Vandana Singh's Of Love and Other Monsters, a novella from Aqueduct Press, a publisher of feminist science fiction, begins with a description of a vivid, fleeting love, which has now been irrevocably lost; a promise to the reader that this will be a sorrowful narrative, one infused with longing and loneliness. It is the story of Arun, a young Indian man who has lost the memory of his youth—and, thus, his origins—and is navigating his way through an existence plagued by various crises of identity. He is a perpetual foreigner in a strange world, a world made all the more strange to him by his unusual ability to sense, manipulate, and "weave" together the minds of those around him. This ability, while allowing glimpses into interior spaces unavailable to others, has uniquely isolated him; he yearns for a complete connection with another being that, for him, will always be fleeting—or, more often, entirely unavailable to him, floating just beyond reach.
Singh vividly describes the way Arun experiences minds:
I wave my baton like the conductor of an orchestra and sense a structure, a form, coalesce in the interactions of these knots of persons. The meta-mind I construct has a vague unity of purpose, a jumble of contradictory notions, and even a primitive self-awareness. ... I sensed the convoluted topography of each mind, its hills, valleys, areas of light and darkness, the whole animal mass trembling and shifting with emotional fluxes. (p. 2)
The author's background in science lends a weight of authenticity to her ideas about this fantastic mode of connection, and it is in her extensive descriptions of this phenomenon that the novella becomes instantly absorbing. As Arun hones his abilities with minds, he finds that he can fall in love with a mind itself, and that his love and passion are often contingent upon the vitality and range of another mind. His ultimate true love—the fleeting, lost love of the novella's opening paragraph—is a young man named Sankaran, whose mind "had the delicacy of petals about to unfurl and the innocence and wonder of a child holding a rainbow for the first time" (p. 24). The inconsistent nature of Arun's love affairs (he has affairs with both women and men, exhibiting an unwillingness to conform to human structures of identification), along with the lack of rigidity in his own self-consciousness, provides the basic foundation for the development of Arun's otherness. Gender, specifically, is something that confounds him. "I understood now that I was stuck with this body, this gender," he notes (p. 41). He never feels completely at home in his physical body, or in identity roles that he feels otherwise compelled, or pressured, to perform:
Sometimes I worried about how different I was from other young men. I looked and dressed like a man, but I did not understand social conventions about what it meant to be a man or a woman. ... My ability to sense minds enabled me to see human beings as entities beyond man-woman categories. I decided, after some months of informal study, that rather than two sexes there were at least thirty-four. Perhaps "sex" or "gender" isn't right—perhaps a geographical term would be more appropriate—thirty-four climactic zones of the human mind! (p. 17)
But even as Arun explores his affinity for minds and becomes more familiar with the nature of his unique abilities, important narrative questions still remain, as we—along with Arun himself—wonder about his origins. The narrative evolves into a doubled journey of discovery: discovery of the self, yes, but also the discovery of a past, a history, a reason for being. "I have no recollection of my life before the conflagration took my memory and my identity," Arun states bluntly (p. 3), firmly establishing the necessity of the novella's development as a journey backwards into its protagonist's lost history: "In those days I could sense the ghost of my past self very faintly: I saw symbols, words, numbers, shapes, as though scratched in damp clay. ... Oh, the strangeness of those days!" (p. 3) Through the process of his recognition of the "accident of gender" (p. 25), Arun begins to feel distinctly alien, an identity formed out of disidentification, and this is the lens through which he will read the rest of his experiences in the narrative—the lens of alienation, a concept that Singh adeptly works through as Arun slowly discovers that he is, indeed, an alien being. But where a revelation like this could easily be a punch line to a story about "finding oneself," summing up a character's failure to assimilate by conveniently dropping in a line about his origins on Mars, Singh allows Arun to continue the learning process and to further explore his otherness.
Of Love and Other Monsters, then, is primarily a story of immigration, of being foreign and displaced in a strange environment. Arun experiences a great deal of anxiety and loneliness when he realizes that no one in the world, save one (more on that later), could ever really understand him. But when he leaves India and comes to America, making new friends from all different backgrounds, he understands his circumstances in a new way:
There I was, a skinny Indian guy with stubble on my chin and pizza sauce at the corners of my mouth, grinning and guzzling like everyone else. Rick's people had emigrated here three generations ago from Holland. Aichiro was a second-generation Japanese immigrant. So what if I'd come from a farther shore than anyone else? This was Boston, one of the great melting pots of the world, where nearly everyone was a stranger. My two colleagues were both married, and I too had someone I loved, someone to wait for. The revelation about my true identity seemed, all of a sudden, irrelevant. (p. 42)
This is a more complete concept of Arun's otherness as something that can be shared and dealt with, and something that approaches universality. Singh is successful in her assertion that we are all alienated from each other and that none of us can really know anyone else, at least not in the way that we come to understand that Arun's people—other aliens—can understand each other, using a "language" involving an intimate conjoining of minds. Arun agonizes over his predicament with Sankaran—("How does a man who is not a man or a woman, not a human or an alien—how does such a being confess his love to another man?" [p. 52])—which is a love that will ultimately elude him and which will come, in the narrative, to represent the tragic inability of humans to ever truly connect with one another.
As a result of this elusive goal of connection, relationships in Of Love and Other Monsters have a particularly desperate tone, and are often loaded with a sense of danger and risk. There is, as I mentioned earlier, another of Arun's alien kind in the world: a wanderer named Rahul Moghe who attempts to recruit Arun in his quest to communicate once again with comrades back home. Rahul Moghe offers many answers to Arun about where he comes from, and this union with one of his own proves to be irresistible, even as Rahul Moghe represents a danger that Arun is unprepared to deal with; his resistance and apprehension is mitigated by his desire for a true connection. Rahul Moghe appeals to this desire: "You live in a dangerous place outside the boundaries humans create around themselves. Man-Woman. Mind-Body ... I am the only friend you have, my love. We owe our allegiance to a different star..." (p. 35) And, almost in spite of himself, Arun rejoices in the experience of connection: "... his mind, opening before me like a sunrise on a new world. I saw the power, the beauty, the ruthlessness of him—the mountain ranges, the sheer cliffs, vast Escher-like vistas. He was letting me into his soul" (p. 36).
Arun still recognizes the danger of Rahul Moghe's plans, and the inherent evil of some of his deeds, but "he was my own kind. Between our minds there were no barriers. With him I could begin to learn the lexicon of my lost language" (p. 62)—even as, in a rapid series of twists, they are threatened once again by the forces that erased Arun's memories in the first place, and that also led to his entrapment in a human body. But language, indeed, is another thing that isolates Arun in his new world and positions him as a perpetual immigrant, as only Rahul Moghe can understand the language of minds, which is the native language of his alien species. (At one point, in his attempted explanation of Arun's past, Rahul Moghe's "mindscape convulsed when he said the word 'home.' All these decades he had experienced the utter loneliness of the foreigner whose language nobody knows" [p. 65].)
Singh extends this theme further with the revelation that many human beings themselves were once members of the alien species but have, since colonization, forgotten their true origins: "It is because at some level the colonizers still remember their old language. Why do you think the average human is such a messy mix of contradictory emotions? Why do you think they feel alienated, not only from each other but from their own selves?" (p. 64)
There's that word again: alienated. And this brings us back to Singh's arching insight into the ways that none of us can truly know each other, and the recognition that in attempting to do so there will always be something lost. This piece of fiction succeeds because it faces this truth so unflinchingly, and despite occasionally weak dialogue and a few awkward transitions, the work itself maintains a distinct and almost revelatory richness. In the novella's final paragraphs, a friend of Arun (with whom he has confided in about his origins) notes that he is "not alone ... At least, not any more than anyone else" (p. 75). For all his effort, he ends up right where the rest of us are; trying, however impossibly, to find something to hold on to. So perhaps love really is a monster, as the title suggests, since it reminds Arun so pointedly about the impossibility of ever fully reaching, or inhabiting, another mind. But then love is also something that can never last, something tortured and then erased by time; so maybe time itself is the monster, trapping us between a history that we can never truly understand and a future that promises only the continuing failure of connection, a loneliness born from being trapped in a gender, a body—a cage with no point of entry and no hope of escape.
Richard Larson is a recent graduate of Hunter College, and he currently lives in New York City. His stories have appeared in Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.