Blueprints of the Afterlife. No, Seriously.

It’s possible I’ll append the original review to this here new shiny one I’m writing, but that may not happen. The future’s not written, right? It’s something I can affect? Well, we’ll see either way.

I seriously don’t mean to disappear up my own reviewing asshole, but the first attempt I made to review I was in this just painfully emotional place, and it embarrasses me, because that’s not really what this book is about. Blueprints of the Afterlife is – and I don’t mean this statement to be reductive – just a mordantly funny genre exercise that’s got its cool philosophical fingerprints around the throat of popular culture, futurism, and the American tendency towards apocalypse. The plot is…nothing that can be encapsulated with ease, more a series of very interrelated vignettes that stack themselves up into a, what?, Venn diagram? Something squishier? Our societal and metafictional guts? Then it knocks them all down and starts over again. 

It’s coughcough years into the future – more than 50 but less than 150 – a futuristic period that seems to be a fallow area for science fiction writers at the moment. Even my main man William Gibson who used to write in this period has decamped to closer futures (i.e. the Bigend trilogy). On the other side, there’s a ton of dudes (mostly dudes) writing in the far-future post-human expanses of space and ti-ee-eye-eee-ime. Some of this is the post-post-apocalyptic bent of this novel – this is not a survivalist’s manifesto, one of those musings about the order of society in crisis and whatnot, not the Individual’s Search for Meaning in an Age of Fucked Up Shit – but about our tendency to imagine Fucked Up Shit as a future in the first place. 

But then also a ton of other stuff. The science fictional ideas/commentary/whatever of this book are tossed off with a frequency and casualness that belie their fucking awesomeness, and there are at least a half dozen ideas here that could warrant their own freaking novel. I don’t mean to imply that Boudinot is giving anything short shrift here though – these ideas are all of a piece, and they fit together like one of those boxes of shapes you get from the Science Museum, and there’s 20 little flashcards of the way those shapes might make a larger pattern, and you flip over the card and go! Put it together! Now take it apart! Go! Make a different shape! Go go go! 

This review is turning into the same godamn mess my first one was, only different. Which is perfect in a way. If you split a hologram in half, you get two perfect holograms, like an earthworm, but more technological. I can’t even pretend to understand how that works – both the hologram and the earthworm. The central metaphor here is blueprints, those imaginings of the future written on a scaled, engineered map which may or may not give rise to the fact of buildings, in whose habitable spaces we may, or may not, live out our lives. It’s just..it’s just the godamn shit to read when you’re a cracked and leaking emotional disaster – as I was when I read this, not to make it about you– this elegant, beautifully written puzzle that contemplated the ends beyond the ends, or the middles beyond the middles, or all permutations of continuation and cease. Which, fuck yeah. 

And in the spirit of fuck yeah, I’m going to post the original review, but I’m not proud of it, and it (as I said before) kinda embarrasses me. Not because my emotional vulnerability is an embarrassment, but because I don’t think it does this book justice. The earlier review was dealing with the hard edge of grief, the emotions I feel as I can see the end coming. That’s not what this book is about, and I don’t want to mischaracterize. This is 50 to 150 years past that fucked up shit, which is just one of the reasons I loved it so. The end is still coming, but I’m still in the middle of the middle, still. 

—–

Original review:

I don’t even mean to be like one of those cryptic facebook updates that people drop when they are looking for attention, but emotionally I am in no place to review this. Which might be the perfect place to be emotionally to review this? My beloved grandmother is dying. I read this fast like fever in the car to and from emotional upheavals that I haven’t even begun to sort into something resembling sense. 

So yeah, this is one of those reviews. Be warned. 

I picked this up because of Josh’s tumescent review. And because – I can be honest about my shallowness – this is just a fantastic cover. After I finished my read, I popped back onto Goodreads to reread Josh’s review with knowing eyes. I was bolted to the floor when I saw he references Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in the first few sentences. 

Before I left for my visit with Grandma who is dying, on a slow Saturday, my husband pulled me down onto the couch and made me watch that film. Not all. In sections as I ran the dishwasher or packed that forgotten thing or talking on the phone to a distraught family member, imagining the family ugliness that is inevitable once she’s gone. We’re all considering the end, mapping out alternate futures of the end and after her end. I’ve had my problems with von Trier in the past that aren’t worth getting into, but Melancholia was a series of images that burned me quietly, this end of the world that is both metaphor and fact. Science fiction stories can be a lot of different things, but the ones that get me scrying my own overturned guts are the ones about our personal universes as alien planets, the hard gravities of our emotions and what we tell ourselves are our emotions. The way Melancholia ran this apocalypse through a series of family connections, bright loosely connected images, the hovering close-ups and near-static tableaus – ah ah ah ah. 

I spent the weekend trying to be present, trying to feel Grandma’s lips when I kiss her, or her hands in mine, watching my step-mom write a list on a napkin. Presence is a difficult thing, and I’m no Taoist; my mind does not let things run as they are. My mind chews on the future. I prognosticate, therefore I am. There’s a certain philosophical aridity that appeals to my presence-avoiding mind in these pages, though I admit I have close to zero interest or background in straight philosophy. Arid is maybe the wrong word. As is philosophy.

Folklore of the future? 

I’m not sure that this plot can be spoiled, dealing as it does with a roving glacier of various time periods, persons, non-persons, and battling visions of the future. Sad as I am, superimposed as I am between present and future, this story, this collection of elegant, funny, wigged out, careful sentences washed me over and washed over me. I could read this forever. This could go on and on, but it ends. If I were less emotional and messy, I could catalog the influences and hat-tips, from the obvious PKD and Gibson, to the more muted Star Wars and UKL. When I talked about this with my husband, he asked what it would be like to be someone other than George Orr in The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel, someone changed subtly or largely in someone else’s sleep. It will be hours before I know she’s gone – this is the way of things; the phone-tree is long and branching – and in those hours will she continue as if that end hadn’t happened? Will she be gone in those hours? There’s questions like that everywhere here.

This book probably deserves a less sloppy reader, one that isn’t leaking at the seams. My dad did all the sodoku puzzles from the last two weeks of the paper; I read this. I was fully absorbed in the intellectual puzzle of end-times and the after-end, a game of futures. I can’t unbind my emotions from the end of it all, the end of her all. But the blueprints lay down blue and bloodless. They make me think. They make me wonder – in that old school awestruck sense. And I know that absolutely none of this makes sense, which is why it is such a comfort. 

Red: We Mate for Life and Suss out Clues, Just Like Scooby Doo

I’ve been re-watching Deadwood recently, because I have come across a couple of alt-history alt-West alt-magic-whatever books that have been really interesting to me. I’m no big fan of the straight Western – I was recently talking to a friend about the remake of True Grit, and admitted I had never seen the original, and he was like, well, it’s been nice knowing you. But I like that I have never seen a John Wayne movie, and I’m going to keep it that way – but weird, reordered takes on the American West? I’m all there. The West is where we Americans store our weird ideas about individualism and crap. It’s where we run after the Civil War to try to pretend that civilization is less than civilized, but better than the alternative of brutal, hand-to-mouth living. Or something. 

Anyway, Red by Jordan Summers has some Western ornament – a scorched planet after a third world war, some compelling description of dead, fragile forests that crack to powder as you run through, the United States broken into a loose confederation of territories with a sort of U.N.ish military that polices the boundaries between this dome-city and that. Our main character, Red, is part of this police force, out shooting at Unknowns, who are people who are not citizens of whatever territory, crossing wastelands to get to the still-poor, but livable areas left in the world. Hello, Arizona, how little have you have changed! Can I see your papers?

But this is backstory, not something we’re going to explore. Okay. Red goes to Arizona after some murrrderrrs that look like animal attacks, but Red’s spidey sense tingles, and she is going to get to the bottom of this. She shows up in [town name, something that sounds like Urea in my mind], and starts into some seriously Scooby Doo police work. Much as I love Scooby Doo, it makes me really sad when adult fictions follow the Scooby Doo protocol of meeting the villain first, only we don’t know it’s the villain, because we’re eight. I’m not eight anymore, so, thanks for being Captain Obvious about who the villain was. She meets the town sheriff, who is amazingly hot and makes her heart flip and stuff, but he has seeekrets, namely that he is a werewolf. And although it is obvious to him that the murders are caused by a werewolf and must have been perpetrated by someone he knows, he spends more time trying to cover up the other werewolf murders and managing his near-constant erection than spending any time trying to figure out the “mystery” of who killed them. Okay, hoss. That’s some good police work. 

Oh, which brings me to another thing. This is written in that third person pov character thing for the romantic leads, where we are privy to their head-thoughts and also descriptions of their clothes and relative desirableness, except for the killer-cam, which is written in the first person. The killer-cam parts of the book (except for when the killer narrates his motivations – that was crazy ham-fisted) were entirely the best written parts of this book. The book starts with a first person murder, which is tactile and seriously gross, centered in the body, upsetting. Summers, in these sections, really has a groove for the twisted, in a way that makes me hope she goes for body-horror in some later series. Body horror can get seriously boring – hello, Cronenberg – but the ways in which bodies, um, embody desire and revulsion, this can be some interesting stuff. The way the killer idolizes and then turns against his love interest, laid against the main characters’ biologically determined sexual obsession/compulsion, this could have been some interesting shit. Alas, for naught. Even though this book is trying to play hide-the-football with Red’s genetic legacy, I think we all know from the first page that she’s somehow part-wolf or whatever, so stop playing coy. 

And speaking of genetic legacy, that’s something that is dealt with funny in this book. So, there was a third world war that scorched the planet, during which some government or another sought to create super soldiers, Others, people whose DNA had been mixed with animals so that they ended up with vampires and werewolves and stuff. Okay, my disbelief is being suspending here. However, even though this is understood to be something that happened – oh, hai, the gov’t created werewolves – it is also understood to be secret, like no one knows it happened. Like, what? You can’t have it both ways. There’s this bad dude, a guy who is running for Senator (?? but there isn’t a national government? What office is he running for??) who is running on an anti-Other platform, and this is like someone running on an anti-chupacabra platform – oh noes! the Mexican goat-sucker! 

Certainly some people believe in el chupacabra (or ghosts, or space aliens, or…), and maybe if some politician used the chupacabra as some race-baiting tactic – Mexican goat-suckers are taking our jobs! Traffic stops for Mexican goat-suckers! – but the Senator’s rhetoric is entirely Triumph of the Will pure-blood stuff, and therefore makes no sense. If people do not believe in werewolves, then they are not worried about werewolf racial mixing. I’m not saying that people couldn’t work up a nice head of racism should werewolves turn out out to be real, I’m just saying they’ll probably confine their racist energies to people who actually exist when in the ballot box. And, speaking of, isn’t there an entire enormous problem of undocumented immigration going on here, embodied in the Unknowns? I could see him running on an anti-Unknown platform, at least how they are defined in this book, but the author drops them as a concern in a very, very frustrating manner. 

Which brings me to another thing. This book pretends to some measure of science fictionality – that these Others have been created by scientists using wolf DNA to make better soldier – but, and I don’t mean to be a dick here – the way the wolf behavior is presented is seriously lame, Romantic, half-googled crap. At one point, when Red figures out that there are werewolves, she thinks to herself, well, wolves have a hierarchy of dominance! Points, Daphne, for having a thought, but people have a hierarchy of dominance too! And does she do any research to back up this wild thought of maybe wolves would have specific social/biological ways of acting out their hierarchies? No. (This is despite the fact that she has some kind of digital assistant who is less useful than your average smart phone. Pretty much the assistant chimes in to alert Red when she’s getting all sexually aroused by hero dude, usually in socially awkward times. I wanted to smash that thing with a hammer until it was plastic grit. Siri, get me a hammer.) 

So okay, this is marginally science fantasy, not science fiction. That’s fine. But if we’re not using the wolf as a template for behavior, and instead using a Romantic/romantic notion of wolves which allows us to make up any damn thing about wolves and play out Romantic/romantic fantasy, why do we have to go for that stupid-ass mate-for-life garbage? The whole concept of life-long pair bonding is bullshit. Bullshit! No animal mates for life. And a woman can be marked in some unbreakable biological bond FOR ALL TIME by some teeth in her back? Fuck you, that’s horrible. Red’s nearly raped and “marked” by the bad guy, but the Romantic lead, while having consensual sex with her, marks her as well, even though she is unaware of the whole concept of marking, and for sure never said that was okay. So, by consenting to sex, she consents to her perpetual sexual ownership, something that can only be broken by the death of one of the partners? There’s a battered women’s shelter down the block full of women whose partners thought things like this. 

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been uncharitable in this review, because much of my disappointment is based on my own misconceptions of what this book was going to be about when I came into it. I thought this was an post-apocalypse Western – and it is briefly, I guess – but it’s pretty straightforward paranormal romance with dome cities and digital assistants. Disappointing to me, but occasionally interesting to read. Could have been worse.

My Engine Summer: Lost Utopias

This book lit up all the parts of my brain that love Ursula K. Le Guin. The story takes place in a far-future American landscape, long after the end of modern life, so long that the world is green and pastoral, its people living out their lives in small, knitted communities, their concerns more of the soul than the rat race. It’s not dissimilar from the people and places in City of Illusions  or Always Coming Home, and much of my reading pleasures converged here: the Road, crumbling and cracking under the thrust of the roots of new trees, the skeletons of bridges both dangerous and beautiful, a generation from falling to orange dust, the quiet nosings into the past (our present) with a kind of wonder and dismay. 

The image of the mobius recurs in this novel, the strip of paper twisted and then bound so that if you trace your finger, there is no end. Perfect, because this book ends in such a way you must, you absolutely must loop back around and read the beginning with fresh eyes, with the knowledge you have picked up along the way. It kills, this reversal, absolutely slays. It’s morose and sad and hopeful all in the same. Jesus. 

This is the thing I noticed when I read this book: we’ve lost our taste for utopias. Because even in all of the sadness and grieving in this book, there is a very earnest attempt to imagine livable societies, societies that work, societies that are decent. I went just now and looked up all the publication dates for the books I just mentioned, and they are solidly all before the turn of the millennium. You could, probably without much thought, rattle off a dozen dystopias – which, why the hell doesn’t spellcheck recognize this word? – but utopias? We don’t even try anymore. 

The utopias here aren’t perfect, and by needs any (good) story has to find the fracture in the societal system and widen it, but, I guess I’m just wistful for writers, and readers, trying to find hope in these apocalyptic ashes. The best of us is as important as the worst of us. Which is not to say that I didn’t smile bitchily about a lot of the assumptions about human nature here. There’s a chasteness about human sexuality I found puzzling – the main character is a boy between the ages of 14 and 17 through this novel, half-chasing a girl who makes choices he can’t, or won’t – and I couldn’t figure out how far their relationship went, in concrete, carnal terms, which seems an notable lacuna. Seems chivalrous in a way I find politely repellent. 

Crowley walks you through three societies, and a fourth in the oblique: the warren-bound Truth Speakers, the people of Dr Boots’s List, and the avvengers. The Truth Speakers are the soul of this book, and as you as reader pass through the others, you see it. Truth speaking is never defined, but emerges in the edges of the narrative, a felt truth. It’s both beautiful and hopelessly naive, the way these things are, and absolutely cut with how truth won’t get you happiness necessarily, and right living is maybe only understood in its absence. 

The sad thing is most of the way through this review, I haven’t even talked about what I wanted to talk about when I was reading: all the groaning puns and funny translations of modern terms – Nu Yeork – one of which informs the title here. Or the long winter spent by the protagonist under the effect of a drug that induces hibernation, or the alien plants harvested and smoked, or the rings on Mbaba’s toes. This is a book for the experiencing of it, all these long sentences and these repeated refrains, like a song. The best of us is as important as the worst of us, and so are the rest of us, in the middle. Hot damn.

God’s War: Merciless Badasses Kick It

I have so deleted so many openings of this review. Objectively, if there is such a thing, God’s War by Kameron Hurley is probably a three-star outing – there’s an ugly, badly handled time transition about a quarter of the way through the book, and the central mystery is maybe less mysterious and more perfunctory than it could be – but whoo boy, what a world. And more importantly, what a girl. Nyxnessa is a failed bel dame, which on this dusty, war torn planet is something like a Bene Gesserit crossed with Han Solo, but more badass than the sum of her parts, and that is saying something. She burns with her whiskey-fueled near-honor, getting by with something more terrible than will. And will is a pretty terrible thing in my book. This is a sticky, bloody little smash-and-grab that rang my bells in just the right ways.

So, can we talk world-building for a minute? I usually make the ward against evil when world-building is invoked, because the term can be code for infodumps up the ass and a coy, heraldic sense of history. Lo! You remember, Bob, how this rock, which is called Tdfkdhkasjja in the old tongue, was the site for the Blahblahblah of K’thizzle. But, when you get down to it, genre exercises that take place on other planets have to let you know the parameters of their cultures, have to set them up and knock them down, and this does so, with feeling. The smart way to go is to drop the reader in the middle of confusing terms and brutal realities, and then assume your readers have access to wikis that will explain what a bakkie is, and if they don’t, then for sure they can figure it out. Go, smart readers, go. The language here is stylistic genre, not afraid to cuss or drop a bunch of undefined terms on you, letting you catch up. The planet in question has been colonized by post-Muslim societies – I say post-Muslim because there’s a lot of ornament from other religions – like the prayer wheels I associate most strongly with Tibetan Buddhism. 

The world itself is Dune-ish, unsuited to humans to begin with, but then even more so because of the holy war that’s been raging for who knows how long. Nyx is the brutal daughter of this environment, a scriptured place where the men have been killed for so long, and so thoroughly that these patrifocal cultures have had to come to terms with almost entirely female populations – at least in the two cultures that are at the center of the conflict. All of the central players in this story are on the outs with their cultures in one way or another: too gay, not enough gay, orthodox, believers, non-believers, alien, and so on. 

In another mood, this might have felt like the usual suspects school of character development, a Venn diagram of needs and aversions, one overlapping the other – too schematic. I guess even in the right mood it is, because I’m saying this out loud and believe it, but I didn’t really care as the story was unfolding. Nyx is such a towering badass, such a bitch, that I was wide eyed watching her cut a swath in the most profane, bloody and personal of ways. She’s so shuddering and intimate in her brutality – there was this moment when she freaks, and calls her – for lack of a better word – love interest, and orders him to read to her – she’s functionally illiterate – and it twisted my insides. If she’s scared and doubting, and she’s the scariest, undoubtingest thing ever, then I have cause to fear. Whoo boy. 

Did I say love interest? That is not what I meant. She’s certainly got a strange watchfulness with her relationship with Rhys, an orthodox man who out-classes her in most ways, his straight, dark-skinned, controlled body and mind in contrast with her sloppy, heterodox brutality. It’s godamn sexy to watch them hate each other, need each other, read to each other over their flaws and weaknesses, strengths and wills. As a smash-and-grab, this plot moves over acres of land, into palaces and out into the desert, through disparate cultures, and the way their bodies are read and changed, their sexualities coded and re-coded – hot damn, this is some interesting stuff. This is a world full of people who tape up their knuckles and brawl, and the brawling is like sex and death, and as important as both. 

This claims to be the first in a series, and even though the ending is downbeat and uncompleted – almost frustrating as it shakes the central characters loose like water off a shaking dog’s back – I see how you are setting it up for the next – I find it almost impossible to imagine coming back to this place, and I mean that in the best way. I don’t want completeness from a character like Nyx. I don’t want her to sort it out and find peace. I want to keep imagining her cutting this bright, bloody path across the world, drunk and high, tumbling with boxer girls, pining. She’s la belle dame sans merci and amen to that. 

(I received an ARC from NetGalley.com) 

In the Garden of Lost Children: A Review of Frankenstein

I first read Frankenstein in a British Survey class when I was nineteen. I’d just hacked my way through the 17th and 18th Centuries, bolting down huge chunks of the raw meat of “Paradise Lost,” the Romantic poets, and early novels. It was perfect time to read Frankenstein, as all of her source material was still digesting in my brain. It was also perfect because Shelly herself was nineteen when she wrote this. This precipitated a sort of pre-life crisis for me. Here’s this book, this amazing, flawed book, formulated while she chilled with the original Vampire Lestat and the luminous, otherworldly Bysshe Shelley during maybe the most famous rainy day in the history of novel creation. The problems of technology, divinity, education and creation that she made manifest in the awesome and awful hulk of the Creature keep reanimating and lumbering through all kinds of fiction, and while the later movies almost uniformly get everything wrong, the trope of the Mad Scientist and his Flawed Creation have been thoroughly set as a modern archetype. What the hell was I doing [edited for content] and [edited for language]? Why didn’t I have dreamy, Romantic boyfriend?

I decided to read this again because of my backyard conversations with a friend who has children the same age as my own. I’ve inadvertently traumatized my boy with Frankenstein’s monster, which is too bad, because I could really get behind a zombie phobia. Talking about this with my friend, I unwittingly unleashed an amazing depth of knowledge and love of Frankenstein from him, and he spoke articulately and at length about Frankenstein, its themes and conclusions. My memory of this book was almost gone: the creature hoping  from ice to ice in the arctic and his education with the deLaceys were the only things that had any solidity anymore. He urged me to read it again, using a parental lens this time. It’s different when you have kids, says he.

So, okay, I thought, how hard could it be? It’s only 200ish pages long and I’ve read it before. Then comes the massive clusterfuck of book-loss, reading Twilight and the total incongruity of reading Gothic on the back porch while late summer in Minnesota stretches out its finery of grass, the drone of cicadas, and one perfect day after another. I was reading the copy of Frankenstein that I used in class, and I kept having this unsettling sensation of my younger self: her little notes in the margins alluding to knowledge that is only theoretical to me now, her strange penchant for underlining passages in a series of increasingly distracting pen colors, culminating in hot pink for the last couple of chapters. Dammit, Younger Ceridwen, you need to sort some crap out.

So, I feel like I know what YC would say about this book. She’d go on about theology, myth, and technology, a reading Shelly made explicit in her sub-title of “a Modern Prometheus.” Frankenstein is Promethean in that he has stolen the gift of life from God(s). The creature himself is often surrounded by the fire, a deliberate marking of him as Promethean as well. He finds fire in his early, John Lockian period living off of nuts and berries in the wilderness; when the creature’s attempt at education and society with the deLacey’s goes wrong, he burns down their house, and at the very end, he describes the pyre on the ice that will be his funeral fire. Frankenstein is both stealer of technologies (the flame) and God himself, making the creature either Man (as the recipient of Prometheus’s gifts) or Promethean in turn. It’s a complicated metaphor, one that works in an uneasy quantum uncertainty of either both things at once or a fissionable synthesis. And one, that for the most part, leapfrogs over Christianity into the earthier moralities of Greek mythology and the Hebrew Yahweh. Yes, yes, there’s a ton of talk about “Paradise Lost,” but Milton’s work, while avowedly Christian, doesn’t much concern itself with Man, Jesus, or the divine sacrifice. It’s all about creation, the creation of beings that are not Man, and their Fall. I was actually irritated when Frankenstein invoked Jesus near the end, when in a last ditch attempt to get someone to help him hunt down the creature, he goes to a local magistrate. The magistrate thinks he’s nuts, and kindly tells him so. Frankenstein yells, “Man…how ignorant art thou in thy principle of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say.” My pink pen in the margin says, “Jesus?” I hate when writers use JC as a tack-on (see also: the later Matrix movies.) Although, wait, it’s altogether likely Shelly was putting his words into Frankenstein’s mouth to show what a messianic twit he was. Then that’s okay.

Which brings me to another thing. This book is written in the style my mother not-so-affectionately refers to as “the epistolary nightmare.” It opens with a ship captain writing his sister about his heroic attempts to sail to the North Pole, and also about his serious longings for some bromance in his life: if only there were some hep cat to talk to and share his manly feelings! (YC also notes that the sister of the captain, the recipient of his letters, has the same initials as Shelly herself: MWS.) Frankenstein appears, the embodiment of Captain Walton’s pining for a tragic, ruined, beautiful hunk of burning manhood. The letters then shift to Walton writing Frankenstein’s narratives in the first person, which then shift again in places to the creature narrating his life and feelings in the first person.

I suspect that Shelley is doing this mostly because it’s a Gothic convention, used by early novels to lend a sort of verisimilitude to the proceedings. (This is like the “based on a true story” that gets glossed onto horror films, whether they are true or not.) I don’t think Shelley intends her narrator to be a damaged narrator; I don’t get that vibe at all. So I end up feeling really weird about the whole thing, because Walton has this big beautiful boy-crush on Frankenstein, but everything Frankenstein says about what he does makes me hate him. I truly and perfectly hate this man. It’s one of those resounding, continuing ironies of the world that Frankenstein’s creature is referred to popularly as “Frankenstein,” because, of course, the creator is the monster, not the creation. (Parenthetically, I’d like to point out that one of the first things Yahweh tells Adam to do in the garden is give names to all the creatures. (Hyper-parenthetically, I now have the Dylan song in my head.) Frankenstein manages to screw this up as well; the creature remains nameless for the entirety of his existence.)

So, okay, this is all stuff that the younger me would love to talk about, and I’m sure she could give you some better Classical references and actual quotes from Milton, instead of just magical hand waving and allusions to things I can’t quite remember. I couldn’t currently Milton my way out of a wet paper bag. Of something and its loss…Sing Muse? Older me thinks this is all great, and fun, and is probably the stuff Shelley was consciously going for in her book. However, my friend is right, reading this as a parent, I walk away with some really different stuff. I undertook to have me some kids, and the great swooning insanity that overtakes Frankenstein in his quest to create the monster felt very true to the somewhat selfish, unconscious biological fever that underpins my otherwise conscious decision to procreate. I can give you all kinds of reasons why I decided to have kids, but ultimately, they all fail. I did because I did. The reasons are written in the children themselves, but I, of course, didn’t know that until I brought them to be.

Family relationships are all over this book: the captain writing his sister, the complicated relations of the Frankenstein family, Frankenstein’s relationship with his cousin/sister/wife, the deLacey bother and sister, their blind father, the Turkish fiancée. But in all of this, Frankenstein never refers to the creature as his son, nor the creature to him as his father. This is an amazing lacuna, on par with the fact that while we see Captain Walton’s letters to his sister, we never actually hear from her. But Frankenstein’s creation is a sort of changling, a fairy creature born out of the inferno of Frankenstein’s mind. He even behaves like a brownie, when being unwittingly educated by the deLaceys, chopping their wood for them while lurking on the outskirts of their hearth-fire.

I’ve been reading At the Bottom of the Garden, which, although I’m not done, has spent the first part of the book talking about fairy stories as related to children, women and men. With all due respect to Prof. Tolkien, I think his assertion that fairy tales have been relegated to the nursery in modern times is full of shit. The nursery is where, historically, the shit has gone down: the intersection of men and women, in very concrete carnal terms, the strange, liminal period of pregnancy, the danger and expectation of birth, the poopy, funny project of raising children into people, into society. The stories are warnings and portents about all the things that can go horribly wrong: the baby who is still-born, making the mother a not-mother, the child who is born wrong, screaming with colic or god knows what, the horrible sensation, almost completely unspoken of in polite company, that this person I’ve brought into being is not mine, is unlovably weird. My grammar has almost completely broken down, but I’m going to leave it. I suffered from a mercifully brief bout of the baby blues, but I still recall the feeling, as I lay down on the bed next to my daughter after changing her pants for the hundredth time that day, that nothing would ever be right again, that I was unequal to the task of raising her. I looked at the ceiling and felt her move in the the irregularity that characterizes the movements of infants, and thought, this is not me thinking this. This is where fairies are born, in the desperate moments of desperate parents, undone by the creatures they have brought into being.

Frankenstein’s great sin, in my estimation, is in his turning away from the creature when he first brings it into being. I’m struggling as to how to talk about this without betraying the privacy of close friends, but I have the honor of friendship with a child with Down Syndrome. I don’t think I’m going to tell her story, or the story of her parents, because it’s not my place. But it’s one thing to talk about my early desperation in my relationship with my daughter, but I’ve never had a child born into a community of the socially damaged, the stigmatized by sight. I’ve never had to confront what it means to have a child others point at and whisper about, one that will always, no matter how strong the safety net, be outside the hearth fires in some ways. My friend’s trajectory toward accepting her daughter, all of her, was not linear – this was not a Hallmark card, but a life – but it was the exact opposite of Frankenstein’s for his creature.

The creature is horrible to look upon. Everywhere he goes people heap curses on him and drive him out with stones. He eventually goes to his creator, his absent father, and begs for a mate, a community that that will nourish and love him. Frankenstein agrees, for a time, until he doesn’t. YC notes this, from when Frankenstein decides to stop the Bride of Frankenstein project:

“I had resolved in my own mind, that to create another like the fiend I had first made would be an act of the basest and most atrocious selfishness; and I banished from my mind every thought that would lead to a different conclusion.”

YC notes: really? Here’s Frankenstein, at the cusp of his own wedding, denying his child the succor of community, as he has all along. What Frankenstein says here is exactly backwards: the creation of the creature was selfish, yes, while furnishing him with a community would not have been. The plot of the book is irritating as all get out, to me, because it’s closer to psychomyth and fairy tale than it is to reality. Walton wishes for a man-friend and poof! He appears. Frankenstein suspects the creature of killing his brother and poof! There’s the creature silhouetted on the mountain. But imagine the creature to be a child, an abandoned child, and the whole thing gets horribly sicker and weirder. Stigma has long been a theological term: the mark of God’s unmercy written on the body of the damned, their sins made manifest in their perceived ugliness, their damage. This can be mitigated by the beauty of parental hopefulness and the wild, unknowable potential of all children. The manifestation of our biology in all of its forms, even the strange ones, may not always be a gift, but it isn’t always a curse. Frankenstein makes it a curse. The creature deserves a helluva lot more than the callous selfishness evinced by Frankenstein, because the changeling of the damaged is still a child, and worthy, like all of us, of love.