- A Mind Split in Two
Mark E. Cull
210 Pages; Print, $20.00
Mark Cull’s The King of the Sea Monkeys tells the story of a young high school English teacher whose life is derailed one weekend morning while taking his six-year old daughter on her first fishing trip. Stopped at a tackle shop near their destination, the main character, Paul/Saul, is shot in the head during what the novel makes clear is not a robbery gone awry but a hair-trigger reaction of a racist store owner made suspicious by two young minority men wandering his aisles. One of the two young men, coincidentally enough, is a student of the shooting victim, Paul/Saul.
It’s important to specify that Paul/Saul is the shooting victim, because there are other victims, many other victims in The King of the Sea Monkeys. The two young men in the store during the shooting incident are held responsible for that violence and (apparently) prosecuted and jailed. The young daughter, in most meaningful senses, loses her father, and left eventually alone with her mother, who is similarly bereft. It’s a painful story, on the whole, of a contemporary kind of catastrophe and its consequences.
The King of the Sea Monkeys is a particularly unique view of this all-too-common sort of contemporary tale in that it moves between a third-person rendering of the actual events described above and the first person narration of Paul/Saul (who through much of the book is confused about his own name) as he recovers after his gunshot wound, which has damaged parts of his brain to permanently make him incapable of processing and ordering and understanding the world in the ways an average person—and an average reader—would find familiar. This first-person narration is involved, and fascinating, and on a certain levels full of mystery, and it’s first-rate. More about it in a moment.
First, some of the ways the book might fall short. Anyone who’s participated in enough writing workshops probably has strong, reflexive reactions [End Page 20] to the way a text handles elements of craft—or, in a given reader’s view, mishandles elements of craft. Many of us in this boat are on high alert for even the smallest issues from word one, so much so that opening a book we’re skittish instead of accepting and patient. Maybe this is true of more of readers than just those frequently in workshop? Maybe it’s true of all readers? In any case, that’s not the point.
The point is that The King of Sea Monkeys put me on high alert very early on. At times the third-person narration is a bit telling, a bit clunky, a bit repetitive. For example, in the parking lot of the bait shop, we learn that
Paul suddenly remembers what kind of magazines are on display in the store. He recalls there are the requisite issues for fishing and off-road enthusiasts, but they are far outnumbered by adult magazines. He thinks about the magazines and the snack foods. Jessie [his daughter] will beg for the snacks. He imagines how upset Lillian [his wife] would be if he fills her up with soda and chips. Rather than dealing with the certain begging, he decides to have her wait in the car.
Perhaps I don’t need to spell out the ways the narration and prose both could be so much more economical and effective and simply illustrative here?
And there’s a lot of dialogue early on that feels a bit forced, and lines of it take over pages without what feels like necessary accompanying tags and/or body language. And in my state of high alert I started asking questions about plausibility: do the young minority men seem a bit stereotypical? Does the storeowner also feel a bit stock, a predictably short-fused gun-waving redneck? Does the included newspaper coverage of the crime seem unlikely, as if perfectly tailored to highlight the worse possible media...