes susceptible to trickery and delusion.
“I tricked you into being born as my helpless child.”
“I tricked Izadore’s mouse-form into thinking his own stomach wanted to eat him!”
…But trickery can also be a way out…
“I’ve sent an imaginary version of myself back into my own subconscious.”
These protagonists, often their own worst enemies, are subject to mistakes and misunderstandings conjured up by their own minds. If there’s any external antagonist here it is the oppressive restraints of spacetime and all rational forms. The “monster” of TUM may be understanding itself, a trap of endless analytical reasoning that threatens to inhibit the necessary will to rise up and walk, challenging the reader to keep pushing through understanding until understanding is overcome. Rational thinking gone bad yields paralysis. This is our mystical karma, our entrenching psychological dilemma. Theo has drawn us a song about what you’re in for if you’re (un)lucky enough to wake up as a thinking creature.
“Stuck between layers of history,” The Understanding Monster‘s peculiar pantheon must transcend their individual perspectives to resolve a crisis whose roots exist outside of time. Desperate to explain, to persuade, to deconstruct their situation, small moments of clarity help keep drowning heads above water; but the greater lesson is how to breathe without air. Little by little the characters work their way toward a unity of brain, heart, and guts, requiring tools of the imagination to negotiate a means of overcoming, hacking, or circumventing their crippling thoughts and trick eternal problems into manifesting temporal solutions. Negative clocks count backward toward a null moment. Instants explode laterally into simultaneous scenes told from different points of view. We are shown elaborate blueprints of the clockwork embedded in split-second decisions.“We’re coming up to the moment that leads to the future,” a fly-form character named This Way That Way declares. The essential point involves breaking out of the loop, turning the corner, jettisoning from one body into another, staying a step ahead of the clock (or better yet, precisely in rhythm), and always maintaining the momentum to outpace entropy and regain an emotional semblance of coherence in spite of the fragmenting forces of logical time.
In the end even the creator cannot remain separate from his creation. The various threads and frantic momentum reaches a boiling point. We get the sense of a germinating seed beating its head against a roof of topsoil, almost breaking through. A gordian, florescent creature declares, “It is happening!” Someone turns a corner. The negative clock strikes zero. I still can’t completely understand what it means, but I do feel incredibly relieved.