The Book I Read: Frankenstein Forever

Hey there! Welcome back to the Book I Read with Michael Jarmer Writer Guy—that’s still me—a podcast/blog series where I talk about books and reading, writing, listening, teaching and learning. It’s September, the leaves are coming down, the nights are getting cool, and the Halloween holiday is fast approaching—Thanksgiving and Christmas too, apparently, by the looks of the displays already up in the supermarkets. I’ve never been a fan of those early displays, and the stores that dedicate themselves around the calendar and around the clock specifically to particular holidays I have always found somewhat offensive. Let me enjoy my summer, or my fall, without the constant bombardment by the next great holiday shopping obligation. But you know, we’re almost all the way through September, so it seems appropriate to talk about the spooky, and, but, also, Halloween or no Halloween, it’s always a good time to talk about Frankenstein.   

So today, in an episode/blog appropriately titled Frankenstein Forever, I’m going to talk about three books to celebrate Mary Shelley’s masterpiece: Frankenstein, duh, by Mary Shelley, Monster Talk, by Michael Jarmer (that’s me), and Unwieldy Creatures by Addie Tsai.  

First, I want to tell the story of my Frankenstein initiation and describe my particular affinity with this novel. Here’s a confession of sorts. I read Mary Shelley’s novel late—not until I was 35 did I crack this thing open for the first time. It was kind of a happy accident that I was teaching using a strategy we call Literature Circles, in which small groups of students would choose to study a novel together from a list of a whole bunch of choices. Typically, the books on the list were novels I had taught before or read but there would also be a number of titles that I had not taught, and possibly not even read, which ended up on the list because they were appropriate choices for the unit and copies could easily be found in the recesses of our book rooms. Most of the groups in the room were likely reading books I knew, so I could guide their work appropriately—but when students chose a novel I was unfamiliar with, I would make it a practice of reading that book right alongside my students. So—it’s 2001 or 2, and a group of students chooses to read Frankenstein. I have since taught the novel to whole groups of students several times. I’d love to talk about what that experience was like, but not just yet, and maybe not in this episode. That might be another podcast.  

Now, approaching Frankenstein for the first time is a revelation—because everybody knows, or thinks they know, the story. And they are inevitably wrong. So, there’s this epiphany that happens for every new reader of the novel: This is it! This is the real deal! We have been lied to and misinformed! Hollywood has a way of doing that to people—especially in cases when a film adapted from literature becomes a classic and at some point more people by a long shot have seen the film than have read the book. The novel Frankenstein is about as far away from the 1931 Boris Karloff film as one could imagine—and the Boris Karloff film is indelibly etched into the collective pop culture brain as “the original.” O the humanity. What a disservice. 

I’d like to let you in on some of the most egregious ways in which Mary Shelley’s novel was bastardized—not the least of which might be the collective misunderstanding of Frankenstein as being the name of the monster—it is not—the monster in Shelley’s novel is not named, Frankenstein being the name of the mad scientist who creates him—but I think I want to hold off on this list of crimes against Mary Shelley (it might also be a different podcast) to go back to describing my first experience with the novel. 

At this time in my life—I happened to be going through a crisis—a crisis of identity, of purpose, a moment where I was questioning everything about my life that had become my normal way of being. I don’t think I want to get into the specifics here, not in this arena—suffice it to say that I was feeling lost, utterly rudderless, confused, and in anguish about some of my very disruptive life choices. In steps Frankenstein—which is a novel about, if it is about anything, what happens when good people do awful things—and who, for whatever reason, for a myriad of reasons, cannot right the ship. I felt, as the good Doctor Victor Frankenstein feels through most of the novel, completely out of control, completely at sea, incapable of repairing the damage I had caused. Spoiler alert. My story ended happily. Frankenstein’s story does not. I think in many ways the novel Frankenstein was part of my healing—and because it came into my life at such a pivotal, appropriate time, it also provided inspiration for a novel of my own. Bonus! 

And this podcast, Frankenstein Forever, takes a look at the ways in which great literature can spawn and inspire other creative works. I mean, this is not news—Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own that great novels “are not solitary births,” –meaning that all works of literature have their forefathers and foremothers to thank—that literature does not come out of a vacuum. But there are particular literary phenomena that are obviously more directly inspired by previous works: the prequel, the spin-off, the retelling, the sequel. And any cursory search on the interwebs will produce boatloads of Frankenstein inspired novels. Boatloads, just as there are boatloads of Frankenstein inspired films. I’m not sure if I knew about all those books when I started writing mine and I’m not sure that it would have mattered to me. I was compelled and that compulsion stuck with me through the ten years it took me to finish my novel, Monster Talk—which falls, I suppose, in the spin-off category, and more loosely, the sequel category. 

I feel a little bit like jumping around—this last bit seems like a good segue into talking about my own work—but before I do that, I want to just drop some truth bombs at this point about Mary Shelley’s novel, and talk quickly about why it’s unique, what it’s about, and why it’s important. As I am wont to do, I’ll just make a list. 

  1. Mary Shelley wrote this novel when she was 18 years old. I don’t think I have ever met a teenager, and I have met lots of teenagers, who would be capable of this. Shelley has a command of the language that is astounding for such a young person. Here’s a quick little example of just a few sentences pulled almost randomly off the first page of the novel: “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible; its broad disc just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There—for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in proceeding navigators—there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe.” Show me an 18-year old who writes sentences like that and I’ll eat my hat.  
  2. This is pretty common knowledge, but I find it fascinating nevertheless: She writes the novel in response to a challenge between friends vacationing in Switzerland in very bad weather. The challenge, to entertain one another and to pass the time, is to write ghost stories. Among the friends in question: the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, literary giants of the age—fun fact: neither of these guys were successful in the challenge—only Mary’s contribution survived the wager, and, ultimately came to full fruition.
  3. Shelley chooses for her novel a point of view approach that I still find miraculously modern and sophisticated. It is epistolary, which means the narrative is composed of a series of letters—and that by itself would not have been uncommon in the 19th century and earlier as a literary device—but the way she handles it is mind-boggling—because, while the entire novel is framed by the letters of the explorer Robert Walton to his sister Margaret, Shelley nevertheless creates this crazy layered cake of narrative—whereby Robert writes to his sister, tells his story to her, and then, when his ship out there stuck in the ice in the north pole (I know, the north pole!) is visited by a desperate and haunted stranger (who happens to be our mad scientist), Robert relays, verbatim, the stranger’s story, and within the stranger’s story, narrative by other characters revealed to him through more letters, and then, at a point late in the stranger’s story, another voice, that of the monster, is relayed by the stranger to Walton who, one would think, relays it back to Walton’s sister. That’s not even the extent of the point of view fireworks—because there is still another narrative that unfolds around the characters who ultimately and tragically come into contact with Frankenstein’s monster—a narrative, I believe, imbedded inside the monster’s narrative, delivered to Walton’s stranger, delivered by the stranger to Walton, delivered by Walton to his sister Margaret. Now, I don’t know. One might get into some trouble as an MFA student studying fiction, perhaps, trying to pull this off. And some might find it peculiar even in Mary Shelley’s handling of it. I don’t care. It works. It has worked. It continues to work. It’s brilliant and rebellious, albeit, a bit messy. She was 18!  
  4. And what is hinted at in this last paragraph, and what is commonly unknown by folks who have only the classic Frankenstein films to draw from, is that the monster in this novel is a literate, articulate, eloquent, passionate speaker of the King’s English. My favorite part of this novel is the monster’s narrative. 
  5. And of course, while some films hinted at this, I suppose, what is most clear in Shelley’s Frankenstein is that the monster is primarily a victim, he is, despite his heinous trespasses, sympathetic—we feel compassion for him and are incensed with him about the way he has been abandoned and abused. And the good Dr. Frankenstein is not so good—he is, essentially, the villain. He is a man obsessed with fame and fortune, possessed by an uncontrollable ego, a tireless and selfish drive for a god-like status—and the absolute biggest dead-beat dad in all of literature. And almost all the deaths in this novel could be squarely placed on his irresponsible shoulders. What makes things worse—or more intensely dramatic—is that through all of it, he seems aware of his shortcomings but incapable of making good decisions, decisions that would benefit himself, his loved ones, or his creation. He just fails in every possible direction. And like Hawthorne’s adulterous minister, even his confessions are bad. 
  6. One of the mysteries of the novel involves trying to figure out where Victor Frankenstein goes wrong. His childhood is idyllic. He is loved and taken excellent care of. He has every advantage. He is morally upstanding—but that all goes out the window when he becomes obsessed with science, and initially, out of good intentions, inspired, perhaps, by the tragic death of his mother, sets out to play God, to cheat death by, of all things, creating life FROM death. So, is the novel about the dangers of ambition? Sure. The ethical minefield of scientific discovery? Yeah, that too. The absence and/or deaths of so many mothers—coupled with the biographical fact that Mary Shelley lost her mom almost as early as one could possibly lose her—as the result of some kind of infection directly after childbirth—could this novel be about what’s lost when men lose their mothers? Yes. How inept men are at child-rearing? Sure. The women in this novel are mostly angelic and good—but tragically die—one dies after nursing a sick child, one is unjustly hung, another murdered. And this is a novel about IDENTITY and personhood and self-determination and actualization—the importance of, the difficulties of, the dangers of. What and who are the monsters in our society? So–the themes in this novel are vast, far-reaching, and easily applied to one’s own life experiences—any time, any place, Frankenstein has something to say to everybody. 
  7. And finally, Mary Shelley essentially and single-handedly invented science fiction. So there. 

I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about my own novel—it seems a bit self-indulgent (says the podcaster/blogger). I will tell you that I’m proud of it—but I can’t go on and on about how great it is. I can only humbly request and hope that you would give it a read. But I can comfortably and without bragging just tell you what kind of a thing it is. My novel Monster Talk is a spin-off, and more loosely, a sequel. It takes the somewhat ambiguous ending of Shelley’s novel and the inspiration of two key passages from the original as it’s jumping off point. What follows is a spoiler—but I kind of feel like knowing the way a story ends before you’ve read it hardly, if ever, “ruins” anything. The point is not to find out what happens, but HOW it happens. So let me just say quickly that at the end of Mary Shelley’s novel Dr. Frankenstein dies on Walton’s ship after he has finished relating his tale. The monster then, who ultimately sought his creator’s destruction and has followed him all the way to the pole of the earth for this purpose, now has no more reason to live. In the last sentence of the novel, we see the monster walking across the frozen tundra and disappearing on the horizon. We do not see him die. So, my novel answers the question: what if he lived? Where would he go? What would he do? So—what, two or three hundred years later, there is a boy living in an Arizona suburb who happens to be a descendent of Mary Shelley’s surviving monster. 

My novel is a spin-off. And it appears that most of the novels I’ve encountered that are inspired by Shelley’s novel are either spin-offs, prequels or sequels—But Addie Tsai’s Unwieldy Creatures is none of these. Oh joy!

What is it, then? It’s a retelling! It is, essentially, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reimagined and recast. The opening blurb in the promotional description of the novel calls it a “biracial, queer, gender-swapped retelling.” And that it is, 100%. The Victor Frankenstein in the novel is a mixed-race Indonesian woman named Zoelle, the character based loosely on Robert Walton is Plum, a biracial Chinese woman. Both of these main characters are women who present masculine characteristics, who are, for all intents and purposes, non-binary. And the monster or creature in the story is non-binary in perhaps the purest sense, in that he/she/they (or dia) is an intersexed individual. And I should probably explain that the word dia in this novel, a non-gendered pronoun from Indonesia, is the pronoun that the creature, named Ash, would prefer, dia says,“if I ever become part of the world.”  

I wonder, with a novel like this, and a novel like my own, how a positive reading experience is or is not dependent upon the reader’s familiarity with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. My gut feeling is to say that for it to be fully successful, it can’t be dependent on that. 

I know that in my case, I wanted it to be an accessible and enjoyable story regardless of my reader’s background knowledge, so what I did (in part because it served the story, but also because it enlightened the uninitiated) is to have characters who were reading Mary Shelley’s novel, and in the process, talking to other characters about the experience. So, in my novel there is a lot of help for people who don’t know anything outside the images of Boris Karloff. My novel also happens to be a novel that is, in no small part, a novel ABOUT reading, the power of, the magic of, the soul-making aspects of, and the intimacy of reading together. But the core plot activity of my novel, I think, is mostly independent of background knowledge of the original. 

Here’s the question applied to Addie Tsai’s novel. Because it is a ‘retelling,’ a reader who is unfamiliar with the original will have no problem understanding Unwieldy Creatures. If the reader is vaguely familiar—or has read Frankenstein but so long ago they’ve forgotten the finer aspects of its plot and themes—they might also be just fine. I think it may prove most difficult for readers who might be huge fans, or experts or scholars, or deeply familiar because they have taught the work, read it yesterday, or have written novels inspired by it. And I say it might be difficult, because, personally, I found myself reading Unwieldy Creatures unwittingly engaged in a kind of treasure hunt. It’s a double-edged sword, because that can either be super fun, an activity that makes one feel smart—or distracting—something that pulls one out of the fictive dream. And personally, I found it both fun and distracting. 

One of the things that makes Unwieldy Creatures especially distinct from its source material, and one of the initial surprises, is that Addie Tsai takes some time drawing direct and explicit parallels—references and allusions abound—the early reference to ambition gone wrong, characters who feel out of place, characters who are struggling with identity, use the word ‘creature’ to describe themselves, characters with extremely troubled family of origin issues (which, in the original, is not Victor’s problem, but the creature’s), and then finally and more obviously, there’s the first reference to Zoelle, early on named only as a person known professionally as Dr. Frank, a scientist who has penned a book titled The Frankenstein Dilemma, A Future Without Men. Yowza. A quick sidenote here: Dr. Frank’s ambition, rather than creating a new entity sewn together from various dead people parts, is to create a viable embryo through a process called In Vitro Gametogenesis. But we’re 82 pages into this novel before the word monster is used for the first time—or, at least, the first time I noticed it—and we are about 140 pages in before the creature is created—so much of what comes before is the development of the back stories of our two main characters—Plum and Zoelle, what Shelley did in her novel far more expediently for Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein. And this, I think, is what Addie Tsai does most impressively and what makes this novel most uniquely theirs—these are not just opposites of their Shelley counterparts, but fleshed out human beings, characters who are given specific histories that make them more than gender-swapped, queer versions of the original characters. 

Plum, is perhaps, most different, from her Frankenstein counterpart. Walton is an explorer on the high seas; Plum is a budding scientist—and the way her story intersects with the mad scientist in Unwieldy Creatures is that she becomes an intern for Zoelle—which provides the opportunity for Zoelle to tell her story to Plum, as Victor Frankenstein tells his story to Walton. And as I mentioned earlier as I described Shelley’s layering of narratives, Addie Tsai has done this as well, but with some significant twists and some improvements perhaps—no one is writing letters that must then also convey long spoken narratives—Tsai allows Plum and Zoelle to exchange chapters—Zoelle’s narrative is spoken to Plum—Plum’s story appears also spoken—but the audience for this speech is kept under wraps until the novel’s conclusion. Not gonna spoil that for ya.

So—I’m trying to come to a place where I can reach a conclusion. I kind of feel like I could talk about this novel for a long, long time, there’s much of interest I haven’t discussed and important questions I’d like to ask—but I think that would make for a three-hour podcast or a six-thousand word blog post and would overtax my dear listener’s ears and reader’s eyes. I’d love to chat with someone who has read it. So, for now, I will try to come to some closure. 

As I have said, there is much that makes Unwieldy Creatures distinct and unique from its inspiration, bonus material, if you will, that’s not part of the Shelley masterpiece—but once Zoelle launches into her narrative, the reader who is familiar with Frankenstein will find a counterpart to almost EVERY story thread in Mary Shelley’s original. As I was reading and reflecting on the more obscure aspects of Frankenstein, I thought, well, there’s no way Addie’s gonna work that in, and lo and behold, they did. Addie Tsai is in many ways faithful to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, while still inventing something of her own—which is the key test, right—because ultimately, what’s the point of a retelling? Isn’t that just a very elaborate cheat? Unwieldy Creatures says NO. It says, I honor and pay tribute to Mary Shelley. It says, I love Frankenstein. It says, I want it to be more inclusively representational. I want its themes to reflect the concerns of a group of people that, Shelley, early in the 19th century, could not have spoken to directly—even if she would have wished it. And, I want it to be—(while I’m putting words in the novel’s mouth I would just butt in here to say without a spoiler, is that maybe the most significant departure from Shelley’s masterpiece is in the conclusion of Unwieldy Creatures)Unwieldy Creatures says, I want the Frankenstein story to be REDEMPTIVE. And it is. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my 10th episode, the second episode of Season 2, of a podcast/blog series I’m making about books I am reading in a series called The Book I Read. Hope you enjoyed it. 

Stay tuned for episode 11, an episode for which I have no ideas! But I do have a little bit of a short list. I’ll shuffle through that and see which one speaks to me. I’m for diving into some poetry again. Or, tackling one of those classics—maybe this is the year in which I finally crack the white whale of literature, you guessed it, Moby Dick. Maybe, in keeping with the season, I’ll stay spooky. My son is recommending Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House—which, I have only seen on T.V. I have lots of choices and nothing but time—hee hee. I can’t believe I just said hee hee. 

Until then, if you want to learn more about me and the stuff I write and the music I made, please visit michaeljarmer.com or herecomeseverybody.com to read and listen. Look for me on anchor.fm to subscribe and support for as little as .99 per month, or as much as you want. You can contribute to the sustainability of this little endeavor. You can find my novel Monster Talk at Powells.com, amazon.com, you know, almost anywhere you can buy books on line, but support your local bookstore, would you please. If they don’t have my book, they can order it for you. Hey, and get a copy of Addie Tsai’s Unwieldy Creatures, please, and maybe check out this new website that works to support local book stores called bookshop.org. That’s where I got my copy, I think. 

Thank you so much for tuning in or reading. So long. Be kind. See you next time. Cheers.  

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

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