A Monster’s Notes, Laurie Sheck, Knopf

I have mixed feelings about paying attention to the reviews, in particular the starred ranking system, on the website GoodReads, a social networking site for authors and book lovers. I’ve seen too often good books get flamed by people with the dreaded one-star. With Laurie Sheck’s new book A Monster’s Notes I’ve found most of the one-stars come from people who left comments that they were unable to finish the book or found the writing style difficult to adjust to or enter. So I feel a need to come to the book’s defense and help others find a point of entry as it is quite brilliant and I’d hate to see people not even attempt to read it based on some reviews by people who weren’t up to the challenge. And the book is that, but if you stick with it you’ll find it quite rewarding.

First a note on the nature of the text. Sheck is known for her poetry and this is her first foray into, as the book is labeled, “Fiction,” though even she acknowledges the hybrid nature of the text. The reader must be prepared for a variety of narrative approaches—notes, letters, journal entries—that as a pastiche convey the greater story. A story which, in the end, is more of an investigation of a distinct period of each character’s life and the Monster’s take on that life. The “narrative” is often implied or running beneath the surface as Sheck foregrounds these snapshots of the character’s thoughts written in their (imagined) own hand.

The book is divided into three distinct sections: “Ice Diary” which triangulates the Monster, Claire Clairmont, and accounts of explorers on arctic expeditions; “Dream of the Red Chamber” which triangulates the Monster, Clerval (and Cao Xueqin by extension), and his leper friend in Aosta; and “Metropolis/The Ruins at Luna” which triangulates the Monster, Mary Shelley, and Mary’s mother. Between each section there are “interludes” of “notes” the Monster takes.

The Monster loves to read; we know that from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. His “notes” investigate humanity, the people who made him, by reading their philosophy and literature, by looking at their experiments and artistic and scientific achievements. In the interlude sections his mode is to copy down quotes from books and interviews and events, and then follow the quotes with his own reflections on what he has read. The reader will also find he shares a psychic link of sorts with Claire, Clerval, and Mary and can observe what they write, so you will also find his notes and reflections on what he sees and reads as he watches them read and write.

The bulk of the book is done in an epistolary mode where the main characters of a section compose letters, the actual sending of which is often beside the point. What matters is that all these modes share one thing: the mind at work on the page in its most exposed state. And if you are up for noting patterns, I found there are few pages where the word “mind” does not appear at least once throughout the entire 520 page tome.

Which perhaps explains some of the difficulty readers have with this text. It’s heavy on process, showing the mind at work on the page and in conversation with others, often a pretense for the mind to talk to and explore its own boundaries and territory, especially in the case of Claire who continues writing letters to Fanny long after she kills herself, and Clerval, who in Frankenstein is Victor’s friend killed by the Monster, but in Sheck’s tale escapes East to translate Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone (Dream of the Red Chamber). With Clerval we not only get his notes as he translates, but the letters from his leper friend in Aosta, and the responses he often writes but never sends to his friend.

Because of this preoccupation of the mind and its workings, of the mind trying to define itself, I would recommend starting with Sheck’s previous book, the poetry collection Captivity, before diving into the pages of A Monster’s Notes (also a good idea to read Frankenstein first!). Captivity and A Monster’s Notes share similar concerns and overlap not just thematically but, as she confirmed in correspondence with me, chronologically: “a good year or so I was working on both at the same time, and in part saw the Monster as the more outgoing sibling of the two.”

A note on voyeurism. Most of the texts we as readers see and read are also seen and read by the Monster, often as the person is writing them, the text presented on the page with cross-outs and X’ings, allowing the reader and the Monster to ponder over half-starts, thoughts written and then erased, and sometimes simple blank space where a thought trails off or abruptly ends. Which leads me to ask: why is the Monster such a voyeur? Quite simply, I found him lonely. He admires and envies the ties these people have to each other, to their friends, even though with each character those ties often exist more in the mind than in reality. The voyeurism is also a continuation of the Monster’s attempt to understand humanity, to understand the basics of human nature, our highest achievements (landing on the moon), or spirit of exploration (mapping the unforgiving territory of the arctic, which also becomes a metaphoric space to describe the mind), the very simple bond of friendship or familial relationships.

And I must also ask, why are we invited to be such voyeurs by this text and by Sheck? That question is what I found most compelling about the book, the ability to see into others’ minds as they attempt to record the workings of their minds, that grand attempt to know and define the self through the written word, and the valiant attempt of a creature who, when it comes down to it, tries to understand why he is called a “creature” by Mary and a “being” by Percy. The book is one big act of becoming as each character and the Monster and we as readers reach for that thing known as “being” which seems to be unattainable, or only attainable in the attempt to attain it, and the recording of such an attempt.

Some final notes: back in June I had the pleasure of watching Sheck launch the release of A Monster’s Notes with a multimedia presentation at the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction here in New York. The first thing that struck me in the 40 minute mini-movie was the question of the creator vs. the created, or in the case of the Monster, the “creature.” Sheck’s process in researching Shelly’s notebooks to write this book mirrored Shelly’s research to create the Monster in her book, and we have three creators present: Laurie Sheck, Mary Shelley, and Victor Frankenstein. And three creations: Frankenstein’s Monster, Mary’s novel about Frankenstein and his Monster, and Sheck’s novel about the Monster’s inability to speak to his creator, left to live in his absence, and his encounter with Mary when she was a girl. Sheck’s take is that Mary did not invent the Monster, but had met the Monster when she was a girl, and thus he became the basis for her story as he haunted her the rest of her life.

The genesis for this project was “a weird adventure” as Sheck describes it. Her husband was ill and the way he was shuffling around reminded her of the Frankenstein walk from the movie versions. She bought the book and discovered (as many of us book lovers have) how different and complex and more rewarding it is from the movie and fell in love, starting a conversation with the Monster in her head that lasted for the duration of the composition of the book, always negotiating with the Monster over his interests and her interests, which are sometimes shared, and sometimes wildly divergent. In many ways Sheck allows the Monster to speak to his creator, as Sheck joins Victor and Shelley in such a role. It’s a rehabilitation or reclamation of sorts, but also dangerous: “the mind’s a terrible place; it knows how each horizon crumbles.” So if you are up for having some of your horizons crumble, for pondering what it means to perceive and that ultimate frustration in trying to perceive the mind, the vehicle that allows the act of perception, then delve into the often humorous musings of this long black-haired, black-lipped, yellow-eyed Monster. You might find yourself keeping your own notes. And you might find a certain Monster watching you as you turn the pages.