I’d like to begin with a quotation from Nicole Walker, the Jesse Ventura of literary nonfiction:
Fiction is just nonfiction that hasn’t happened yet.If it’s in the essay then it’s happened. I mean, it’s happening right now—something is happening right now—out loud and on the page and in the little stage that is your mind as you hear these words and try to parse the mask. I hope you can hear me through the mask. That’s how the magic works, that the thing you read—however incomplete the record is—is a recording of my lighting up that lights your light up when you read it or when you listen. Ask John D’Agata. He’s got my back on this for sure. From our boats we can just make out the semaphore. Or ask Robert Pinsky, who tells us that the medium of the poem is the body of the reader. Or ask Ice Cube who tells us that the medium of the predator is the body of the editor.
It’s that we watched the film in 1987 that anchors us. It’s that we ate the thing alive and still it moves in us these thirty years later. If you haven’t, it’s not too late to become one of us, we temporary predators. Walk home from this talk and watch and become another.
Or just listen to this song I sing, a secondary echo. Let it hit you in your sedentary retro. Or think about it later on the metro. Let it sort the future from the past. If it kicks a little ass so much the better.
In his novelization of the film, the poet Paul Monette tells us that the reason the Predator gets obsessed with us—humans, the only thing it cannot become—is that we have souls. It can shape-change into any other creature in the book (though not the film: the novelization was novelized from an early version of the script, before the film discarded that) and does. But not into our hot protagonists, sweating and gleaming and shooting their way through jungle.
Any form it cannot assume it wants to know. We know this well. How obsessed we can become with others’ forms. (Check your libraries of porn or funny videos of pets.) We can settle at least for second-best: in watching a thing we hope to inhabit it. In inhabiting a thing we become it for a minute. Becoming something for a minute means we can become it always if we find that moment in it in ourselves—that movement, the way it moved, the way we moved in it, the way it moved in us, that mode of being Predator. Becoming something other than ourselves means we embiggen (what? it's a perfectly cromulent word), deepen, contain more, become bigger Predators, better editors. This should remind us—even if it probably won’t, because I know how we are, poor in thought and deed, always seeking to feed on something smaller—that when we act we do not act alone.
Watching Predator is exercise in otherness, an associate’s degree in empathy with a minor in animal husbandry. If the film has genius, which I believe it does, it’s in how we get the creature’s POV, its thermal vision mainly and its attempts to parse our speech. Now I can approximate that effect with a little camera dongle that shows me the world in thermal ways. In Tucson, Arizona we appreciate the heat but cannot read its gradients without long expertise or tools. This is how the creature sees, not in solids but coronas. How the line of sweat that crests my brow cools the skin a degree can be measured: I change color. Compare to Alien: that animal is unknowable, even in the fictional. We have no clue how it sees us except as reproductive hosts. Does it have a soul? Monette never wrote the book on that to say.
But Predator observes our interactions, our stupid jokes that we have to explain to land, how men speak to each other when they’re alone. In this way we are shown ourselves in ways we’re not in, say, Commando or Total Recall. The Predator does not share nor understand our language. Listening to men talk what the president refers to as “locker room talk” I wonder what I understand about our language. I am not around them often: presidents nor predators nor when they are one and the same. I do not live with them. Visiting my brother the investment banker the Trump supporter, I’m surprised what parts of me arise and what I’m capable of saying. When he starts in on the NEA I reach for my laser spear. There is much of me I’ve put away, it seems, since 1987.
As usual I’ve taken it too far. Maybe I’ve eviscerated a few things but not yet a human (though one could argue that this is what a good essay does). I’m overcivilized through and through. Like you I drive a Subaru and tweet. If I could wear the thing as easily as I wear its mask I would have killed all of us already with my shoulder cannon or some other cool weapon—or at least those of us who are armed.
Thomas Hardy tells me “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Imagine the cognitive work it takes to think like another thing. Now think of the I in essay as another thing, a role you play, a rubber suit you have to work to get on yourself with a visor inside the mask that shows you—forces you to see—the world in a slightly different way. That’s what you want: to be yourself but inside another, to activate something new in you when you put on the suit. To give yourself permission to speak—to think—to live in a different way.
The exploratory draft is where you start to figure out the features of you that show that will become your role. In a second draft you start to play it better, to see the contours of the I, and give the creature that you’ve made of you more to chew on, more to see and do. This is how to figure out its idiosyncrasy. It doesn’t have to think like you exactly, this thing you made: your homunculus looks like you but the more you feed it the more independent it gets. That’s good. Key discoveries can come by rhyme or tracking language, even in error. In another draft you can introduce it to other people, throw it in situations it’s unaccustomed to: an Alison Bechdel situation, for instance, to watch it try to camouflage itself in a cold old room with an absent father. How much other is too much other is a question we shouldn’t bother with. It’s transformation that we’re after.
(Photo credit: Edward McPherson)
Ander Monson is one of the curators of this site and coeditor, with Craig Reinbold, of How We Speak to One Another: an Essay Daily Reader, out this month from Coffee House Press. If you're reading this and enjoying it, you should really buy the book.