To call something “notes” means it isn’t finished.
A preparation for something else, or a work in progress.
It means I know this is less than perfect. It means the piecemeal composition is acknowledged, should be applauded.
“And to my horror (for I had read the books which now all but crowded us out of the apartment) I discovered I knew nothing whatever about the grueling, mundane business of making form out of fragments.” -- Frederick Exley, “A Fan’s Notes”
“Form connotes and carries with it expectation.” -- Ander Monson, “Fragments: On Dentistry”
It means this is less than perfect, and hence more real. The crude shape a virtue. The rough edges. Texture over all.
In Laurie Sheck’s novel, “A Monster’s Notes” (Alfred A. Knopf: 544 pp., $28), Victor Frankenstein’s creation is alive and well and living in New York.
Mary Shelley’s creation has come unstuck in time. He lives in New York or did until recently. He passes Tower Records, a Duane Reade drugstore. He takes notes on the news, developments in science. He reads abandoned books, is privy to whole correspondences, is a historian of his own loneliness.
The novel’s first part is “Ice Diary”; the second is “Dream of the Red Chamber”; the last is “Metropolis/The Ruins at Luna.” But the best parts of the book are in the “notes” -- lyric essays on time, space, leprosy, art. On Albertus Magnus, on John Cage. The sinews of this odd and unwieldy creature.
“I didn’t seek to find her,” Sheck writes in her preface, “wandered instead within and among her fragments of language -- notebooks, drafts, journals, fictions, letters, essays, and found there whole worlds spinning like planets, lived in their cold light and burnings light, wondering where I was, where they might take me. Curious, I heard a monster’s voice, and out of some sharp need I followed.”
Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire’s letters, invented, real. Hesitant, aborted:
“So even liberty is a prison xxxxxxx and xxxx”
Much in that manner.
Writing is revision, or a kind of madness. Claire’s cross-outs (xxx) resemble the stitches on the monster -- they are words left suspended in the air of the page.
When does a poet (Sheck is one) become a novelist? Sensationally great novels by poets: James Lasdun, “The Horned Man”; Robert Kelly, “The Scorpions”; John Ashbery and James Schuyler, “A Nest of Ninnies”
Ashbery and Schuyler trading off lines initially.
“On the first notebook’s pages,” Sheck writes in the preface, “she penciled in a left-hand margin, and there Percy Shelley left his comments and marks. Picture two hands moving side by side, she writing ‘creature,’ he (in some impulse of tenderness, kindness?) crossing it out, replacing it with ‘being.’
Reading “Frankenstein” afresh: I see it as a commentary on (and twisted how-to kit for) the novel, that magpie form. A restlessness of form. A series of letters by an Arctic-bound explorer to his sister gets taken over by Victor Frankenstein’s life story (a tangled affair in itself), which dissolves the artifice of correspondence for most of the book. And, at one point, Frankenstein’s narration gets dominated by a soon-to-be one-sided dialogue with his creation.
We unthinkingly refer to the monster as “Frankenstein,” understandable when the frame is so crooked, and creature and creator present themselves with equal eloquence.
Sheck embeds texts or, rather, lets them slip into and out of the pages; she compounds the vertigo. Characters write letters about books that they’re translating; they quote passages, which are in fact like passages from one world to another.
The text as body.
Any line could serve as a metaphor for Sheck’s project and process, such as:
"[Lady Su Hui’s ‘Xuan Ji Tu shi’ is] a poem composed of 841 characters woven into a five-colored tapestry and arranged in a perfect square. Reading it, there’s no need to start at the beginning or move straight to the end. Instead, it can be entered anywhere.”
“Of Archilocos we have not one single work entire and most of the context’s fallen away”.
As the monster explains: “You worked to make the parts of me combine to form a new, amazing being.”
More where that came from.
A commonplace book, a cover version of “Frankenstein,” a epistolary novel. A commentary on revision, translation -- what lives in the margins.
“Where do you end and I begin?”
The fiction of “A Monster’s Notes” is framed (as a found text) by a letter, dated June 30, 2007: “This is to inform you that the final closing on your building at East 6th Street was successfully completed . . . [Y]esterday afternoon as I made my last walk-through, I found on the second floor a shorter note, a manuscript wrapped in a rubber band, and an old computer. . . .”
It’s the monster’s handwriting. He muses: “And Clerval, that gentle man who everyone thought dead -- in fact he traveled east as he wanted. Even now I sometimes picture his hand moving in patient transcription as day after day he translated the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ in his house at the foot of Xianghan Hill. . . . " Clerval was Victor Frankenstein’s faithful friend, destroyed by the monster in Shelley’s novel, but here living in China, translating “The Story of the Stone,” or “A Dream of Red Mansions,” or “Dream of the Red Chamber.”
“Dream of the Red Chamber,” 18th century. Unfinished by the author, who is Cao Xuequin, or is he. Commentary by “Red Inkstone,” who might also be Cao.
Originally published anonymously.
Unfinished by the author and hence potentially perfect, endlessly expandable in the mind.
Question for the reader: Why start what cannot stop?
Partial list of books never completed by their authors but published: Charles Dickens, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”; Robert Musil, “The Man Without Qualities”; Walter Benjamin, “The Arcades Project.”
“Those days in the graveyard I traveled across many pages which frequently ended in mid-sentence -- the books I found were mostly torn -- so my travels were wayward, random, disrupted, though maybe the mind mostly travels in this way.”
“The whole issue of the unfinished is a living idea,” writes the monster.
"[S]omething unfinished changes,” he continues. “That means it’s in a certain way alive.”
As Sheck demonstrates, the lyric essay is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, equipped with parts sliced out of others, stitched up with genius and white space:
“Claire. Air. Care. Clear. Claire.”
“If I could see intervals as well as objects. . . .”
“How slowly the time passes here, encompassed as I am by frost and snow!” -- “Frankenstein”
“Architecture of oblivion, its drifts.”
“Winter darkness pulls over like a monk’s cowl, enclosing us in worlds where strange things take place, where anything can happen, where the mind goes where it’s never gone before, and stays.” -- Gretel Ehrlich, “The Future of Ice”
I started this review before finishing the book, in the form of notes. I didn’t know I was writing the review yet. I have another file just as long.
Fungibility of the notebook mode. Juxtaposition is easy, at times even arbitrary; effects perhaps no less revelatory or pungent.
“As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionally large. After having formed this determination and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.” --"Frankenstein”
Cut and paste.
When am I writing this sentence?
Page 271, in its entirety: “The monks in their patchwork rags . . . and I a patchwork . . . the workings of each mind a patchwork, each self roughly stitched as you stitched me.”
The energies of “A Monster’s Notes” are not incompatible with those of the Web. Thought for future development: Unruly, genre-leaking books like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Dictee,” Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo” and David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” might seem merely reflexive today, when we write in fragments, when our blogs and Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are de facto lyric essays, Frankenstein creations.
The intricacies of Shelley’s life (who was Claire?) unclear to me till I went to Wikipedia. Sheck also embeds into her book Wikipedia, Google searches, Unknown Hosts, Redirections. All this webwork.
“The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion. . . . With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” --"Frankenstein”
R. e-mails me that our friend J. has to take blood pressure medication because she drinks too much coffee, which makes me laugh. But also that J. “had this horrifying story about recently running into a crime scene near her house where a man had been cut into little pieces in a box.” Which makes me think I will never get to sleep. I do, but in the middle of the night a storm centers itself overhead. I am not dreaming and now I understand the term “rolling thunder,” the noise caroming like a ball in a roulette wheel, a ball the size of 20 baseball stadiums, a wheel with a diameter the length of Manhattan. Car alarms go off. I silently count the seconds before, or is it after, lightning penetrates the armor of the venetian blinds, to scrape my eyes and shock the bedsheets silver.
Ed Park is a founding editor of the Believer and the author of the novel “Personal Days.” Astral Weeks appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.