Book World: Ron Charles Reviews 'A Monster's Notes' by Laurie Sheck

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By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009


By Laurie Sheck

Knopf. 530 pp. $30

The rallying cry against big publishers is that new artists can't be nourished by an industry obsessed with bestsellers. But before grabbing our pitchforks and torching the House of Bertelsmann, consider the inexplicable appearance of "A Monster's Notes" by a poet named Laurie Sheck. Gorgeously printed by New York's premier publishing house, here is a baffling 500-page book about Frankenstein's creation that defies description and shreds any expectations you might have for a novel. The marketing folks at Knopf must have screamed in terror when this thing rose off the desk. The jacket flap tries to dress up the book in the clothing of a coherent story, but the title offers complete truth in advertising: This is indeed a monstrous collection of notes.

Instead of anything resembling a plot, we get thousands of little scraps stitched together: bits of letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings, marginalia, interviews, dreams, lists, Web pages, lesson plans and translated passages, full of additions and words x'd out. What's more, it's a fire hose of erudition that sprays out allusions to 3,000 years of history, science, philosophy and literature, the kind of novel that keeps you chained to Wikipedia unless you're on a first-name basis with Boethius, Cao Xuequin, Dante, Marco Polo, Locke, Diogenes, Maimonides and especially the Romantic poets, along with their parents, lovers, children and pets. I'm sure somewhere there's a reader smart enough (or dishonest enough) to enjoy this novel in all its rich allusiveness, but I spent the entire ordeal lurching along about 50 IQ points behind. Having survived the encounter, though, I'm eager to brag about it, and even if "The Monster's Notes" is nothing you want to experience firsthand, it's a remarkable creation, a baroque opera of grief, laced with lines of haunting beauty and profundity.

Sheck imagines that Frankenstein's monster is still alive in the early 21st century, living in a decrepit building in New York, trying to make sense of his lonely existence, which means he's a pretty typical New Yorker. His erudite, fragmented narrative is divided into three sections. We begin with "Ice Diary," reflections on desolation as a kind of freezing blankness. The monster recalls wandering around the Arctic in blinding snow, speaking to Frankenstein in his mind, still suffering from the doctor's rejection. "I look out on this white ice," he writes, "wait for something to destroy itself in me, immolate and fly past itself in me."

Through his poetic lamentations in the cold, the monster weaves the tragic details of several real-life Arctic explorations and a long series of depressive letters written by one of Lord Byron's lovers to a dead relative. All of this will be perfectly clear to anyone who's been to the North Pole and slept with Byron. The rest of us must depend on Sheck's spotty footnotes and find a helpful book on the bizarre romantic arrangement involving Percy Bysshe Shelley; his teenage lover, Mary, who eventually wrote "Frankenstein"; and Mary's stepsister, Claire, as they traipsed through Europe, writing, partying and fleeing debts.

You may have thought from the original "Frankenstein" that the doctor's old friend, Henry Clerval, was murdered by the monster, but that, it seems, was just another of Mary's cruel misrepresentations. In the second, unbelievably opaque section of "A Monster's Notes," we learn that Clerval is, in fact, living near Peking, translating an 18th-century Chinese novel called "Dream of the Red Chamber." Sheck presents a number of disembodied passages from this classic text, but most of the second section consists of letters she has created between Clerval and a dead leper in Italy. Yes, a dead leper. I know this must sound excruciating, even ludicrous, but if you turn yourself over to these disparate voices and just let them flow over you, it's all oddly moving. The leper's stoic response to his wretched condition resonates with the monster's plight to create a mournful chorus of alienation.

Only in the last section -- anyone still with me? -- does Mary Shelley come to the forefront through the monster's memories of meeting her and a series of confessional letters she writes to her sister-in-law. Here, finally, we see his strange encounter with 8-year-old Mary as she sat by her mother's grave. Since this dramatic moment -- the premise of the whole infernal novel -- is hyped on the book jacket and alluded to on the first page, delaying it for some 350 pages seems particularly torturous. But it's an indelible scene, turned over and over -- like everything in this story -- to examine it from every side. "He stepped out of the bushes," Mary writes, "partly shielding his face with his hand. He seemed a hurt presence. A presence somehow ashamed. . . . I felt no need to turn from him. I asked him his name. 'I don't have one,' he said. That seemed to me an extraordinary thing. I couldn't decide if it was wonderful or horrible, to have no name like that, yet to be a creature of language, a creature using words. Why had no one named him? And un-named like that, did he know an aloneness much worse than my own?"

They never talk to each other again, but the monster sits nearby in the bushes and reads to her from the travels of Marco Polo, Augustine's "Confessions," "The Letters of Abelard and Heloise" and especially from the radical feminist essays of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. "When I listened to him read," Mary says, "a comfort fierce as burning sand came into me," and it's gorgeous, paradoxical lines like that that remind us Sheck is an extraordinarily gifted poet.

What went wrong between little Mary and the monster becomes the driving question of this final section, which is far and away the most satisfying and dramatic. But Sheck refuses to make any concessions to traditional readers. Indeed, her book seems laced with little self-referential jokes about her own impenetrability. "So who's speaking? And why this shift from third person to first?" Clerval asks at one point. "There are so many people and stories in this novel it's hard to keep track." Even the monster admits, "It was baffling reading whole strings of words without context. . . . Often I read without understanding."

One can only echo the monster's final question, "Who's the reader?" Indeed. I'm weary of authors digging up post-structuralists and trying to zap new life into dead theories about the inadequacy of language. But when Sheck gets all the voices in this novel harmonizing on the pain of loneliness, trust me, it's alive!

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