Reviews in the Machine : Frankenstein Theory, by Jack Wallen
At some point, author Jack Wallen made the decision to climb the literary mountain and write his own interpretation of one of the classics, Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein. And as we currently sit in the era of the reboot and the remake, I think it would be totally understandable if the reflexive reaction to something like this would be to dismiss. To bemoan the general lack of originality and new ideas that are popular culture seems unable to produce anymore.
However, knowing Jack’s work and him personally, I knew him to not be the kind of writer to simply take on any easy gimmick as a way of bringing in readers. I know how devoted of a storyteller he is and as I allowed the idea to fairly percolate in my head, I had to acknowledge that for as much as I like the original Frankenstein, it certainly isn’t without its faults and flaws.
I actually have just re-read Frankenstein this year as I had purchased it for someone as a gift. And as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder where exactly my enjoyment of the story was coming from. There were several junctures where I had to acknowledge that my reaction was stemming from the fact that on an intellectual level I simply knew what was going on in the story. I couldn’t say that I was reacting to the inherent quality of the prose itself. And I think that raises the question which is important for a lot of literature of time periods which are lost to us. How much of our enjoyment of the writing is coming from the actual words from that author and how much is coming from the fact that we are so intimately familiar with the raw details of the plot? Is it possible that these books have been talked over so many times in so many literature classes that we now almost read them on autopilot?
Mary Shelley wrote a classic of modern genre literature. It has hints of science fiction and horror and while people commonly misunderstand who in the story Frankenstein actually is, this book did launch an entire franchise of content in our pop culture. However, I do have some issues in the way in which she chose to deliver the story.
The nested doll style of the plot, along with the heavily epistolary nature of the story makes me as the reader feel cut off from the heart of what is going on. At the outset of the book, the story is centered around the captain of a scientific expedition, writing letters back home to his wife. In his letters, he details an encounter with another scientist by the name of Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein proceeds to tell this captain an extremely detailed story in his own right, shifting the story to another voice. And at the peak of the story’s narrative complexity, the voice of the narrative shifts again to that of Frankenstein’s creation. If you’re keeping track, this becomes the voice of the monster, told by Frankenstein to the Captain who then retells it all it in his letter to his wife. At some point you start to wonder how it is that so many people have such a crystal clear recollection of every word spoken to them over the course of their life.
And I get it. I understand that a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required. After all we are talking about a book in which the dead are brought back to life. Still, my point stands that while I enjoy the novel a great deal, there is plenty which can be built upon and expanded and maybe done with a little bit more clarity. And what I think Wallen has done here so effectively with Frankenstein Theory is to take some of the concepts which Shelly flirts with and makes them much more evident and impactful on the page.
According to Wallen, this book began as a short story intended to be somewhat of a backstory for Victor Frankenstein. And as short stories often seem to do, it ended up growing and expanding from there. So another strength of Frankenstein Theory is that the doctor himself feels like a more fleshed out and rounded character, as opposed to merely an obligatory piece who is there to tell his story.
For me, what made Frankenstein Theory stand out was in the way that it made the issues presented in Mary Shelley‘s book more accessible. And I don’t mean that in a lazy sense of “I just don’t want to deal with the mental strain of disentangling Shelly’s prose.” For me, this book manages to make the morality of the story the centerpiece, as opposed to an aspect which has to be explained and talked over before you really get the significance of what’s going on.
And Don’t get me wrong, the language of Mary Shelley is beautiful and it is a book I enjoy a great deal. It’s just that, generationally we are so far removed from that period of time and that language. It’s overly simplistic to accuse a lack of intellect when people have a hard time engaging with classic literature. It’s simply that for many, the process of engaging with a voice so far removed from us just isn’t worth the pay-off of what we get in the narrative. And for as simple as I’m sure many would dismiss books of our current era, I have to think that a hundred years from now, readers would have just as much trouble trying to get at the heart of what was being written. The key I see to my enjoyment of this book is how it manages to dust off the power of Shelly’s work and make it feel less like a literary artifact.
Because of the immediacy of events, Wallen is able to plunge the reader into the moral spectacle that Shelley only seems to wink at. That as the book moves forward, the monster becomes progressively more human while Dr. Frankenstein becomes more and more inhuman. To me, this is the core power of Frankenstein. Not stumbling, green monsters, but how the rational pursuits of an intellectual mind can reveal the real monsters hiding within. And this is a point beautifully laid out in Frankenstein Theory. I, for one, am excited to read more in this series.
Chad A. Clark is an author of horror and science fiction. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page