Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer
Interview With Catherine Menon - Author Of Fragile Monsters
Salmon Rushdie once said, ‘We need stories to understand ourselves. We’re the only creature that does this unusual thing of telling each other stories in order to understand the kind of creature we are’. Mankind’s predisposition toward, and proclivity for, self-understanding threads itself through our past and pulls the cloth of meaning into something tailored to suit human consciousness. This artisanal patchwork quilt is as culturally ubiquitous as it is anthropologically diverse in colour and tone. A commonality characterising all human storytelling, though, is the presence of truth, lies, invention and fantasy within the warp and woof of its material.
What we choose to tell, what we believe and what we deny architects the very essence of what we are. Our stories are sometimes a true reflection of reality and sometimes a contrivance designed to eschew that very same idiosyncratic entity. We unravel these threads at our peril and yet to passively follow the storyteller’s needle can be equally deleterious. And so the cloth is unpicked, restitched and formed afresh, yet eternally ancient if not in detail, then in spirit.
I recently reviewed the debut novel of one such storyteller, Catherine Menon, author of Fragile Monsters
. Her deeply engaging and dextrously executed fiction fuses both myth and maths, fact and falsehood and in so doing, explores the function storytelling plays in the lives of her characters, and by implication, in our own responses to and understandings of ourselves. Menon pulls the reader into the book’s emotional and psychological matrix with legerdemain and has given us a novel I suspect will resonate with any reader with a penchant for exquisitely written prose, thematic depth and tender truths dredged up from the dank waters of deception, denial and delusion.
Menon is an interesting admixture of intellectual leanings, combining the often-antithetical disciplines of science and the humanities. She has a PhD in pure mathematics and an MA in creative writing from City University, for which she won the annual prize. Other accolades include achieving merit in several competitions, such as the Fish, Bridport, London Short Story, Bare Fiction, Willesden Herald, Asian Writer, Leicester Writes, Winchester Writers Festival and Short Fiction Journal awards. Her work has been published in esteemed literary journals, including The Good Journal
and Asian Literary Review
and has also been broadcast on radio. Fragile Monsters
is her debut novel and will be published on the 8th April 2021 by Viking. Her debut short story collection, Subjunctive Moods
, was published by Dahlia Publishing in 2018.
As someone with the numerical aptitude of blancmange, or a dog remembering how many sausages it stole from an unattended plate, I was keen to understand a particular enigma. How does having the mind of a mathematician square with the creative, word-saturated psyche typical of a fiction author? ‘The distinction between mathematics / logic and stories is another facet (looking slantwise at it; the magic realism begins to creep in!) of this theme. We do often view logic and creativity as being diametrically opposed, but I don't find that's the case at all’.
‘The process of constructing a mathematical proof has exactly the same "feel" to it as writing a story: there's the same attention to detail, the same requirement to simultaneously bury yourself in the details and maintain a hold on the overall arc, and the same need for that moment of magic! Perhaps it's because my own mathematical field is pure maths - category theory, which is often described even by other mathematicians as "abstract nonsense"! Category theorists don't bother with numbers, on the whole. Perhaps that makes it easier for us to turn to words instead.’
So, having balanced that equation, I wanted to explore the literature feeding Menon’s creative energies. ‘Some of the authors I most admire are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood and Esi Edugyan. Although these are all very different writers, one thing they have in common is their ability to fully immerse their readers in the setting. In addition to this, there's a certain polish and intricacy to their prose - a very real sense of being playful with language and bringing the reader along for the ride. In particular I'm a huge fan of magic realism; it's a genre that deals with truly serious subjects but does so with a very light touch. It's a way of looking "slantwise" at the world, playing with our usual perspectives on what's important and what isn't’.
Menon’s reading and literary inclinations can be seen as a muse inspiring her choice of thematic substance for her own novel. Her novel is not autobiographical, however its themes, though universal, have been passed through the prism of her own cultural perspective, perhaps reflecting her own need for understanding, or at least subtly flavoured by that impulse.
‘One of the most important themes of Fragile Monsters is the distinction between what's right and what's true. We all have our own narratives and our own interpretations of the past, particularly around events that are traumatic. It's often easier to distance ourselves - we construct a narrative where the trauma didn't happen to *us*, it happened to a friend, or a neighbour, or someone in the village five miles away - and in the process we create a new truth. In some sense this is just as valid as the "correct" sequence of events because it's faithful to the emotional truth’.
Menon, though a gifted long-form storyteller, has a passionate love of the short-story form. ‘I'm currently working on my next novel, but I'm also very keen to get back into writing short stories. My short story collection, Subjunctive Moods
, was published by Dahlia Publishing in 2018, and I've always thoroughly enjoyed the form. There is a tightness to short stories that you don't find in a novel, a sense that every word is the precise and only possible choice. Writing them is a joy and a challenge’.
I am reminded of a comment made by Annie Proulx when asked about the language of the short story and the implications of brevity upon her authorial style. She said, ‘You have to scrape, scrape and scrape away at the sentence, until it can barely stand on its own two feet’. This process of attrition distils a percolated potency whereby a story’s truths are revealed like bones delicately exposed by the author’s ruthless scalpel. Knowing the value of every word, its semantic categorisation and symbolic function, Menon is perfectly suited to the short story form. Her prose though scintillating and pregnant with emotive and intellectual force, is delightfully efficient. Menon has the authorial tools to pen captivating stories, irrespective of their length.
Moliere said, ‘It’s not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable’. Fragile Monsters
may be seen as Menon’s glorious response to that statement. I await her response to the next truth she explores with her magical pen, in whatever form our talented author chooses!