Thursday, January 22, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein
by Peter Ackroyd

I’ve been following Peter Ackroyd’s writing for some time now, both his fiction and non-fiction. He’s one of the most English of English writers, deeply involved with his country’s history and literature. His non-fiction includes biographies of great English heroes of the imagination (Dickens, Blake, Thomas More), and biographies as well of places (London, the Thames River). His novels are often elaborate pastiches, though one, The Plato Papers, is an extravagant science fiction. His new novel, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, re-imagines Mary Shelley’s most famous novel as a London farce, a kind of cockney black comedy.

It’s a strange creature.

The novel’s world seems a bit off kilter; we meet a young cockney poet studying medicine named Jack Keat, not John Keats. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first wife is not a suicide but the subject of an unsolved murder. Oh, and electricity restores the dead to life. But there’s a reason for all this, as we find out on the last page; for the novel ends not with one twist ending, but two, and it has to be said that the final twist is one perfectly in character for the genre Ackroyd’s playing with, calling to mind as it does thoughts of German Expressionist film.

“Playing with” is the operative phrase. In Albion, his study of the English imagination, Ackroyd identified the gothic as a characteristic English form. His last novel, The Siege of Troy, was a full-blown gothic in which an archaeological dig site replaced the traditional gloomy mansion. Now The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein pushes the form yet further, resurrecting the broad comic relief which was an element of the eighteenth-century gothic and allying it with figures out of proto-Dickensian London. The book becomes not only an evocation of the gothic and of the English past and English imagination, but of Ackroyd’s own career, a re-mix of his own tropes; so that as his last book was a study of the Thames, for example, thus the river features prominently here, as does the element of water in general.

I haven’t said much about the plot up to this point; this is in general not a plot-heavy or plot-centred book. It does follow the overall pattern of Shelley’s novel, but takes its time introducing the monster, to that for the first hundred pages or so the book is lacking in tension. Ackroyd’s style is smooth enough that this doesn’t seem to matter. That said, the voice he adopts for Frankenstein is less distinctive than I might have expected, given Ackroyd’s talent for pastiche and evocation of period. But then, he seems to be trying an unusual trick with the character, setting him up as a straight man who never gets the joke, the foreigner in London out of his depth, the butt of every gag. 

And Ackroyd is a man who knows London humour; its development over time, its sources and roots. Just as he knows the history of the city and its mentalities across centuries. At the same time as working with this comedic and urban material, Ackroyd mixes in traditional Romantic imagery — inspiration, lightning as the fire of creation, above all the idea of the double or shadow-self. The two strands don’t really seem to mix; that’s a pity, because one sense that if they had, new depths might have been found to both. It may be that I don’t see this happening because I don’t know London well enough; that is, that I’m missing out on the jokes or the resonances to be found in Frankenstein’s description of a given street or neighbourhood, which the ideal reader might be meant to contrast against the state of said places in the present day.

Ackroyd’s use of historical characters like the Shelleys and Byron is also somewhat disappointing. They’re a bit lackluster. Shelley certainly does some unusual things, and occasionally displays some surprising erudition, but to me there seems to be a quality of thought in the historical Shelley in particular which is missing in Ackroyd’s character. It’s notable that in Ackroyd’s corpus so far, the Romantics are largely notable by their absence. Still, Shelley comes off as interesting enough to be a credible subject for Victor Frankenstein’s unspoken homoerotic crush.

Ackroyd, himself gay, often makes homosexuality a theme in his writing. The story of Frankenstein resonates with this, and especially with the repression of homosexuality, the denial of one’s true self — it plays with notions of fertility and sterility, of doubleness and otherness, of the shadow, of the hidden part of the soul. So in Ackroyd’s novel, Victor Frankenstein’s monster represents the part of himself that he will not allow himself to look at. Mary Shelley’s monster makes a blood-curdling declamation to his creator that “I shall be with you on your wedding night!” — here, the creature asks hypothetically “What if I were to appear on your wedding night?” only to be told that his own existence makes it impossible for Victor to marry. Without going into details, the twist ending works to make this point; it establishes the centrality of this theme to the overall novel.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is an intriguing book, but one which feels somehow less than vital; it’s an interesting rewrite of its original text, but not somehow necessary in the way Shelley’s novel feels necessary. It’s well worth reading, but it feels like a mix of interesting ingredients which don’t ultimately quite cohere to become more than the sum of its parts. 

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