Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Monster's Notes

Sheck, Laurie. 2009. A Monster's Notes. Random House. 532 pages.

Does a book have to make sense in order for you to like it? That my friends is the question. If the answer is yes, then chances are you'd be better off skipping Laurie Sheck's A Monster's Notes. If the answer is no, then go ahead and give it a try.

Before I get too far into this review, the premise of this one is simple. (The book is anything but.) The premise is that Shelley didn't create Frankenstein's monster, she met him. He was real. This creature is someone she met as a child. Met him in the cemetery while visiting her mother's grave. She would visit him regularly. He would read to her. He only showed himself the once, but he would be there hidden, waiting for her to come. The premise is that he was real. That he was living then and now. (The monster/creature is in fact quite good with the internet. He loves to google.)

Okay, so I've implied the book doesn't make sense...but you may be wondering why I'd say such a thing. It's not that the book has no narrative structure. It does. In a way. We have three sections of notes. We have three other sections--focused sections: Ice Diary, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Metropolis/The Ruins at Luna. "Ice Diary" focuses on Claire, Mary Shelley's sister, a woman who travelled with Mary and Percy often. A woman who's touch and go (to put it mildly) with sanity. "Dream of the Red Chamber" focuses on Henry Clerval. In Sheck's version, Clerval is not murdered. Far from it, he has simply run away. Run to the East. To China. He is fulfilling his own dreams. In this case, he is translating Chinese literature. "Metropolis/The Ruins at Luna" focuses on Mary Shelley herself. What about the notes? What do they have to do with anything? Well, here's a small sprinkling: Notes on Agnes Martin, Notes on John Cage, Notes on Stelarc, Notes on Eva Hesse, Notes on Albertus Magnus, Notes on Marco Polo, Notes on Leprosy, Notes on Perplexity, Notes on Genetic Privacy, etc. I think they're used thematically--sometimes more successfully than others, in my humble opinion, to introduce ideas to perhaps act as a filter for interpreting the other narrative portions. For example, "Notes on Leprosy" introduces the theme of being a leper, of being an outcast. Henry Clerval has pretend-correspondence* with a leper in his narrative portion.

How does this one work? It asks readers to believe that this creature, this being, this soul is somehow or other (forget about logic explaining just how or exactly why) linked to Mary Shelley, Henry Clerval, and Claire Clairmont. (The only one he has ever seen face to face is Mary Shelley.) He can see what they write. He keeps tabs on them so to speak by watching what these three are writing. Their letters. Their journals and diaries. Their lists. Sometimes he can (magically) see the hand that is writing. If he's lucky, he can see more than that. An arm. A glimpse of face. But his connection is with their written words.

What does this mean for the reader? Well, it means that since Claire is (and not without good reason) a bit insane at times, that the first 170 pages makes little sense. She's unhappy, frustrated, sad, disappointed, confused, angry, depressed, melancholy, etc. She is writing letters to a sister that is dead. We see a few lists. We see a few lessons. (Sheck, I believe, has her acting as a tutor or governess at one point. But I can't say that for certain because as I said it's hard to follow.) It also means that once the transition has been made to Clerval and Mary that it becomes easier. Not easy. But easier. Mary's section "Metropolis/The Ruins at Luna" is without a doubt the best of the three. The most interesting. The most insightful. So if you can stick around until page 353, then you won't have trouble finishing it because it only gets better from there.

The book asks readers to sift through the narrative. To sift through a lot of unnecessary (but sometimes thematic) prose in order to find the good stuff, the meaning-of-life stuff, the real and the genuine. So on the one hand, it is there waiting to be found. But on the other hand, is it worth the effort of shifting through so very much stuff that is purposefully (in my opinion) nonsensical?

Here is a narrative section from Claire's portion,

Fanny, ever since I wrote to you last night I've been thinking about the word "or"--

I think of the "or" in order, terror, fortress. It seems there are so many alternatives inside each single word and feeling, each idea (so are we wrong, then, to think of them as single?), that there exists no singular direction in the brain, not really, but many directions conversing with each other, wondering against and in and through each other. Or and or and or. "As if she were still here, or," "or If I hadn't agreed to," "or had she known beforehand that," "or if I hadn't told him," "or if safety existed," "or hot as I am there's this chill in me also." (90)

Which leads the monster/creature/being narrator to add:

Or if I didn't look like this. Or if my voice hadn't vanished. Or if you hadn't made me. Or if Claire could see how I watch her. Or if sledges didn't break and dogs go blind. Or if they had a better map. Or had they not gone there. Or if ice didn't kill. Or if there were no such thing as distance. (90)
That's how this works. The monster adds in his little thoughts and asides to everything else. Sometimes it's worth the rambling that surrounds it, sometimes it's not.

Here are some "monster" highlights:

From "Ice Diary"
So it's the fragile that enables. The fragile that makes possible what's seen.

If you could have seen even a small part of me as fragile, would you have acted as you did? If you, like Montaigne, had mistrusted the surmises of your mind...And what happened to your eyes when mine first opened? (104)
From "Notes on Leprosy"

Did you fear the horror of what I was, or what you believed me to be, would spread to you as well, a mad secret festering then bursting on your skin? (185)

If you could have forbidden me, what might you have said? "I forbid you to read books or to go out into the world which doesn't want you, I forbid you to think of me, I forbid you to seek any comfort in another. I forbid you to wonder why I made you or who I am or where I've gone to. I forbid you to speak to me. I forbid you to show your yellow eyes. (185)
From Notes on Genetic Privacy

In "consent" I hear "sent." You sent me forth into my self, my body, but that self was made of otherness and strangeness, in darkness and in shame. The experiment I was wasn't mine. I was sent into a foreign country, but that country's inside me, and I never meant to go. (337)

Unlike them, you hid in shame what you had done. Should I respect the shame you felt? Feel tenderness toward the way you suffered, lived in secrecy? But what might have happened if I'd turned out as you wanted? What if you'd liked what you had made, hadn't felt ashamed, disgusted? That question haunts me. (338)
Would I recommend A Monster's Notes? I think that depends entirely on you. I think it will appeal more to some than to others. The novel is heavy in philosophy. It quotes philosophers right and left. It takes a few ideas and spends pages examining and twisting and turning and contemplating. It has some literary references as well. I remember one reference to Bartleby the Scrivener. And there were probably a dozen more. At least. I caught a few. Told myself to remember which books/authors they were. And then promptly forgot. (I'm not going to reread the book to catch them all either.)

Am I glad I read it? Mostly. I still wish it had been told more traditionally. You know with a straightforward narrative that wasn't so awkward and weighed down with pointless and irrelevant ramblings. And I wish that she hadn't felt compelled to make these ramblings so nonsensical. Letters and entries with more xxx's and crossed out words, unfinished sentences, than anything else. I came to hate the letter x. If she was fined for the number of times it was used within the book, maybe she'd reconsider and have more mercy on us all. But. There were places where the text worked. Mostly.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages:

I wonder what she'd think of this Golden Lion Frankenstein edition (Lion Book No. 146, New York, 1953; the price on the cover 25 cents) I found in the trash the other day.

THE GREATEST HORROR STORY OF THEM ALL it says above the title, and beneath, a man with huge bloodied hands stands at the bedside of a murdered young woman. BETTER BOOKS FOR EVERYBODY along the bottom of the title page, and then "And so was born the monster Frankenstein, the freak who murdered and pillaged, who thrust naked terror into the lives of half the people in the world." Those words she never wrote. Instead, she'd given her creature/monster/being books to wander in and learn from, had let him think about the things she and Shelley talked of--slavery, oppression, loneliness, friendship, faithfulness, freedom. (498)

*I call it pretend correspondence because Clerval receives letters (from this leper) and writes letters. But he never sends his side of the correspondence. He never intends to send his portion of letters. So what kind of real correspondence is that??? A plot device is what it is.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


chrisa511 said...

I was so so so so disappointed in this one!!! I had really high hopes for it and was super excited about it...but I couldn't even get past the first 50 pages. It was literally like torture :( So needless to say, I didn't even finish it.

DesLily said...

oh boy... First Chris gave up on it and now this... i think it just went to the bottom of the tbr pile!!! My mind is not in a condition to read anything but simple and straight forward ... thanks for the warning Becky!

Anonymous said...

Reading that must indeed have taken some perseverence! And making so much sense of it in the review... Really interesting review, Becky!:) L.

Voracia: Goddess of Words said...

Hi, I stumbled across your blog and found it very inspirational. You sure do read a lot! I've added you to my favorite book review links and I'll stop by again soon. Happy reading!

Becky said...

Chris, I know what you mean. I'm so glad I didn't preorder this. When I started seeing some reviews come in, I decided to make this a library read. And "like torture" is a good way to say it. Especially those first hundred or so pages.

DesLily, it's disappointing that it couldn't be something other than what it was. I still wish someone would write a book based on this premise. I think if a reader has the patience to push on, then this one can be appreciated. And I've seen good reviews of this in various places. It's really hard to describe what the style is like.

A Buckeye Girl Reads said...

I don't know how you got through this book. I think I would have given up half way through.

Andi said...

I haven't heard of this one at all, but it sounds like something I would love! Thanks for the great review! I don't always comment, but I love visiting your blog, Becky!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Thanks for stopping by my Frankenstein musings. When I got the recommendation for this book from a friend, this is the sort of book I expected it to be. He's very into thematic books that mix genre conventions in complicated ways, something I'm slightly less excited about but still really curious. Unlike the other commenters, your review actually made me sort of excited -- it's been awhile since I read a fiction book that stretched my brain and I feel like this one might do it.