“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

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“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’m reading Frankenstein at the moment,” I said over Thursday afternoon cocktails (because that’s the sort of life I have). My friend looked at me from over his Manhattan and said, “Boring, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Yes.”

“Thing is,” he explained. “You have to read it through the lens of Frankenstein’s own hubris. He is melodramatic and you’ve gotta go with that to make it tolerable.” Yes, not only is this history’s first science fiction novel, it’s also probably the first emo committed to paper. Frankenstein spends the vast majority of the book moping, hand-wringing, cursing the universe, sobbing and generally wallowing in despair, leading him to be rather an unpleasant and irritating hero.

Cultural osmosis is such that when people think of Frankenstein, and this includes myself, they tend to picture a spooky castle, a stormy night, the hunchbacked assistant Igor and the birth of the Creature. Turns out that this is entirely becuase of the films. The novel is a different beast altogether. There’s no Igor here, and Frankenstein certainly doesn’t appear to be living in a castle. He’s much younger than I anticipated too, having been not long out of university, not even completing his degree, so any title of “Doctor” is a misnomer too. The actual event of him reanimating the Creature feels almost “blink and you’ll miss it”. In fact, I’m loathe to say, I did. It was only when Frankenstein encounters his creation in the Alps later on that I realised his experiment had been a success. I had to go back and read the pages again and there, buried beneath more pages of crying scientist, is a short section where it’s noted that life was indeed created, but Frankenstein immediately freaked out and hid in his bedroom while the Creature fled.

The action is really three stories, each nested within one another. It opens with Captain Robert Walton sailing a ship to explore the North Pole. He is writing letters to his sister, and details that he and his men saw a large, humanoid figure piloting a dog sled across the ice. Not long after, they take on board the very ill Victor Frankenstein who then tells his story.

Frankenstein tells of his life and his scientific experiments. A lot of time his given over to his family life and history, so the science almost seems to become incidental to the story. His tale is interrupted in the middle when he meets the Creature again. The Creature then tells his story and explains that since he ran away he’s been living in a hovel next to a cottage of some poor people, learning to read and speak, and about the world, from their conversations. He demands of Frankenstein that he make him a wife to love, as he doesn’t want to be the one being in the world who is forbidden from having anyone to love.

The story then goes back to Frankenstein’s exploits and how he becomes haunted by the Creature and his plans to bring to life a bride for his creation. Eventually deciding that he doesn’t want to bring about anymore monsters, the Creature then begins to extract revenge and make his creator’s life a living hell. The story ends with Captain Walton writing to his sister again, telling her Frankenstein’s story.

The thing is, the bits that don’t involve Frankenstein are easily the best bits. The Creature has a wonderful way of speaking and is deeply insightful, but I have so many questions. How is it he has to learn about to read and write and speak all over again, when he was once living before? He knows nothing, which seems a bit bizarre to me, although given the whole nature of the novel, it seems odd to focus on something like that. Frankenstein himself isn’t a likeable man, I felt, and many academics have since claimed that he’s really just written to mock Lord Byron, who Shelley knew well. An overemotional drama queen who dropped out of education because he thought he knew better than everyone else, and hated when things didn’t go his way? Sounds about right.

I’m not sorry I read it, but my brief love affair with the classics has, possibly, come to a natural resting point again. It’s remarkable how little of the original novel has seeped into popular culture, but then I suppose that’s the power of film, and maybe this is one where, to get the real sense of drama and horror, it needs to be more visual.

Of course, in this case there is a version of Frankenstein that is definitely better than the book. Morecambe and Wise did it years ago with guest Ian Carmichael. The usual nonsense occurs, with Ian occasionally slipping into song, Eric convinced that he’s in a pantomime, and Ernie being the least terrifying incarnation of the monster ever. Take it away, boys:

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“The Universe Versus Alex Woods” by Gavin Extence (2013)

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Alex Woods

Hardly a fair fight.

“They finally stopped me at Dover as I was trying to get back into the country.”

It’s been a while since my last post but I assure you all that I have not been slacking. I’ve actually read three books in that time (although I’m only reviewing one of them), have been doing my own writing, working and attending a good friend’s wedding. But I’m back here now, happy to say that the universe has not been against me. Alex Woods cannot say the same.

Alex Woods is seventeen-years-old but he is anything but normal. Everyone in the country (and maybe the world) knows his name because he is one of only two people in all of history to have been hit by a meteorite. It shot down through the atmosphere when he was ten years old, smashing through the roof of his house and knocking him on the head, putting him into a two-week coma. Later, side effects such as epilepsy developed and he spent much of his time at home, studying astronomy and science.

He returns to school but is the victim of bullies, who – like so many bullies – are unable to understand the joy of learning and want to pick on Alex just because he’s a bit different. (There’s actually a brilliantly observed piece in here about how that is the only rule that exists in school politics: “Don’t be different”. It’s absurdly true.) On one of these occasions, Alex is chased into the garden of Isaac Peterson, an old and irritable widower. Blamed for the destruction of Mr Peterson’s greenhouse, Alex’s mother (a new age, tarot-reading clairvoyant) insists that he will do chores for the old man until his debt is repaid.

Mr Peterson opens up Alex to a new world by teaching him about Amnesty International, human rights, and the works of Kurt Vonnegut, who quickly becomes Alex’s favourite author. Their friendship begins to bloom and Alex starts finding ways to help Mr Peterson and bring him out of his shell. And just when everything seems to be going swimmingly, their lives come crashing down around them. Mr Peterson has a progressive disease that is affecting his mobility, eyesight and ability to speak. In a matter of years, maybe months, he will be unable to look after himself at all. Certain that this is not how he wants to end his life, he and Alex make a decision – they’re going to Switzerland so that Mr Peterson can die.

This quotes and reviews on the book cover promise a hilarious novel, but in that respect it certainly doesn’t deliver. There are moments of light-heartedness, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not laugh out loud funny. It’s very moving, and very heartfelt, that cannot be denied, and that is how I’m going to approach this.

The book touches on lots of big topics – particle physics, Kurt Vonnegut, astrology and astronomy – but primarily the discussion here is about death and, more specificially, assisted suicide. Alex assures us that it is Mr Peterson’s human right to decide that he wants to end his life so he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong in helping him make his plan come to fruition. I happen to agree, as it goes, and I fully support euthanasia and assisted suicide as options. It’s about quality of life, basically, and is it not potentially better to be dead than trapped in your own body, unable to move but in agonising pain. That seems cruel, to me. We wouldn’t let a dog live that way.

But I’m getting off topic.

The book is quite sweet, and there are some delightful moments within. Alex is a strange mixture of innocent and intelligent, having knowledge in the wrong areas, but he is great in that he sticks to his guns, does what he thinks is right, and knows that as long as he can justify what he’s doing, then it must be done. He is unwavering in his support for Mr Peterson’s decision, and it is a phenomenally brave thing he does to help him go through with it. While I feel he’d not be someone I’d particularly want to meet as I imagine him to be somewhat insufferable, I will nonetheless raise a drink to him.

The characterisation is a bit haphazard elsewhere. Alex’s mother seems a delight, a hard-working single parent who respects her son and isn’t about to stand in his way. Ellie sort of appears from nowhere as Alex’s friend, asking for a job in his mother’s shop. She then sort of pops up now and again for the rest of the novel, but we don’t see a huge amount of interaction. Mr Peterson himself is a very interesting character too, with a sense of purpose and a deep love of reading and culture, that has possibly been somewhat diminished since the death of his wife.

The action takes place over about six years, and obviously you can’t narrate every single day of that, but it does seem that we miss out on quite a lot. How Mr Peterson came to like Alex, for example, is barely touched upon, and their relationship just shifts quite abruptly. It all seems to fall into place a little bit too easily. Because the book jumps back and forth in time a bit as well, there doesn’t always feel a stable bedrock to the action, but this is easily ignored for the writing, which is very interesting.

Aside from the moment when Alex discusses how diversity is wrong at schools (yet brutality, cruelty, violence and holding people’s heads down toilets are all accepted), there is also a wonderful scene inside London’s Natural History Museum, a place I continually deem my favourite building on Earth. It’s described with wonder and beauty that certainly does it justice and made me want to jump on a train and go there for the millionth time.

A good book, and a super debut, but there was something lacking. I don’t think I can really explain what it was, and maybe you won’t notice it, but I definitely got that impression. Anyway, time to leave modernity behind – I’m going back to an Agatha Christie.