three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Laurie Sheck
user_rating: 
0

A-A Monsters NotesAcclaimed poet Laurie Sheck dramatically reimagines Mary Shelley's masterpiece, Frankenstein, in her first work of prose.

The Story: In this extraordinary continuation of the classic story, Dr. Frankenstein's unnamed monster struggles to make sense of his lonely existence in 21st-century New York City. In the first of three sections, he wanders through the frozen Arctic, still deeply wounded by the doctor's rejection, and carries on imaginary conversations with his creator while envisioning the lives of Lord Byron and the Shelleys. In the second section, Dr. Frankenstein's friend, Henry Clerval, flees to Peking and undertakes the translation of an 18th-century Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. The third section relates the story of the monster's first meeting with eight-year-old Mary Shelley beside her mother's grave.
Knopf. 530 pages. $30. ISBN: 9780307271051

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a heady, hard read, at times repetitive and ponderous. Nonetheless, A Monster's Notes is a thrilling feat of literary scholarship, beautiful wordsmithing, and deep empathy." Jeff Jensen

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lovely passages and moments of intricate insight-bordering at times on preciosity-are tucked among these pages. ... Sheck's passion for language shines: We feel her poet's joy in its limitless mutability, its reverberations." Joan Frank

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Consisting of more than 500 pages of lyrical fragments-including invented letters by Mary Shelley and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and half sister, Fanny Imlay-A Monster's Notes is set in many places in many different times. Yet the lonely, aggrieved characters seem to be versions of one voice." Christopher Benfey

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"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. ... 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." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, journal entries, interviews, dreams, lists, Web pages, and essays, Sheck's demanding, erudite novel eschews a cohesive plot in favor of the monster's growing comprehension of his plight-an outsider looking in on humanity. Despite the obscure references to long-ago philosophers, poets, and novelists that left the Washington Post "lurching along about 50 IQ points behind," critics were oddly moved by the beauty of Sheck's desolate vision and lyrical language. They grumbled about the interchangeable voices of some of her characters and the belated meeting between the monster and Mary Shelley, which takes place three-quarters of the way through the book despite the surrounding hype. But they were generally impressed by this cerebral meditation on isolation and the hunger for companionship.

Supplementary Reading

The Monsters Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein | Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler (2006): This compelling, thoroughly readable biography of Mary Shelley surveys the influence of her parents, feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft and anarchist William Godwin. It also recounts the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and others whose fates were intertwined with her own on that momentous, stormy afternoon when Lord Byron challenged each of his houseguests to write a ghost story.