Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Let's Be Frank: A Guest Blogger is at Work

#92 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The only monster here is a neglected and scornful child.

There are those who would have the American reading public believe that Frankenstein is a ghost story, a tale about a fearsome beast and the man who must attempt to defeat him out of a sense of guilt and duty. While the book does prominently feature an undead monster assembled from assorted body parts in various stages of decay, the story is no more about ghouls than Animal Farm is about cuddly animals come to life.

Frankenstein is a story about ambition, failure, self-delusion, self-esteem and internal hate projected outward. It is a family drama between a father and son, dressed up in an ill-fitting suit and decked out with neck bolts.

Of course, to compare the monster from Mary Shelley's masterwork to a Halloween mascot is more of a perversion than anything occurring in the book. The Frankenstein monster of Shelley's world is a far cry from the slow dolt portrayed in movies and pop culture. He is a specimen to behold, cunning and brilliant in the kind of dark way that only comes from a life of neglect and ugliness. He is fast and strong, so much so that no captor can hold him, no pursuer can run him down. This is a creature without peer, without equal, whose inner hurt and isolation have driven him to bitter, brilliant madness.

His excellence is a testament to Victor, the story’s protagonist and abusive Mr. Muntz to the monster’s lonely neglected Nelson. Victor, a young man possessing intelligence beyond his years, becomes obsessed with the dark arts and strives to solve the mystery of life and death through a blend of modern science and witchcraft. The author goes to great length to outline her character’s obsession only to side-step his crowning achievement, never revealing to the reader how Victor was able to reach his goal of reanimating life. The “how” or “why” isn’t nearly as exciting as the “what” that follows.

The relationship between Victor and the monster is one for the ages, so complex and nuanced that scholars have spent years of their lives analyzing their connection to each other. To summarize: the two are chained. Victor sees in the monster his dark ambition personified and distorted, his once-noble goal stripped of its romance and bathed in the brutal light of reality. He sees in his monster the ugly result of man trying to play god. He is disgusted in his creation and in himself for wanting it so badly. He wishes to kill it and, by extension, himself.

The monster, on the other hand, is created tabula rasa with no ambitions, aspirations or agendas outside of being loved by his creator, being accepted by the one who breathed life into his flesh. The monster’s initial quest is a religious one, as a pilgrim looking for the embrace of god. Upon realizing Victor’s initial reaction, which is one of loathing repulsion, the creature is without a center, lost to a strange world that makes no effort to accept him. He sees in his father the cruelty of humanity and strives to end him and, by extension, cure his own self-hatred.

And so, the father repulsed by the son, the son scorned by the father, the two characters set out to destroy each other.

The real horror of the story is not so much in the acts of brutality that man and beast unleash upon each other but in the all-encompassing stubbornness of Shelley's two main characters. If only the father would accept the son, if only the son could forgive the father’s cruelty, both characters could find peace. Instead, the story unfolds with Victor pursuing his child across the frozen caps of the North Pole, the two forever locked in a battle of who can tear the other to shreds, physically and mentally.

Some characters are killed. Others are confined to a life of emotional imprisonment and isolation. As it was written in another classic about ugliness and personal pettiness’ victory over love and understanding, “All are punished.” This certainly applies in Frankenstein, a tale about the unyielding decay that can lie in the deep ends of faith.

---Nate Adams is the owner and operator of Left of the Dial. Formerly he was the head designer and fashion editor for The People's XPress News.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Drunk and Windy with Ernie

"The Three-Day Blow" by Ernest Hemmingway

Don't listen to Blue Oyster Cult, the reaper is the only thing to fear.

In literature, the medium of a short story is hard to compare to other arts. Would a television mini-series, a brief radio documentary (like an account on This American Life), or a blog post be comparable? I feel like that’s not the case.

With Ernest Hemingway’s barely eight-page story “The Three-Day Blow,” a full narrative springs from a seemingly innocuous drunken evening between two acquaintances. The episode consists of the pair mundanely imbibing and talking. No action climax occurs; however, one character internally wrestles with a recent break-up.

The title refers to an autumn wind striping previously lively trees of their leaves. Protagonist Nick discusses the relevance to his break-up:

“'All of a sudden everything was over,’ Nick said. ‘I don’t know why it was. I couldn’t help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees.’”

Hemmingway’s point is that life – or elements of life -- can suddenly cease to exist. Nick internally whines about his seemingly hopeless situation. But Hemmingway won’t let it be that bleak. His simple approach toward the two intoxicated men allows for the other character, Bill, to provide Nick an epiphany, unbeknownst to his crack-brained mind.

Bill warns Nick that if he isn’t careful, his relationship could be rekindled. The warning is slightly a joke because these burly men in the vein of Hemmingway’s code hero aren’t outwardly discussing feelings. Bill simply means that Nick could get trapped by monogamy; this is exactly what Nick wants to hear.

“Nick had not thought about [them getting back together]. It seemed so absolute. That was a thought. That made him feel better.”

Using deception, Hemmingway makes the reader think the short story will end tragically. Nick and Bill grab rifles and run out into the wilderness at the pinnacle of their stupor. Nothing happens – or it’s not written anyway – but the author’s point does not relate specifically to the pair’s story. Instead, unlike other Hemmingway works I’ve read, it seems positive. Other than death, nothing in life is final. Even if Nick screwed up his relationship, it is never technically beyond repair until someone dies.

Although morbid, the theme is hopeful.
Short story: “The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker

Monday, May 11, 2009

Jim Tome-y: Eat Your Heart Out

#90 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

There's nothing brief about Hugo's massive novel.

I don’t think I properly understood the word “tome” until I read the unabridged version of Les Miserables. Previously adjectives like “humongous” or “gigantic” seemed sufficient in describing books over 800 pages. Now I can recognize the negative connotations that are associated with those terms. “Tome,” on the other hand, provides the correct dignity related to a masterpiece like Les Miserables.

Not surprisingly, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel was written while the Frenchman vacationed abroad. I thought Tolkien knew imagery: Hugo throws nine kitchen sinks of compound modifiers into every description – clearly, the man had time to kill. Although sometimes a little too detailed, his novel excels because – among many other reasons – it is so comprehensive. After reading Les Miserables I feel as if I could navigate both Paris’ roadways and sewer system, discuss in-depth French history from the revolution through Napoleon to the mid-1800s, and even speak French (sorta).

Ironically, Hugo’s tome was involved in the “shortest correspondence in history” (whatever that means), according to Wikipedia.

"The shortest correspondence in history is between Hugo and his publisher Hurst & Blackett in 1862. It is said Hugo was on vacation when Les Misérables (which is over 1200 pages) was published. He telegraphed the single-character message '?' to his publisher, who replied with a single '!'."

Anyway, the life and crimes and repentances of Jean Valjean and his pals certainly deserves the lengthy time commitment needed to read the 1,200-page book. That does not mean that everything Hugo included was necessary. In high school, I read an abridged version and wondered what I was missing out on. The Kingsway Regional High School addition clocked in at 600 pages, what could the other 600 be about?

The answer to that question: interesting – but ultimately dispensable – background. The novel is divided into six volumes that possessed about 15 books. The books then are further broken down into chapters. Hugo’s flow is sometimes disrupted by the back-and-forth dynamic created by his layout and adherence to rigorous background. Book 5 would be a breathtaking romantic tryst between Marius and Cosette; Book 6 follows with a lengthy 50-page description on the history of a bell tower. The see-saw almost had the feel of a commercial break. The plot developed so seamlessly, you would not dare put the book down. The following exposition would bore you like Sunday afternoon at Aunt Betty’s house.

That complaint is essentially petty in comparison to all the remarkable aspects Hugo’s novel commands. Today, a qualified yet potentially harmful editor might have weeded out the heart and genius while trimming the expository fat.

Hugo’s attention to detail in characters astounds me; I’m certainly envious. Nearly every seemingly insignificant character has a climatic moment in the story – sometimes hundreds of pages or numerous years later. Gardeners, childhood enemies, and irrelevant backgrounders affect the central plot constantly. Every time Hugo reintroduces an esoteric character from page 278 shocks me like defibrillator. If Hugo took the time to give a character a name, then he was going to make sure that he or she was important. Otherwise, the character would be labeled simply as an attendant, innkeeper, or ukulele player (you’ll have to see for yourself if he’s in the book).

And all that is with the minor characters. 600-page essays have been written about each major player in the Les Miserables game. In lieu of that, I will provide an elementary explanation of each character. I am going to attempt to guess what each character symbolizes.

Jean Valjean (The Working Man) – An ex-convict who now lives a life of propriety, he constantly runs from the law. Every step forward he takes and every good deed he does is nearly always countered by a negative event in his life. He dies a beleaguered man frustrated by society yet ultimately pleased with the small but loving family he secures.

Cosette (Goodness) – An orphan girl cared for by Valjean who brings peace to all associated with her. Her love stings Valjean, though, when she succumbs to youthful temptation and falls for Marius. Although devoted to Valjean, she betrays him by neglecting him near his death.

Marius (Youth) – The grandson of a wealthy bourgeois, he rejects his wealthy upbringing upon discovering his father was a hero during the Napoleonic era. He devotes himself entirely to his passions (his deceased father, Cosette) in an almost pathetic manner; he always remains a good person, though.

Javert (Rigidness) – A police inspector who obsessively hunts for Valjean. His lack of a personal life balances with his strict adherence to all authority and regulation. Javert is my favorite character because of his almost entire lack of compassion.

Thenardier (Evil) – A con-man who takes Cosette in as an orphan, he plagues both the girl and Valjean throughout the book. He attempts to extort, murder, and defraud all he encounters.

While my review itself is not nearly as lengthy as Hugo’s work, it should provide at least a basic insight into why Les Miserables is so much more than a successful musical. The proper time needs to be dedicated to savor the 1,200-page masterpiece.
Up next, (#89) Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe