A Monster's Notes

July 02, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

We think Frankenstein and we think Boris Karloff shuffling through a Gothic castle, Peter Boyle doing a soft-shoe across a stage, maybe even Robert De Niro in…oh, best to forget that one. A Monster’s Notes, the brainy, lyrical first novel by poet Laurie Sheck, returns the creature whence it came: the realm of letters, and the mind of Mary Shelley, who used Frankenstein, published in 1818, to explore the folly of reckless ambition, creation’s alienation from its creator, and the quality of loneliness. Sheck’s opus is about all those things too, and many — maybe too many — more.

The book’s conceit is high-concept: that Shelley’s literary monster was inspired by a mysterious being who visited her as a young girl during visits to her mother’s grave. (That would be author and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died days after giving birth to Shelley.) But this ”real” creature, who has survived into the 21st century, is gripped by a profound identity crisis; his understanding of self is limited to the backstory Shelley devised. He attempts to glean further enlightenment by — and here’s where this gets tricky — envisioning correspondence written by Shelley, her stepsisters, and Wollstonecraft, as well as (and here’s where it gets really tricky) two fictional characters, Henry Clerval from Frankenstein and a leper dying in an Italian sanitarium. These letters are presented as part of the monster’s journal, which also contains articles on subjects — robotics, genetic privacy, the nature of time, John Zorn’s experimental music, medieval philosophers — that speak to the creature’s existential plight.

Yep: 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. Sheck gets inside the heads of her characters and fleshes out profound struggles — the leper’s deterioration, Shelley’s grief for a mother she never knew. Through each of them, the creature begins to understand the influences that brought him into existence, even as he remains an unknowable cipher — a metaphor for our own never-ending search for place and purpose. A?

A Monster's Notes

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A Monster's Notes

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