Friday, August 14, 2009

Books: Just in case.

Mary Shelley’s protean, seminal Frankenstein is unique among horror novels in that the legend of its creation is nearly as well known as the book itself. Certainly a scholar might tease out the social, scientific, and historical contexts of Dracula (as Leonard Wolf did for his brilliant annotated edition) or discuss the autobiographical resonances of Poe’s life in his works, but even people with only a passing knowledge Frankenstein probably remember that the book’s origins have something to do with dark and stormy nights, a story contest, and a nightmare. More ardent fans could probably run down a list of guests at the Villa Diodati, understand Shelley's proximity to the political and scientific upheavals of the day, the role Shelley's husband and Bryon may have played in shaping the text (both literally and as influences on Shelley's thinking), and so on. When it comes to understanding the book's continuing relevance, Shelley's reading public has never found itself appealing to academic theories about Shelley's importance. Rather, in a rare example of public and evolving literary criticism, the novel, its titular scientist, and the beast he created are regularly evoked and altered to meet our cultural needs. It is a sign of the book's enduring power that its contexts and subtexts haunt us almost as deeply as the text does.

This complicates another aspect of the book's popularity: the fact that artists are constantly rewriting, revisiting, and reworking Shelley's text. Shelley's monster still looms so large over the genres of horror and sci-fi that thousands of writers, artists, and filmmakers have revised or expanded the book in hopes of teasing out or highlighting new aspects of this familiar work. The impulse is understandable, but the results are almost negligible. With the exception of the first two Frankenstein films, none of these derivative works have ever really altered how we think of the novel. This is partially because the damned monster and his doomed creator have evolved past archetypes into basic components of our intellectual machinery. There are certain social and moral issues we simply can't discuss without arguing in Frankensteinian terms. (Those these issues evolve just as our monster does: for early Victorians, it was the insidious threat of the "dangerous" classes; for Americans in the early Twentieth Century, it was science unbound by ethical or religious limitations; for the post-bomb world, it is the frightening specter of technology that we cannot control.) We don't need these themes teased out for us because we are constantly working the same beat ourselves. The other major factor is that scholars have beat the artists to the punch when it comes to Frankenstein. Want to write a novel about the role of gender in Frankenstein? We already know about the reproduction without female thing; it's been covered. Scientific context of the time? Yep. Social revolutionary ideals? You bet, chief. Doubles and doppelgangers? Sure 'nuff.

The result is that even the best reworking of the original material must fight against an inherent sense of redundancy and irrelevance. What more is there to say?

This problem haunts Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, a retelling of Shelley's novel that takes the original scientist, sends him to college in Shelley's England, and the tangles him up in the fictionalized lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, and others. The result is that the currents of politics and science that influenced Shelley's creation are highlighted as things that influence Frankenstein the character to create his infamous monster.

Ackroyd, whose wonderfully odd Milton in America stands as one of my favorite alternate history novels, is no stranger to the subgenre of historical what-ifs. Though he takes great liberties with the chronologies and biographical details of the Shelley's set (for example, Harriet dies before P. B. meets Mary and the couple are married before the famed Geneva trip), Ackroyd's recreation of a society on the cusp of unimagined social and intellectual upheaval feels right. Whereas Victor's scientific prowess was mostly background matter in Shelley's original, Ackroyd firmly situates him in the events of the day. Victor meets real-life scientific figures of the era and discusses "vitreous and resinous electricities" and reads books with delightfully Borgesian titles like A Natural History of Teeth. Coleridge, who makes a cameo in the book, was fond of saying that science was an influence on his poetry. He felt it armed him with a growing arsenal of metaphors that, because they reflected a rigorous understanding of the workings of the word, would impose upon his own insights the logic of reality. Given the wealth of cracked and erroneous theories that passed as scientific truth in Coleridge's day, his conclusion that science metaphors grant intellectual strength seems dubious; but, Coleridge's attraction to the imagery and sound of science is something Ackroyd makes immediately understandable. There's a surrealistic poetry to jargon of Romantic Era science, partially explainable in that so much of it preceded from metaphorical argument. Take this wonderful scene in which Victor debates the nature of the eye with a fellow researcher:

"The eye is a tender organ." He spoke slowly for emphasis. "It swims in a sea of water."

"I beg your pardon. It does not."


"It has roots and tendrils. It is like a trailing plant connected to the soil of the brain."

"Can we say that it is like a lily? It swims on the surface."

Though an anatomically exact description, there's something Monty Pythonish about the whole exchange. Ackroyd has a wonderful ear for such moments.

The plot follows the original in a loose parallel. The monster is made and demands a mate. Frankenstein cannot comply. The creature is angered and begins to take it out on those Frankenstein cares the most for- only in this case, Victor is a bachelor and the targets of the monster's rage are fringe figures from the Shelley circle. However, the end of this version is, I think, certain to piss off many Shelley fans. On reconsidering the book for this review, I've softened towards the finale. At the time, however, I thought it was a crap way to sign off.

Ackroyd has made some significant characterization decisions that cast both Shelley's characters and her real-life contemporaries in a novel light. Mary Shelley's husband is softened around the edges. Ackroyd's Percy Bysshe is an over earnest but charismatic man who seems prone to the occasional dumb slip up, but he isn't a raving egomaniac who is fanatically convinced of his own profound moral insight. John Polidori, often depicted as a kind of sad sack hanger-on of Byron's, comes off as a calm, calculating, and critical shadow to Byron's outsized Romanticism. There's something powerful and sinister about him, which is a refreshingly novel characterization. Among the fictional characters, Ackroyd's Frankenstein and creature switch roles. Frankenstein is a loquacious narrator while the creature is a sullen, terse figure. I thought this was a misstep at first, but the swap has a bigger thematic purpose that's clear by the end of the novel.

Still while Ackroyd's novel is good, what does it add to our understanding of the original? Nothing much. Victor seems more of a scientist, but his of bringing the creature to life remain firmly in the realm of fantasy. The politics of Mary Shelley's creative circle are laid bare, but we were familiar with those and, by pulling his punches, Ackroyd doesn't even give us the group at their most impacting and base.

But maybe that's not what the drives these stories. Frankenstein was, after all is said and done, a well-told story. Perhaps all these artists, regardless of their own contributions to the legend, can't resist taking part in a well-told story. And we'll perhaps never grow tired of reading them because, honestly, what's better than a good story.

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