Hot Sex With Sea Monsters: A Comparative Study
Or, Why is Mrs. Caliban So Much More Convincing Than The Shape of Water?
In the fall of 2017, somewhat improbably (so on brand for 2017), we were treated to two (2) much-lauded, darkly comic works of art in which a South American water monster, looking suspiciously like a green-skinned man with a flat nose and froggish eyes, manages to escape his brutal, electric-prod-wielding keepers to find himself in the arms of a lonely and eventually quite naked human woman, who plies him first with food and then with music, and with whom he has exciting and satisfying sex until she finds a way to release him back into the ocean. They even contain similar jokes about cornflakes.*
The first, of course, was the New Directions reissue of Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, a 1983 novella set in the California suburbs; the second was Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water, set in 1962 in and around a government research facility in Baltimore.
Mrs. Caliban is wonderful and bizarre, a near-perfect novella that invites close (and repeated) reading and lengthy reflection. The Shape of Water is often beautiful, sometimes scary, mostly entertaining, but ultimately, for this viewer, it falls flat. The proximity of the two releases alone is enough to merit a comparison, considering their similarities, but more particularly, I found myself wondering why Mrs. Caliban was so successful, and why The Shape of Water was less so. Ah, you may be saying, I know the twist: Mrs. Caliban is a book, and books are always better! Well, sort of.
First things first: Mrs. Caliban concerns a woman named Dorothy, who has lost everything, nearly to the point of absurdity (one thinks of Barthelme). First her son, then the child she was carrying, and later Bingo the dog, and then her husband, first to one affair and then to another (NB: both affairs are rather grislier than they first appear). For its part, The Shape of Water concerns Elisa, a mute adult orphan with strange markings on her neck, who lives above a movie theater across from her only friend, a balding semi-closeted gay man named Giles. Not particularly similar, as set-ups go, except for the essential thing: both women are lonely. Very lonely, as it turns out.
Both book and film are predicated on the same central and unobvious (to me) assumption: that if a woman is lonely enough, she would (or at least might) immediately fall in love, more or less at first sight, with any vaguely humanoid monster who a) crosses her path and b) shows an interest. It’s fair to say that both women also feel, to varying degrees, monstrous themselves, and this is part of it too—but it’s the loneliness (perhaps partially the loneliness that comes with monstrosity) that is emphasized most.
Both texts lean heavily on this idea in their setup, and as a result, neither allows for much emotional foreplay before pairing the human woman with her aquatic lover. Dorothy sleeps with Larry (this is his preferred name, though his official title is Aquarius the Monsterman) the day after he shows up at her back door, asking for help and vegetables. It’s lovely, actually, the trick Ingalls pulls here. Dorothy says she’s going to clean the house, and Larry asks to be allowed to help her.
“You could show me what to do. You see, I’m not used to this. It’s so different. Before, I was only being studied. There was nothing. Now there’s everything. I could do things. Couldn’t I? You wouldn’t prevent me?”
“Of course not. The only thing you’d better not do is go outdoors in the daytime. It would probably be all right at night.”
She rinsed the cloth, hung it up by the sink, and went through the doorway and hall, into the guest room. He followed her, closing the door and shutting out the sound of the Mozart. She turned to ask him if he still wanted the radio on, and saw by the light—bright although blocked by the curtains—that when he had asked if she would prevent him from doing what he wanted to do, he might have meant something quite specific.
In the next paragraph, he begins to undress her (because you know what’s really sexy? A man who actually wants to help with the chores!). About 15 pages later, though it still seems they have only just met, Dorothy cannot bear to lose him. “Now that you’ve come, everything’s all right,” she says. As a reader, you believe it. Why not? Dorothy is bored; Dorothy is alone; Dorothy feels toxic—everyone close to her dies. This is the most interesting thing that has ever happened to her. She thinks maybe there’s some hope after all.
For Elisa in The Shape of Water, it is also love at first sight, more or less. After a strange tank is wheeled into the room she cleans at the government facility, she taps on the glass twice, and twice the monster inside responds, and next thing you know, she comes trotting up with a hardboiled egg—despite having just literally cleaned up the bitten-off fingers of the last person to get this close to the creature. There is no explanation for her interest, or for her certainty of her own safety. The infatuation seems forced. She’s crazy, I thought. The same could be said for Dorothy, of course, and yet, in Mrs. Caliban, I did not blink.
Of course, this has something to do with the specifics of the two monsters—and the fact that one is realized on screen, whereas the other is merely described, for us to imagine. (I realize I am explaining the difference between books and movies, here.) But it’s an important distinction, in terms of believability, that in The Shape of Water, the monster is in front of us, and he is very monstrous indeed. He does not speak, but emits a series of alarming noises—grunts and throaty screams. He has claws and rough skin. His eyes have translucent lids. In Mrs. Caliban, Ingalls describes Larry this way:
His eyes were huge and dark, seeming much larger than the eyes of a human being, and extremely deep. His head was quite like the head of a frog, but rounder, and the mouth was smaller and more centered in the face, like a human mouth. Only the nose was very flat, almost not there, and the forehead bulged up in two creases. The hands and feet were webbed, but not very far up, in fact only just noticeably, and as for the rest of the body, he was exactly like a man—a well-built large man—except that he was a dark spotted green-brown in color and had no hair anywhere.
He sounds like a very large, oddly-hued, somewhat childish man who regularly consumes his weight in avocados. I mean, with that description, he could live in Brooklyn. The creature in The Shape of Water eats cats.
(Speaking of his manliness, considering the fact that Dorothy has sex with Larry very soon after the above description, the text between those em-dashes signifies something to me regarding his lovemaking abilities, but it’s all very curtains-in-the-wind. There is no information in the novel about how exactly it works. The film explains things a bit better, in a series of hand gestures that prompt Octavia Spencer’s Zelda to comment, “Lord, never trust a man. Even when he looks flat down there.”)
The point is, Larry is much more like a man than del Toro’s monster, and this is part of what makes the romance in the book easier to take in stride, despite the fact that it’s probably less “realistic”—in the sense that your average magical South American creature dredged up to be studied by scientists has no particular reason to be human-like in any way. Larry is just . . . well, he’s sexier than the unnamed monster in the lab. Hell, he even dances. Even while she’s falling in love, Elisa looks like she’s taming a wild animal.
But that’s not the only reason that Mrs. Caliban is more convincing than The Shape of Water. Both book and film open with striking surreal elements that go entirely unexplained, and seem to exist only to signal to the reader/viewer that they ought to be expecting something other than the strictly ordinary. In the first pages of Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy hears messages on the radio, messages that others don’t hear and that are sometimes directed specifically to her, Dorothy, telling her that everything is going to be all right. In the first minutes of The Shape of Water, the chocolate factory down the street is on fire (“toasted cocoa,” sniffs Giles, “tragedy and delight, hand in hand”), which is the kind of thing you’d expect in a movie directed by Wes Anderson. Similarly, there’s the man with balloons and birthday cake (a single slice has gone missing) waiting for the bus, that Amelie-ish hyper-saturation and the film’s insistence on the color green (“green is the future,” says Giles’s reticent advertising director), including the fridge full of noxious key lime pie.
In Mrs. Caliban, this surrealist opening salvo bears (lightly) on the story as a whole; Dorothy first hears about “Aquarius the Monsterman” on the radio, and thinks for a moment it could be of the same quality other snippets, that is, either supernatural or hallucinated (which opens the same possibility for the reader, by the way). After he appears, however, the radio messages are gone, never to be mentioned again—only the unease they’ve created lingers. In The Shape of Water, the moments of unexplained surreality seem to be entirely unrelated to the story of Elisa and the monster. Instead, they simply create atmosphere, which would be fine except that it’s an atmosphere at odds with the rest of the story. These details—as well as the Beauty and the Beast-esque logic of love—quickly become irrelevant, and even discordant.
Maybe this is simply a case of fairy tale logic working better on the page, where the reader is building a world from scratch as opposed to being given a window into a recognizable one—where they expect things to work in a certain way. In fairy tales, of course, there is no need to explain character motivations. The woman doesn’t even have to be lonely to sleep with the monster (though it helps). Things are simply done, or even more simply are, and we accept them. The girl is sent into the woods alone. The prince falls in love. The key is a fairy. Kate Bernheimer calls this “intuitive logic,” and describes it as “a sort of nonsensical sense. . . Things usually happen in a fairy tale when they need to happen, but other things happen that have no relevance apart from the effect of language. This is not logically connected to that, except by syntax, by narrative proximity. . . You do not doubt that a fairy tale happened just as it was written.”
Unless the fairy tale takes place during the Cold War, the way The Shape of Water does. I understand the intellectual logic behind the Russians wanting the monster for experiments related to space travel, but that part of the story inhabits a different world then the monster itself—and, for that matter, the burning chocolate factory. The world is unbalanced here; it’s working on two separate logical and emotional planes. For that reason, I cannot believe in it as fully.
In both film and novella, the monster seems set up to serve as a kind of Manic Pixie Dream Boy for the female protagonist—primed to swan in, change the woman’s sad life, and then float away with the tide. But to the credit of both book and film, things don’t exactly end up that way. Both texts end with the woman letting the monster go; both releases are marred by dramatic violence. Both endings are somewhat ambiguous, though I (shocker) prefer the ending of Mrs. Caliban, in which there is no suggestion whatsoever that Dorothy’s life has been forever changed for the good by her encounter with the monsterman. Her life is now worse by any measure. The Manic Pixie Dream Boy has failed. Guillermo del Toro, for all his reputation for darkness, actually gives us a more hopeful ending: that Elisa and her monster might live happily ever after under the waves—deeply improbable, even for a story like this.
Which is not to say that The Shape of Water doesn’t have its merits. It’s certainly worth seeing—for its strange beauty, for its fantastic effects, for its stellar acting. But if you consume only one piece of art about a woman sleeping with a sea monster this year, my advice is to make it Mrs. Caliban.
*“Do you know,” says a character in The Shape of Water, right after describing a mermaid he’d seen at a carnival, which turned out to be a monkey sewn to a fish, “cornflakes were invented to prevent masturbation. Didn’t work.” For his part, Larry, talking about TV programs, says, “They lie about lots of things. Remember the cornflakes.” Sure, the lie could be just “cornflakes are delicious,” since they make Larry throw up (Dorothy’s husband likes them), but in a book like this, I think Ingalls is giving us the wink.