August 31, 2006


The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless. By Ahmet Zappa. Random House. $12.95.

     This books wants – oh, how it wants! – to be clever.  And it is clever, and fascinatingly illustrated, and creatively laid out, and full of inspired touches.  All it lacks is heart.

     The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless (the “a” renders the title both strange and awkward) is the first novel by Ahmet Zappa, one of the four children of that genuinely odd musical master, Frank Zappa.  It’s hard to say whether the more-than-slightly-skewed elements here are genetically imprinted or whether, as seems more likely, they are evidence that Ahmet Zappa is just trying a little too hard.

     The book has so many clever contents that some children may have a ball with it, overlooking the emptiness at its core.  It’s about the McFearless family of monster-fighters, and it’s told in the first person by 11-year-old Minerva (“Mini,” though she hates the nickname).  Minerva’s primary nemesis, until the monsters start showing up, is her nine-year-old brother, Maxwell.  They live with their father – their mother, Minerva tells us, has died – and they discover a hidden room behind the house’s fireplace, and in that room are weird bottles and strange implements and all sorts of oddities that, it turns out, are used by their father for “monsterminating,” which of course means exterminating monsters.  Then their father gets a Bewilder Box, which contains something the King of Evil wants very badly, and the monsters attack, and the father is kidnapped, and the kids are rescued by a one-eyed coyote, and with the help of a book called the Monstranomicon (a name modeled on H.P. Lovecraft’s dread Necronomicon), the group sets out to rescue dad, or what’s left of him.

     This wants so much to be a romp!  There are monsters called the Grumplemiser, Glorch, Swoggler, Snargleflougasaurus, and so on, and there are pages within the book printed on dark backgrounds to look like pages from the Monstranomicon, describing the monsters and giving “defensive recipes” for warding them off.  In fact, the cover of the novel is supposed to look like the cover of the Monstranomicon, but without that book’s disconcerting habit of chewing on people.  In addition, every ordinary, plain-white-background page is adorned with cartoon drawings of monsters, some of them eating the page numbers and some surrounding the text and some simply floating or crawling here and there.  Color pictures of bugs, amulets, leaves and such are scattered on the pages, too.  And so are illustrations that look like the sepia-toned photos of old, illustrating this or that part of the action.

     Oh, it is all so visually striking…but Ahmet Zappa makes no effort whatsoever to have readers care about the characters – and therein is the book’s major flaw.  The brother and sister are simply siblings who fight but, when the chips are down, cling to each other (although Minerva’s enjoyment of some genuine pain that Maxwell suffers is, frankly, rather creepy).  The father is noble and bold and a victim (but the sepia-toned close-up of him being nearly devoured by a monster is intense enough so it is likely to scare some readers).  All the monsters talk to Minerva, who has learned their language, and all are windbags (also gasbags: Zappa includes a fair amount of odor humor and a fair number of poop jokes, including the family’s imprisonment in Castle Doominstinkinfart).  The King of Evil, also called the Zormaglorg, is the biggest windbag of all (if not the smelliest), and of course he talks so much that he eventually falls victim to the thing he has sought for so long, the Enotslived Diamond (“Devilstone” backwards – that’s a clue; an obvious one).  In our highly visual age, all the attractive illustrations and offbeat elements of the book’s presentation may be enough to get readers to ignore the human characters’ lack of personality (the Monstranomicon and coyote regularly upstage the brother and sister).  If so, Ahmet Zappa will have disproved the lyrics of a song that was already old in his father’s time: “You gotta have heart.”  But a second novel that does have heart would be oh, so much more involving, effective and entertaining than this one.

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