Staff Pick: The Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone

March 31, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 7 3 min read

I’ve been a slow reader this month.  First, I slogged through The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles; the contemporary, omniscient narrator of this Victorian-age narrative fascinated my nerd-brain, but failed to truly interest my reader-brain.   Then I took my sweet, sweet time gliding through Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, as translated by Lydia Davis.  I hadn’t read the novel since high school, and this time around I found myself reading aloud passages that were truly a feat of magic, summarizing with rigorous and well-chosen details whole weeks or months or years at a time.  I loved the way, too, that Flaubert distilled character into a single paragraph, stringing together a distinct list of experiences, memories, habits, and desires in a such a way that I knew that person.  One sentence near the end of the book made me especially happy: “His gaze, keener than his lancet, would descend straight through your soul, past your excuses and your reticence, and disarticulate your every lie.”  That word–disarticulate; I savored it for days.

coverBut after these two books, I longed for a contemporary novel about contemporary life.  I longed for references to malls, and to boners, and to “intense cell phones” and to a pillow made of denim with an actual jeans pocket on the front, “like it thinks it’s Bruce Springsteen.”  Enter:  The Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone.  This funny, sad and engaging novel scratched this particular reading itch.

I first discussed wanting to read Rathbone’s debut novel in my essay about teenage protagonists.   As I wrote in that piece, the novel is narrated by 17-year-old Jake Higgins, who has been sent to a juvenile detention center in Northern Virginia for armed robbery.   The book is composed of Jake’s diary entries about his time at the JDC.  With a lesser writer, this conceit might have exhausted me after 50 or so pages in, or at least shown its marionette’s strings, but Rathbone is skilled enough to maintain the veracity of her character’s  teenage-consciousness while still including electric and surprising descriptions that further my understanding of him.  Jake’s a smart kid, but (thankfully) not overly precocious, and Rathbone’s talents as a wordsmith easily become Jake’s.  The woman who runs the computer room, Mrs. Dandridge, “is a pile of a person who smells like someone’s weird house,” and David, Jake’s partner in a class project, “had this like, air-conditioned aggression that’s more state-of-the-art than anyone else’s.”  On every page there was a line like these two to delight in.

I loved the way this book was structured, as each notebook entry led me further into Jake’s soul-deadening, suffocating world, with its lack of nutritious food, its too-cold rooms, and its awful inspirational posters.  They also led me further into Jake: his feelings for fellow inmate Andrea, who’s been sent to the JDC for selling pot to elementary school kids; his hatred for his abusive, alcoholic stepfather, whom he calls Refrigerator Man; and his conflicted feelings about adults beyond the facility who lead “normal” and “productive” lives.

I also loved this structure for how quickly and easily it led me through the story.  These were bite-sized chapters, each one an amuse bouche of clever and/or heartbreaking information.  I read Rathbone’s debut in less than 24 hours, and, holy frijoles, was it fun.  The ending felt a touch rushed after such a wonderful build-up, but I didn’t mind: I was too pleased to be reading a page-turner, and to be laughing aloud, to be reveling in so many sparkling turns of phrase.  Jake seems like a person who would appreciate the word disarticulate, as does Ms. Rathbone. I look forward to devouring her next book.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I actually just saw this book the other day while idling about Barnes & Noble, and now I’m kind of disappointed that I did not buy it. I’m always interested in pseudo-young adult books that aren’t *actually* young adult books–that is, books with teenage protagonists that don’t wind up alternately preachy and sterile, or callous and “shocking.” (For what it’s worth, I read your piece about teenage protagonists a while ago, and thought it was spot-on.)

    Thanks for the review; I’ll definitely have to give this one a read.

  2. Yes! I love flying through a book after slogging through something slowly. Both reading experiences can be great, as you pointed out, but variety is the spice of life.

    I also get a craving for contemporary fiction, especially after reading a hardcore, 600 page Victorian novel or something, but sometimes the contemporary stuff seems kind of shallow in comparison. I don’t know, as though they will not age as well. Books that feature malls and cell phones don’t seem like serious “literature,” even though (of course) they are. Then again, maybe I’m just revering them because they are old, and being old does not make a novel a classic. Dickens would probably be jealous of a denim Springsteen pillow.

    This makes me want to read Emma Rathbone. Thanks.

  3. YES! We have had this book on staff recs at our store too (Powells on Hawthorne in PDX) and we all love it. A great first book which deserves the attention you gave it. Now i think I need to get that Flaubert translation!

  4. After reading your comments about your reading one of my best favorite novels, Madame Bovary, I bumped into a line of yours that coalesced my vague feeling of dis-ease re: contemporary novels: I don’t “yearn” to read them! That sums it up perfectly for me–after they’re finished, they’re forgotten, just like that. No musing, no reminiscing, no pull toward the people, places or phrasing.
    Done. Over with. Leaving behind no sense within me of having experienced real characters or delighted in real feats of the written word.


  5. Really enjoyed this essay, Edan. I think I’m having the same emotions about “holy frijoles” that you had for “disarticulate.”

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