June 25, 2012
The Vicious Circle reads Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Comparing covers is one of my favourite parts of being in a book club, and I was overjoyed at our meeting last week to see that one of my comrades had brought along the crazy psychedelic edition that I read in university and had completely forgotten the look of. This time around, I’d bought a very respectable Modern Library edition (see below) whose previous owner had only yellow-highlighted a few random lines in chapter five.
Anyway, I’m off track already, which is okay, because Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a bit heavy on the preamble anyway. (I made a chart: there are at least five stories in a story in this story, maybe six.) We didn’t have a roaring fire to gather ’round last Tuesday night, but we didn’t need one because it was so hot you’d sweat sleeping. We met up in the East End in one of the finest backyards in the city, and ate cheese, cherries, and strawberry bread, and drank just as much as we should have.
We got to talking about this book and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, about a person dealing with the implications of having created a murderous monster, and considering whether or not the monstrousness was innate or the result of the creator’s lack of naturing. (You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing??” says Frankenstein’s monster at one point.) We spend a long time arguing about whether we were talking about Frankenstein or his monster when we said “Frankenstein”, and 50% of the time, we meant the other. Which is funny because of how they became the same creature eventually, how Mary Shelley might have planned that confusion.
Is Victor Frankenstein sympathetic? And we were fortunate this night to have a Frankenstein scholar in our midst, who has written actual books on the subject, so we ended up talking about blow jobs a lot less than usual and instead discussed Victor as a man who truly doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. We talked about the monster as self-taught (and how we loved that he took fiction as history, what it means to see the world that way), as representative of the limits of what one can do with one’s self, analogous with what a woman could do with herself in the early 19th century. And Mary Shelley herself, her biography, kept coming into this conversation. Author’s biography means more to a classic than to a contemporary work. Or does it… How we keep comparing the book to contemporary novels, because there was nothing else like it in its time, how it was a pointed response to the Romantics.
We talked about Walton the Polar Explorer, and Victor Frankenstein, of their senses of themselves as loners, as heroes, but that they’re both self-indulgent and controlling, messing with other people’s lives. It’s only their complete disregard of others which allows them to cast themselves as selfless heroes at all. How the miracle of Victor’s singular creation is something that women do all the time. Frankenstein and motherhood– apparently Shelley wrote the novel while she was pregnant. In a few weeks. Though novels are always becoming engulfed in these sorts of legends– it’s just another ring around the kernel of the story.
We talked about how Victor and the monster’s voices become more and more alike as the novel progresses, about how Victor seems set up for some of the monster’s crimes and how they’re so connected by that point that it doesn’t matter who killed who, their crazy symbiotic relationship in which neither can live without the other and Victor virtually sacrifices his bride as bait for his obsession. How the monster’s own dawning consciousness was like a baby’s, but that he’s never allowed to evolve into a human being. How you can never escape what you look like, how monsters bring out the monstrosity in others. We wondered about Mary Shelley whose own mother died in childbirth. Who was her monster?
And then the very last note I took was without context, “Hemingway was the John Irving of his time” and we’d lost the plot by then. We started yelling about 50 Shades and the state of publishing, and so it seems most appropriate just to leave it there.