Reviewed by Jennifer Pan
Monoceros. Coach House Books, 2011.
Suzette Mayr’s tragicomic fourth novel, Monoceros, opens with a chapter antithetically titled “The End” which traces the reasons leading up to a high school boy’s decision to commit suicide. “The dead boy” (11), Patrick Furey, chooses death “[b]ecause u r a fag is scrawled in black Jiffy marker across his locker” (10), “[b]ecause in a text the girlfriend of the guy he loves said we’re going 2 kill you” (10), because the guy he loves, Ginger, will not see him again and wants Patrick to return his heart-shaped locket, and because of so many other reasons. But ultimately, “[b]ecause he wants to be in charge of his own ending” (15). The rest of the novel explores the ways Patrick’s death affects his classmates, teachers, and parents individually, in a community that is unwilling to enter into a discussion about homosexuality and discrimination.
In the chapters that follow, it becomes clear that suicide is only the beginning of Patrick’s ending. Mayr explores the effect of Patrick’s suicide on those who knew him as each contributes to the posthumous writing of his life. A few chapters feature his parents and his boyfriend, but most take on the perspectives of those who were not close to him, including the school principal, the guidance counselor, the English teacher who has not yet learned his name, his boyfriend’s girlfriend, and a unicorn-obsessed classmate who served him Iced Cappuccinos at the Tim Hortons drive-through. Interwoven in a complex narrative network, a change in any node of which might have prompted a different outcome, are multiple obituaries for Patrick.
Though varied in focus, characters’ narrative perspectives uniformly omit overt discussion of Patrick’s identity and his decision to commit suicide. To the public, he “loved to watch wrestling (particularly World Wrestling Entertainment on television)” (159). Only his mother’s and unicorn-loving classmate’s private obituaries for him ever allude explicitly to homosexuality and bullying. Set in a Catholic school, where the principal keeps his decades-long relationship with the guidance counselor secret for fear of losing his job, few will speak up in defense of homosexuality. In fact, to avoid “[c]opycat syndrome” (127), the principal initially instructs his staff not to inform the students of their classmate’s death. When a student asks “[where’s] Patrick today?” in the midst of a class discussion of Romeo and Juliet, the English teacher evasively replies: “I don’t know. He’s away obviously” (19). Rumors surrounding his absence abound. But when a student derides homosexuality, the teacher can only pretend obtusely that the comment pertains strictly to the classroom discussion: “Where on earth does it say in this play that Romeo was gay?” (40).
While the novel opens with a harrowing meditation on bullying and discrimination, its characters frequently evade any direct articulation of a collective sense of complicity in Patrick’s decision. Instead of engaging with the social forces contributing to Patrick’s death, many students attempt to make sense of the tragedy by focusing on the physical aspects of his death. The girl who served Patrick Iced Cappuccinos imagines what has become of his body by watching a video of a decaying pig’s corpse. Ginger’s girlfriend Petra adopts scientific language to express the effect of Patrick’s death on her: “she can smell the dusty death germs” (68) and “feels it’s futile trying to escape the death molecules in the room” (69). Unable to talk about the circumstances of death, many characters focus instead on the material consequences of death on the body and its surroundings. Like the novel itself, they deal obliquely with the events leading up to the end by focusing on what happens after the end.
Mayr’s novel is a complex and unapologetically blunt exploration of teen suicide. Its strength lies in its representation of the reverberations of such an act on individuals and a community. Though unable to address bullying and discrimination on a societal scale, these issues inform characters’ personal reflections. The neat moral conclusion of the final chapter’s foray into magic realism, in which unicorns stampede through the school as symbolic sanction, unfortunately risks taking away from the difficult questions raised throughout the rest of the work – personal questions of despair, love, and courage in the face of discrimination and censorship. Nevertheless, Monoceros is a powerful, profound reflection on difficult and current issues regarding bullying and sexuality.