Clayton Draper and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Review

 “A comic, voice-driven novel of ideas.” – Rebecca Hussey, Foreward Reviews

Comic. Voice. Ideas. Three words that get to the heart of my novel. Yet you will search in vain for those words or their semblance among the 1,000 Allison Epstein (author of A Tip for the Hangman) uses to review Wire Mother Monkey Baby for the American Book Review. The book’s humor and voice are lost on Ms. Epstein; ideas and innovation should give way to plot and convention. She seems unfamiliar with literary writing, its prioritizing character over plot, and wants “action” — a word stressed five times in her review. She gets the title reference wrong and makes, by my count, seven factual errors. 

Here is the review, with my responses given in footnotes. Enjoy.

TRAPPED IN THE COMPLEX

We’ve already reached the level of dystopia where corporations are considered people. Now, imagine if they were also your landlords. That’s true in the world of Clayton Draper, the misanthropic protagonist of Rob Reynolds’ debut novel Wire Mother Monkey Baby. Ostensibly Clay’s journal, the book tracks Clay’s life as he moves into The Complex, a Texas housing development subsidized by Kool Kola. This whimsically spelled megacorporation enforces Clay’s daily soda consumption, blasts advertising jingles and commercials into his unit, and sets out to control the minutiae of his life in a thousand invasive ways.

With Clay, a self-loathing near-recluse, as its protagonist, Wire Mother Monkey Baby luxuriates in its exploration of isolation. Clay’s antipathy for the shallow pleasures of consumerism is rivaled only by his obsessive, frustrated ruminations on loneliness. The book’s title nods to this, referencing Harry Harlow’s famous experiments on social isolation in monkeys.[1] Clay’s extensive journaling is an attempt to cope with this modernity-induced seclusion. He breaks the fourth wall to address the journal—and by extension the reader—directly, narrating his attempts to find connection and fulfillment in The Complex.

However, Clay’s attempts at connection feel as shallow and isolated as the world itself. He shops. He reads. He quotes at length from his reading: in text, in footnotes (the likelihood of someone footnoting their journal is questionable[2], but let that go), and in a commonplace book of erudite quotations printed at the end of the novel. He thinks about having sex and doesn’t. He thinks about working and barely does.[3] He thinks about music[4] and bemoans the youth. He thinks about sadness, about isolation, about morality[5]. He thinks about thinking. So far as the book has a plot, it consists of nonevents, missed opportunities, and procrastination.

This crushing introspection is clearly deliberate, an example of form mirroring theme. Clay suffers from loneliness, depression, and isolation, all of which drive him into inaction. No surprise, then, that the journal of such a person would be navel-gazing, depressing, and static. But while the intent is logical, the effect of this structure is numbing at best, aggravating at worst.[6] The book’s plot doesn’t just fail to get off the ground, it stubbornly fails to make the attempt, as if action or change or movement are not things books are supposed to deal with.

Reynolds seems to revel in the notion of writing a book to nowhere. He tucks self-referential asides throughout Clay’s story, almost taunting the unhappy reader who expects a narrative. Clay keeps a pair of guns in his closet, but as he tells us, “I keep the pistol’s clip loaded but set beside its partner, a dummy in the chamber, lest I subconsciously set up the Chekhovian expectation of a later act.” Surprise, surprise: the pistols never fire[7]. Laying it on thicker, Clay hangs a portrait of Samuel Beckett on the wall, “…long-dead Beckett frowning from his photo, Beckett with his bad bouffant….”The reader becomes an unwilling Vladimir or Estragon, shanghaied into waiting for a Godot—in this case, a plot[8]—that gleefully fails to arrive.

The reader is treated to brief flashes of action, and the book shines in those moments. Just when the plot-starved reader has begun to despair, enter Clay’s wealthy upstairs neighbor,[9] Jonathan Brood. In perhaps the book’s most dramatic moment, Brood drops down into Clay’s bathroom and hoists his appliances[10] and furniture[11] up through the ceiling tiles, though the motives of this Mission: Impossible-style heist are never fully explained[12]. An interesting, charismatic character, and a gentleman[13] thief on top of it? After spending almost a hundred pages with no one but Clay, this feels like a breath of fresh air. Certainly, Brood’s scenes in the latter half of the novel are entertaining. However, there simply aren’t enough to counteract the tedium of Clay’s repetitive, circular existence in The Complex.

Beyond Clay, Brood, and a cycle of undercharacterized women[14] in various bars – who all, despite Clay’s pervasive misogyny[15] and evident lack of charm[16], seem surprisingly attracted to him[17] – the other character of note in the novel is Jim Sanchez, Clay’s workplace nemesis. However, calling Jim Sanchez the book’s antagonist feels like a stretch. According to Clay, Jim is “ . . . a contempt fairy . . . He sits on a metaphorical perch where he can look down and judge people.” When we finally see Jim in action, though, his contempt[18] and judgment[19] are non-existent. He spouts clichés[20] and has an unsettling way of smiling, but beyond that, Jim is less of a character than a screen for Clay to project his insecurities onto. It’s an interesting technique, and one that serves the isolation and egotism central to the book’s premise. But to the reader, the bait-and-switch is disappointing. Yet again, the reader is spending more time with Clay,[21] this time in the thinnest of masks. 

The aggressive focus on Clay’s is especially disappointing because of Reynolds’s flair for world-building. In a world governed by corporate interests, with company-subsidized housing and surveillance through product and advertisements, there’s a rich landscape of possibilities to explore. Introducing the reader to a modern corporate dystopia lays the groundwork for compelling potential themes of exploitation, greed, revolution,[22] and so on. However, Clay is not interested in exploring those stories. He remains trapped at home, looking at his portrait of Beckett and quoting aloud from his library of erudite texts.[23] And we, as a reader, must turn our backs on the outside world[24] and stay there with him.

In many ways, WMMB achieves exactly what it sets out to do. It provides the daily journal of a man who knows no one, goes nowhere,[25] and does nothing[26]. As far as intent is concerned, the book is a success. However, the book is hampered by its own premise. Of course, real journals meander. They don’t follow plot arcs. They aren’t action-packed.[27] But what WMMB fails to account for is that journals are private for a reason. Not because they contain personal, unsettling truths – the best literature does. But because at the end of the day, if nothing happens, they aren’t particularly riveting reads.[28]


[1] The title does NOT refer to Harlow’s isolation experiments but to his famous maternal deprivation studies. That’s why there’s a WIRE MOTHER in the title. This is a clue to Clay’s character – and a clue that the novel’s focus is on character more than plot. The title also nods to the book’s comic intent.

[2] True, a general “someone” in the real world probably wouldn’t footnote her journal, but Clay himself is EXTREMELY bookish. One entire chapter is devoted to reading. The book is peppered with more than one hundred quotations from his reading, including sixty more in his commonplace book presented at novel’s end. His journal, which he addresses as “you,” is more alive to him than people. If “someone” WERE to footnote a journal, Clay is your man.

[3] Ms. Epstein misrepresents the novel by overstressing Clay’s thinking. In attempting to connect, Clay DOES take action. He attends a barbecue in The Complex, goes to a concert, tries out a couple of bars, and goes to clubs and hears bands like Mimi and the Narcissists. Flies to Paris. But yes, he is limited even in his ability to make meaningful attempts at connection. Clay’s character, his limitations, often thwart his intentions. 

[4] He doesn’t just think about music, he attends multiple concerts. THEN offers his thoughts, befitting the journal format.

[5] What are his thoughts on morality? On sadness? On isolation? On thinking? These are ideas (see blurb, above). By focusing on the ACT of thinking rather than the CONTENT of the thinking, Ms. Epstein sees a treeless forest.

[6] Is it depressing? Is it mind-numbing? (See humor, voice, above.)

[7] Details, details. When a gun DOES appear late in the novel, it’s firmly lodged in a drunken Clay’s mouth. Draper’s playful intent is to point out the convention only to thwart it, whereas Epstein wants adherence to conventions and the conventional. Updike’s first rule of reviewing: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” (His last: “Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike.”)

[8] The irony. Waiting for Godot is famous for being plotless. It’s also very funny. A more astute reader might have seen Beckett’s picture as a clue to the novel’s literary, as opposed to popular, intent. There’s a reason James Patterson isn’t on his wall. A similar clue would be Ch. 11 which consists solely of samples of Clay’s various writing jobs before his current one. Any plot is dropped in favor of pure comedy: a parody of annual reports and middle school textbooks (“In “Raccoons are People, Too!” a determined raccoon overcomes discrimination and the lack of an opposable thumb to become a Manhattan tax attorney”); graphic organizers and writing prompts (“Write a composition for your teacher in which you explain 100 times that you will not run in the hallway”); a cat owner’s manual written in technical jargon, and Clay’s attempt at his own personal Ten Commandments that crashes and burns before Commandment 8. I provide these samples to give a more accurate representation of the writing than Epstein provides.

[9] Brood is NOT Clay’s upstairs neighbor. Clay checks the unit the following morning and finds that it is empty and for rent. 

[10] Appliances? His TV is the only thing that gets hoisted. His stereo and laptop were in his bathroom awaiting hoisting before Clay’s entrance. 

[11] No furniture gets hoisted. Ms. Epstein misreads Clay’s description of the empty space where his stereo system and laptop used to be. “Two shelves and the top of my desk, formerly marked by a taken-for-granted presence, now conveyed absence. A void.“ Epstein’s lazy reading and inaccurate word choices make this scene sound more improbable than it is. 

[12] Why would a thief steal? The motives for Brood’s Mission: Impossible-style heist are in his character. He’s a rebellious son of The Complex’s principal owner. Brood wears black leather jackets and boots and ripped jeans, pees against a building of his father’s complex, walks around with a woman on each arm, hosts raucous parties, and tells Clay to “sin boldly.” He revels in doing things he’s not supposed to do. 

[13] Ah, Brood. Clay’s first impression: “His leanness and light stride made me think of a good basketball player, someone like Kobe Bryant – if one could imagine Kobe as a six-one blond Caucasian hanging out in Central Texas.” But thief or no, Brood is no gentleman. 

[14] It’s misleading of Epstein to focus solely on female characters here. All characters in the novel are undercharacterized: women, men, and cats. True to his anti-social nature, Clay doesn’t spend enough time with any being for their character to be explored.

[15] Wow. This is a damning assertion. Where’s the supporting evidence? (Chirping crickets.) This is especially frustrating because Clay gets ahead of this accusation by addressing it in the novel’s FIRST TWO PAGES. He’s an equal opportunity ranter, targeting men, women, and anything else that doesn’t tickle his fancy. That makes him a misanthrope, as he claims, NOT a misogynist.

[16] Clay is not wholly without charm. In accepting the novel, its publisher’s first words were, “Clay Draper is a hoot!” Clay’s no saint, but he’s seen attempting to be nice in his daily interactions. Even with his nemesis, he swallows his anger rather than direct it at him. And his nemesis admits that he’s “reasonably attractive, intelligent, fit.” And did I mention he’s funny? Has a distinctive voice?

[17]They’re NOT attracted to him. They are paid employees of Kool Kola to ACT like they’re attracted in order to coerce him into buying their product. How did the reviewer miss that? 

[18] Contempt non-existent? You be the judge: In Jim’s first recorded words, he mocks the worksheets Clay is creating on his computer: “More circles, Draper?” In their last encounter, Jim chuckles his demeaning chuckle throughout their interaction, though Clay is not being funny. He’s literally laughing at him. He calls Clay “Joker Man” and mocks the soft drink (as opposed to liquor) in Clay’s hand. Jim rebuffs Clay’s attempt at conversation by refusing even to answer him. In response to Clay’s directly asking him what problem Jim has with him, Jim grins and looks at Clay as if he were “a talking turd.” To even reply to Clay would be beneath him. 

[19] Judgment non-existent? Jim’s final words: “White, male, reasonably attractive, fit. What the fuck happened?” A judgment on Clay’s whole being. 

[20] This is misleading. As presented by Epstein, the fact that Jim “spouts clichés” sounds like poor writing on the writer’s part. In reality, his cliché spouting is intentional, over the top, and comic. He’s fucking with Clay — talking over him, not allowing and not interested in a response:

            Jim: “So, you’re leaving us for greener pastures.”

            Clay: “Well, I thought I’d try something new.”

            Jim: “Gettin’ the hell out of Dodge.”

            Clay: “Nothing against this place, it’s just – “

            Jim: “Can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

            Clay: “Uh – “

            Jim: “Turnin’ over a new leaf. Movin’ on down the road.”

            Silence.

            Jim: “Takin’ the fork in the road. Makin’ a change for the better. ”

[21] Let me get this straight. In a scene in which Clay nearly comes to blows with another character, he may be projecting his insecurities onto that character, so it’s like that character isn’t really there, so we’re really just alone with Clay?

[22] Revolution? The reviewer really wants a different book.

[23] What quotes do those “erudite texts” express? What ideas do they, and Clay and his musings on them, present for the reader to ponder? Some ideas presented in the book: Whether past a certain age, humans are capable of living authentically; whether the American emphasis on individuality cuts against the deep, collective nature of our species and thwarts attempts at happiness; to what extent the pursuit of non-conformity leads to suffering and possible suicide; the effect of the modern corporate work environment, of commercialism and materialism, on us humans; the extent to which imagination plays a role in one’s capacity to enjoy life, or whether imagination’s betrayal of the real thwarts happiness. And that’s just in the FIRST NINE PAGES. 

[24] Clay, and the reader, necessarily turn their back on the world when reading, but the CONTENT of Clay’s reading, which he conveys to the reader, points outward to the world. By focusing on the ACT of Clay’s reading rather than the CONTENT of that reading, the reviewer misses the book’s social criticism, and misrepresents the book to the reader.

[25] Not true. In one chapter, he takes a road trip to far West Texas. In the next, he flies to Paris. Did the reviewer skip those chapters? 

[26] He does nothing? See previous note, also note 3 (attends barbecue, goes to concert, a couple of bars, Paris). True, he knows no one, but that’s the point. Though he tries, he can’t connect. At times he puts his foot in his mouth or otherwise alienates someone. The book is driven by character and voice, NOT by plot. By this point I’ve counted seven factual errors in Epstein’s review. And that doesn’t include debatable matters of opinion.

[27] Odd that Epstein uses the word action (ahem, how many times?) rather than conflict. Here I was believing conflict to be the essential element of fiction. If Epstein were looking for conflict instead of action, she might have seen that Clay is in conflict with himself, The Complex and its employees, the inhabitants of Waterloo, American-style capitalism, a changing world, modern technology, television programmers and advertisers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 

[28] Riveting is not really a word to apply to novels of ideas and literary writing in general. Epstein prefers action even over unsettling truths. The truths expressed in Clay’s journal – and in the novel in which they both appear — are not just personal. They speak to the larger world, and to the readers who inhabit that world.


“The novel’s descriptions of trying to find human connection in a world driven by materialism are both thought provoking and darkly funny.” – Rebecca Hussey, Foreward Reviews