Hugo Nominee: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

On to the short story nominees! Kij Johnson’s story is here, and I expect you all to read it in your lunch hour. Commentary:

Rich Horton:

This is a sheer delight. Aimee is the operator of an act featuring 26 monkeys, who perform various stunts, then disappear. The story, of course, isn’t about the monkeys disappearing — it’s about Aimee, and how she got there, and her boyfriend, and their future, if they have one. I liked the not quite whimsical telling — the sense that there is much serious matter behind the sweet surface. The monkeys and their act are nicely described, Aimee and her boyfriend seem real. And the ending is handled just right. Sometimes a story simply grabs me, and that’s what happened here.

Ian Sales:

While this is clearly a good story, it’s not the sort of genre fiction I normally enjoy. The premise is whimsical, the treatment is whimsical, and I’m not a big fan of whimsy. Nevertheless, it’s one of the stronger stories on the shortlist.

Lois Tilton:

Aimee has a monkey act, and her big trick is making 26 monkeys disappear from a claw-footed bathtub onstage. The problem is, she doesn’t know how they do it. But really, it isn’t a problem at all.


Val Grimm:

in “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” Kij Johnson assembles a beautiful mystery which, although it may seem predictable or familiar at first, has a flower (instead of a sting) at the end of its tail.

Aimee lost everything and replaced it with a sideshow. Twenty-six well-behaved, exceptionally intelligent monkeys pile into a bathtub and disappear, to return hours later to the bus which is their home with all sorts of odd items. She and her boyfriend, Geof, are just along to drive it seems, and like Bastian of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, she wanders as though she’s used up all her wishes and no longer remembers who she is:

Fairs don’t mean anything, either. Her tiny world travels within a slightly larger world, the identical, interchangeable fairs. Sometimes the only things that cue Aimee to the town she’s in are the nighttime temperatures and the shape of the horizon: badlands, mountains, plains, or city skyline.

The ending may seem predictable, and in some ways, what you expect is what happens. Why and how—and what it means for the future of the monkeys, the bathtub, Aimee, Geof—less so. The thing that ultimately gives meaning to this tale of slipstream serendipity may surprise you with tears.

Russ Allbery:

This is an excellent story. It’s about a woman who owns a monkey show, except the show basically runs itself and all the monkeys know what they’re doing and have ever since she bought the show for $1. They’re remarkably intelligent, come and go as they please, and at the end of each show, they disappear out of a bathtub on stage and are gone for hours, only to return at the show bus. The emotional reactions of the main protagonist are exceptionally well-written, with deep emotions hiding under the light and somewhat amusing situation. Johnson throws in some twists in the plot and doesn’t take it in expected directions, and the ending, while maybe a bit saccharine, worked perfectly for me. The best story of the issue and quite possibly deserving a Hugo nomination in short story. (9)

Abigail Nussbaum:

Kij Johnson, meanwhile, does seem to have something of a following. Last year, praise for her story “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” seemed to be on everybody’s lips. I read “Trickster Stories” when it was nominated for the Nebula and found myself underwhelmed. It was charming and well-written. I was impressed with the way Johnson handled her inventive premise, neither shortchanging nor belaboring it, and couldn’t help but be taken in by the gentle melancholy that suffused the story. But I didn’t particularly like it, nor did I see why it had garnered such praise. I’m telling you all this because my reaction to “Trickster Stories” is also, word for word, my reaction to “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” Johnson’s story on this year’s short story ballot. It’s a nice piece with a slightly surreal premise–Aimee owns a carnival act in which 26 monkeys disappear into a bathtub–but so gentle and unassuming that it’s hard to believe that, once again, so many people have fallen in love with it. There’s nothing wrong with “26 Monkeys,” and Johnson’s voice and style are unusual enough that I can sort of see how she might deserve recognition for them, but I can’t help but think that there are much stronger, more interesting, more passionate stories out there that ought to have had her spot on the ballot. Still, I’m willing to admit that this is probably a case of me being the wrong reader for the story.

And a very detailed reading of the story by Juliette Wade, with comments from Johnson:

Kij Johnson has chosen to juxtapose Aimee’s carnival act – absurd, quirky and inexplicable as it is – with Aimee’s terrible grief as a result of terrible events in her life. As the story progresses, Johnson manages to bring the two sides together in a marvelous way, so that they are less contrasting and more congruent.

If she had gone another route, and taken us closer to Aimee’s point of view, it would have been easy for us to get mired in the grief itself – and this would have made it far more difficult to grasp the thematic content of the story. By keeping narrative distance, Johnson avoids the trap of protesting too much. She allows us to share Aimee’s sensitive observations of the details of her life, and by showing us Aimee’s fear of touching her own grief, Johnson allows readers to add their own depth to her story by accessing personal experiences of grief, and of the grieving.

This is more than just a wonderful story. It kept me guessing, and it made me think. And now it has also given me an opportunity to think about third person omniscient in a whole new way.

Your thoughts?

18 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

  1. I did!

    My view is pretty much the same as Abigail’s but perhaps not as charitable. Some woman finds a magical object and it helps her to overcome her depression. What is there to like about it? There is the incongruity of the object and the weight of the depression and way Johnson evokes both but this isn’t much.

    I did learn the word “lagniappe” though (even if I’m not sure it makes sense in context).

  2. So here’s a thing: Johnson says

    The numbers heading each section distance us as readers — the story rejects immersion by coming to you in small segregated chunks – even as it offers itself as a series of “highly specific, concrete details.”

    But I, reading it, had a different feeling, namely that the numbers guided me through the story. They alerted me to shifts in focus, which would otherwise have felt much more abrupt; and they reassured me that the story was in some sense progressing.

    Which is perhaps an indication that, like Abigail, I’m not the right reader for the story. It’s an exercise in epistemology: what does Aimee know? What can she know? What can she expect to know? Or, more accurately, what doesn’t she know, what can’t she know, and what shouldn’t she expect to know. (Given how short the story is, it’s rather impressive how many times variants of those questions crop up.) It’s also a story about what is present or absent, most notably in the figuring of grief: “She was hollow, as if something had chewed a hole in her body and the hole had grown infected.”

    The problem, in a sense, is that I’m not sure I buy the way these two things are linked. Take this exclamation:

    Because there’s always a reason for everything, isn’t there? Because if there isn’t a reason for even one thing, like how you can get sick, or your husband stop loving you, or people you love died — then there’s no reason for anything.

    Now, the obvious response is: nonsense! As in, this is obviously not true — the absence of a reason for one thing doesn’t necessarily imply anything one way or t’other about the presence or absence of a reason for another thing (though it can, depending on the things in question, of course). Of course, the level on which it’s meant to be operating is that it’s a response to grief, to trauma, a frantic belief in answers. The comfort, in a sense, of the end of the story is Aimee’s acceptance that — like the monkeys –there is no why and so she is able to move on: “The world is full of strange things … maybe this is one of them.” Or, put another way, how we live is about the questions we choose to ask: as Geof says, not why the monkeys go, but why they choose to come back.

    Right. One problem I have is that although why might very well be the question I go to when faced with trauma, the first question I feel compelled to ask about the monkeys is how. I really don’t care why they do their bathtub trick; I care how they do it. Another problem is that I don’t really believe in things happen for no reason; I believe in things happen for no reason that we can plausibly know (or cannot fully know), but that doesn’t seem (to me) to be the emphasis the story is pushing, in that if it was I think the process of acceptance would be different. Both of those distinctions matter to me enough that Johnson’s technical facility — which is in many ways very impressive — doesn’t really compensate.

    Or have I missed something? (And while I’m at it: Johnson suggests that the list of “might have happens” in part 15 is a way of hiding what really happened to Aimee among a number of untrue possibilities. Given that all the possibilities but one are mentioned in the quote above, from section 13, I’m guessing that the odd one out — “She might have gone insane for a time” — is the one most likely to be true. I’m still wondering whether that affects my reading, or rather to what extent it affects it.)

  3. The detail none of the reviewers mentioned was that the monkeys are not, as I’d pictured them, twenty six members of the same species, but a mixed-species group of monkeys and apes (the gibbon and siamangs are also Totally Not Monkeys).

    So is Aimee a human “with” twenty six monkeys, or is this a group of twenty seven monkeys? (Aimee doesn’t disappear, that’s true)

  4. I assumed her husband had left her.

    Well, this is a sweet story, and I enjoyed it; but pretty much all the heavy-lifting, charm-wise, is done by the monkeys. The Simpsons does this too, a lot: bung in some monkeys, a shortcut to laughs and the ‘soo cute!’ reaction. But I must say I was sick of the monkeys by section 8.

    I agree with Niall that the style’s repeated swerve towards sweping apothegmatic statements more often pissed me off than persuaded me. “Everyone has a home, even if they don’t believe in it.” Er, no they don’t. And I agree with Martin that lagniappe isn’t used correctly.

    Also I read this during an afternoon teabreak, not lunchtime, because I will not confirm to your positivist agenda Harrison: nobody tells me when to read, motherfucker.

  5. Looks like this won the Asimov’s Reader’s Award for “Best Short Story.” Is this possibly any indication of how it will fare in the Hugos?

    Niall, I read this on my lunch. But several months ago. So there.

    It’s a cute-not-cute story that employs its strategies (short section breaks, a flippant, irreverent tone [“Maybe the monkeys choose not to share, that’s cool, who can blame them.”], the already-identified cultural “monkey baggage” [the story couldn’t stand if you substitute the monkeys for goldfish or caterpillars or whatever]) much too close to the surface for me to be able to enjoy it.

    I agree that it raises epistemological questions, but it answers them primarily through existentialism (“face the abyss” etc.); a weird discordant ploy where the “suspense” is raised by a means its resolution cannot possibly hope to satisfy or, for that matter, reverse.

    I also found some of the expounded categorical “truths” distancing rather than immersive. Consider:

    “Nothing is certain. You can lose everything. Eventually, even at your luckiest, you will die and then you will lose it all. When you are a certain age or when you have lost certain things and people, Aimee’s crippling grief will make a terrible poisoned dark sense.”

    This activates all kind of philosophical responses in me that do very little to promote my involvement with the character’s story. Fine. But then I don’t get to have those philosophical notions challenged or twisted in fun ways, and instead have to deal with the plot again. The alleged truths just kind of sit there, weighing down the rest of the proceedings instead of enlivening them.

    There’s plenty to commend, too. Cleverness, details, aesthetic descriptive and grammatical parallelisms, non-stock characters/situations, and a conciseness in the writing. It does cram a lot in.

  6. Del: Interesting point. I think the separation between Aimee and the troupe is strong enough that it’s tricky to follow that reading too far, but it is a nuance I hadn’t picked up on either.

    Alvaro: interesting point about the Asimov’s award; Bear’s “Tideline” won both that and the Hugo last year, after all.

    And it does cram in a lot, indeed. I was feeling quite surprised that this comment thread had turned out so grumpy — I was expecting to be in quite a minority — but presumably the story’s fans are just responding to a different subset of the many things it crams in than we are.

    I do think it’s a bit unfair to dismiss the story as “whimsy”; that, to me, has connotations of caprice for the sake of it, whereas here it’s definitely caprice to a definite end.

  7. Finally we’re back to the short works that I have time to read!

    @Del: in fact, if you count up the list of “monkeys” Aimee makes there are only 24; possibly Aimee and Geof are the two that bring us up to 26.

    @Niall: I think I’m closer to the “right reader,” but apparently not close enough.

    I can appreciate surrealist fiction, where the “how” isn’t an issue — indeed where the point is that the depiction of something in story can be done for its aesthetic value without any claim that the way a story works is the way reality works. But I think that’s part of the problem I have with this story. If it takes surreal impossible events to snap someone out of their grief and make them accept the limits of what they can know, well, but surreal impossible events don’t happen, and therefore the story says very little to me about being human. The centrality of the surrealism to the healing has already rejected that type of real-world concordance, which leaves us with the human-level aesthetics — which here are an expected and safe triteness that conflates understanding with acceptance, and just isn’t my thing. I can be a total sap about enjoying happy endings, but I have to be invested in the characters and I have to see them work toward that happy ending. Here, I have no sense of Aimee outside of her grief, and Geof is but a stereotypical sketch. Then understanding arrives and, wham, wounds are healed, and the normalcy of cohabitation ensues. It feels like a betrayal of all the interesting and very human things the POV was doing vis-a-vis Aimee’s psychology earlier in the story.

  8. Not to set Kij up for a fall, but what did all of you who didn’t like “26 Monkeys” think of Kelly Link’s “Girl Detective”?

  9. Hm. I’m not sure all of the “universal truths” above are endorsed by the narrative, but the handful that seem to be — everyone has a home — bothered me as well. That said, the few faults I found were minor distractions at worst, and I’d be happy to see this one win. The Kelly Link comparison is particularly apt; intentionally or no, the story pulls off the trademark Link maneuver of immersing via stylistic distance. I’d be tempted to call this Link-lite, but it’s only lite in that it’s less oblique, and I think it compares pretty favorably to much of Stranger Things Happen.

    “Lagniappe” is sort of jarring and needlessly awkward, but not downright incorrect; I’ve always heard it used to suggest a cherry on top, a little something extra. One indefinite article would go a looong way in that line: “the license was a lagniappe.”

    For whatever it’s worth, I read all of the might-have-beens as true.

  10. think of Kelly Link’s “Girl Detective”?

    Four years ago, I thought

    And then there’s ‘The Girl Detective’, my favourite story in the book. It tells a fun, pointed story, halfway between pop culture and myth, in kaleidoscope fashion: a series of incidents and digressions, darting back and forth in viewpoint and time, that combine to form a picture greater than the sum of its parts.

    … although wow, would I write that differently now, so who knows what I’d think if I re-read it?

  11. Apparently not. On the other hand, I don’t remember “The Girl Detective” making an issue of its impossibility in the way that “26 Monkeys” does. Aimee is constantly asking questions about her situation, and the monkeys — she “has no idea what happens to them in the bathtub, or where they go, or what they do before the soft click of the dog door opening. This bothers her a lot”, etc. I don’t think “The Girl Detective” similarly endorses question-asking, so it doesn’t tempt me to say it’s asking the “wrong” questions.

    (Of course, I’d have to re-read it properly to substantiate any of that.)

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