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A sleeper-agent-pageant-queen exacts revenge — and finds herself — in 'Monarch'

Soft Skull

Poet Candice Wuehle's irresistibly weird debut novel Monarch is the kind of book that you want to start reading again immediately after turning the last page — not just to trace the conspiracy at its heart, but to appreciate how its kaleidoscope of beauty pageants, Y2K anxieties, famous dead girls, and deep state machinations synthesizes into an exploration of what makes up a self.

Jessica Greenglass Clink self-consciously narrates Monarch as she attempts to make sense of how much of her life was ever her own. We start with her parentage. The daughter of Grethe, a Norwegian beauty queen, and Dr. Clink (always Dr. Clink), a professor at the fictional Midwestern University, Jessica is "basically like what would happen if Barbie and Dr. Strangelove had a lovechild." Swap nuclear war expertise with the study of extreme boredom and crimes of passion — research that gains notoriety in the wake of Lorena Bobbitt's trial — and you get Dr. Clink.

Though they live in what Jessica calls "the oeil de taureau of America" (that's French for bullseye), and though her 1990s adolescence is littered with the pop culture hallmarks of the decade—looping news footage of Nicole Brown Simpson's murder scene, the "ethereal yodeling" of The Cranberries, AOL CD-ROMs, tanning with a Playboy Bunny sticker on your hipbone — her upbringing is anything but average. She won't wake up to the clues of its sinister core until the end of the millennium. "The thing about being a teenager is that everything seems normal because nothing is normal," Wuehle writes, a diagnosis that feels apt until it isn't.

In the first half of Monarch, Wuehle conjures enthrallingly eccentric formative years for Jessica. She spends her days training for mother-daughter beauty pageants, helping Grethe at bizarre Tupperware parties as she demonstrates a plastic cryogenic freezer she sleeps in to halt the aging process, and traveling to her father's alma mater of Desert University — an "ivy-less Oxford" where Chancellor Lethe (like the river of oblivion) drills her with riddles in catechism.

This is a portentous crucible in which to be forged, compounded further by a home environment thrumming with "subtle panic." Only "essential personnel" are permitted inside this fortress where Dr. Clink manically draws up an academic journal issue responding to "the modern condition" (aka the internet) and Grethe stalks around the house with a knife "in a macabre before-bed ritual." Jessica originally assumes that Grethe, like many women who steep themselves in stories about misogynistic violence, was simply spooked into vigilance from watching too many episodes of her favorite true-crime and shadow history show, Unsolved Mysteries. But she notes in an aside to the reader, "Is this enough to explain to you why I believed there was some serious and maybe immediate violence always near me?"

Jessica's only tether to the outside world is her babysitter Christine, a Norwegian American riot grrrl in black lipstick who "possesse[s] an unfettered sense of revenge accessible only to people with a supreme, nearly supernatural sense of self-worth" — exactly what Jessica lacks. It is Christine who teaches Jessica to critically examine the power structures around her, to understand that "any kind of narrative [is] a blinder; the tiny screens that convince the horse there is only one path." And it is Christine who convinces Jessica to quit pageantry at age 13, after her coach forces her to sabotage fellow beauty queen Veronica Marshall — her first love, who gave her a taste of normal teenage life. Soon after, she begins waking up with a bitter, "bad-good" taste in her mouth, covered in bruises.

The reality of the violence Jessica felt near to her reveals itself gradually as she comes of age in her own body and soul. As the days count down to Y2K, Jessica, now 19, is working part-time a photography store. She develops photos reminiscent of JonBenét Ramsey's murder scene — a bloodbath that recalls for her "images of myself in another country, images of myself with bloody hands." In the second half of the novel, Jessica learns that she had been programmed as an agent in an offshoot of Project MKUltra known as MONARCH, trained to transition between personas in order to gather intelligence.

Readers hungry for the motives of MONARCH — or even what the cryptonym means — won't find much here, a choice that pays off. Wuehle is less concerned with deep state spycraft than with the question of how to differentiate who we are from who we are programmed to be. Jessica's conditioning via pageantry (her coach was really a plant), Chancellor Lethe's schemes, and her parents' complicity puts this quandary to an extreme. But as Dr. Clink explains toward the end of the novel, all of us experience the difficulty of untangling our essence from our context: "My life has been the same as anyone's: I was born into a system and I never saw it from the outside." This makes for a far more interesting novel than the international espionage thriller it could have been without Wuehle's poetic, haunting touch.

"Power, Chancellor Lethe had once told me, is knowing the rules don't exist," Jessica reflects as she sets out on a quest — for feminist vengeance, for the truth about Veronica (was she yet another plant?), for her own self. As she breaks all the rules that the creators of MONARCH had instilled in her, instead drawing on Christine's lessons, Jessica takes control over the narrative of her life, the story that she is telling us now. Wuehle's decision to put the reins of pacing and structure in the hands of her narrator — who speaks many tongues and takes us through a "study in circles" until she is ready to "start talking about spirals" and drive us into the darkness of the underworld — reinforces the radical potential of having the final word.

Monarch is ultimately a story about stories: of Jessica's erasure and reinvention, of the Norwegian folklore that Grethe carried from her homeland, of true crime narratives that tell us that no one is more perfect than a dead girl, of memory and trauma and consciousness. Jessica's testimony reminds us that "nothing — no memory, impression, emotion, or idea — is ever lost." We can always remember who we are, even when the forces around us demand that we forget.

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

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Kristen Martin