Essay

Twice-Told Tales

Laurie Sheck and Dan Beachy-Quick re-write the classics.

by Tess Taylor

As if to dramatize this, both books feature deliberately unreliable narrators. Shelley has a sequence of speakers who nest in one another’s tales, while Melville gives his tale over to someone who is merely “called” Ishmael. Both books play with storytelling: each is formally multiple and fractured. Frankenstein nests story within story, creating an assemblage as tattered as the monster it describes. And as Beachy-Quick notes in his introduction, “submerged within Moby-Dick lurks an unfinished dictionary, specific to the science and art of whaling”—presumably Ishmael’s, but possibly not. In a very real sense, the deliberate fissures in the original forms—as well as the subject matter itself—create crevicular space for later re-entries. In Beachy-Quick’s book, and in Sheck’s, genre-games extend and enhance the formal play within each original novel, setting up something like installation art around each 19th-century classic.

Most importantly: in both form and content, both original books are about the monstrous qualities of human ambition. In them, the ambitions of literate or literary people aren’t spared. As each book tries to describe the faultiness of knowledge arrived at by human stories, they implicate not only mythologies of science and discovery, but also the deeply unreliable structures of literature and of language itself. No wonder poets want to jump right in, or to write in, as it were. In both Moby-Dick and Frankenstein the problems many poets most care about—flaws inherent in using and being used by language—are central.

Of the two original novels, Frankenstein engages poetry more directly. By sewing letters together with poems together with as-told-to narratives, Shelley’s own book, sewn up from disparate parts, mirrors her botched creation. Shelley sews at least three poems into her book. Recasting the Prometheus myth from Ovid and Aeschylus, Mary was in deep dialogue with her husband, Percy Bysshe. Mary borrowed her book’s nesting structure from Ovid as well. Frankenstein opens with a letter from Walton, a sea-faring captain on the way to the North Pole. Walton meets Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist, on the ice. The book segues into Frankenstein’s account of chasing (and being chased by) the monster, his botched creation. And later the book delves into the monster's own account (as told back to Frankenstein) of learning about his own condition as an outcast by reading that most famous of poems: Paradise Lost. 

Paradise Lost is “nested” at the very center of Frankenstein. The problem of reading it is one of the monster’s central dilemmas. In learning to read this poem in particular, the monster realizes that he’s been botched and abandoned by his “father,” Victor. The problem isn’t that Victor has created an ugly-looking creature out of dead body parts, but that the monster, having learned by reading to believe in a world of ideal forms, figures out that he is the opposite of ideal: he’s nightmarish. By reading, he has come to explain his existence as miserable and deformed.

Sheck jumps in where Mary Shelley leaves off. Her opening begins with a letter from the monster’s old New York landlord, who has discovered his writings, though the monster has fled north again. He still misses his friend Shelley, with whom he used to read in a graveyard. In Sheck’s telling, the monster, the botched fictional creation, is now the “speaker” or “authorial voice.” He is, in fact, actually “creating” the lives of Claire, Mary, and Clerval as he “reads” them passing over the page. It’s as if Frankenstein the reader is actually, in his way, an author.

If the monster is a reader, and as a reader is an author, who is the monster? Was the monster “Frankenstein’s” creation, or “Mary’s”? Is it now “Sheck’s”? In a novel about invention inside invention, and text inside text, who is the author? Sheck’s retelling circles after problems that always haunted Frankenstein, even as Sheck adds on to Frankenstein’s assemblage. Meanwhile, A Monster’s Notes also extends Sheck’s own poetic dilemmas. Even before reworking Victor Frankenstein’s botched creation, Sheck was interested in fragments—as fissures; as ice-crack lapses in knowledge; as attempts to show the breach between what we mean and what we say. Sheck, who wrote a 12-poem sequence to Persephone in The Willow Grove, has long been preoccupied with monsters, with the disenfranchised wanderers stuck between life and death, and with outcasts as figures for poetry. As she says in The Willow Grove, “If this is the world, we must find some way to belong to it.”

Sheck’s approach occasionally lends itself to overwriting—in both senses of the word. In A Monster’s Notes, she overrides Frankenstein’s existing narrative with fictionalizations, and at times also overwrites, creating a stew rife with hand-wringing. The voice stays quite similar between Sheck’s earlier works and this one: It is recognizable, even in this collage of forms, as Sheck’s. Herein lies another lapse between author and reader, hunter and hunted: To reread earlier poems by Sheck is to discover that the voice all through A Monster’s Notes, collaged from real-life letters from Claire and Mary, is also indelibly Sheck’s. If the notes are Sheck’s, Sheck herself is the monster.

Originally Published: September 30, 2009
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COMMENTS (2)

On October 8, 2009 at 4:19pm Allison wrote:

and your essay makes me want to make my own too. Thank you.

On October 16, 2009 at 12:21am Evan Gottlieb wrote:
Laurie Sheck has in fact published five (wonderful!) books of poetry, not four as the reviewer claims. They are: _Amaranth_ (1981), _Io at Night_ (1990), _The Willow Grove_ (1996), _Black Series_ (2002), and _Captivity_ (2007).

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Biography

Tess Taylor, the 2010-2011 Amy Clampitt Resident, has received writing fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Boston Review, the Harvard Review, Literary Imagination, the Times Literary Supplement, . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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