A Monster’s Notes

A Monster's Notes BY Laurie Sheck. Knopf. Hardcover, 544 pages. $30.

The cover of A Monster's Notes

Poet Laurie Sheck’s new hybrid work, A Monster’s Notes, raises more questions than it answers about the life and times of Mary Shelley, the fate of Shelley’s famous monster, and the act of literary creation. Depending on the reader’s interest in such multilayered questioning and in the Shelley-Imlay-Woollstonecraft-Godwin clan, one will either be fascinated by the book’s tangled intertextuality or left wondering whether it might not be best to return to the original texts and embark on some independent research.

Written in a range of genres—letters, interviews, Internet search results, and excerpts from notebooks, manuscripts, journals, and newspapers—A Monster’s Notes is a compilation of the scribblings of a twenty-first-century incarnation of Shelley’s monster. Partly invented, partly mined from Sheck’s archival research into Shelley’s life and works, the book traces the monster’s search for answers about himself and his examination of the ways he has been represented. In the course of this journey, he explores themes from Frankenstein, such as North Pole explorers, and considers Shelley’s relationships through reconstructed and sometimes fragmentary personal and public documents. Finally, the monster asserts his own narrative power by reimagining the fate of Henry Clervel, who, in Shelley’s novel, was killed by the monster. In the new version, Clervel survives and goes on to translate the semiautobiographical and psychologically probing Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber.

Having amassed a fascinating array of texts—some real, some imaginary, some a little of both—A Monster’s Notes blurs the line between fact and fiction, sometimes, as Sheck explains, even in a single document. Yet for all its historical investigations and genre-bending, the book is distinctly contemporary and concrete in the variety of topics explored: space travel, robots, John Cage, Agnes Martin, genetic privacy. What Sheck and her monster do especially well is create fertile ground for considering questions about authorial intention, history as narrative, and the fate of the book in the twenty-first century.

While Sheck clearly invites readers to interpret at will, some guidance can be found in the author’s own depiction of the project: “So much of a life is invisible, inscrutable: layers of thoughts, feelings, outward events entwined with secrecies, ambiguities, ambivalences, obscurities, darknesses strongly present even to the one who’s lived it—maybe especially to the one who’s lived it. Why should it be otherwise? I didn’t seek to find her, wandered instead within and among her fragments of language—notebooks, drafts, journals, fictions, letters, essays, and found there whole worlds like spinning planets, lived in their cold light and burning light, wondering where I was, where they might take me.”