- May I Be Frank?Further Hideous Progeny of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Concurrent with the 2018 bicentennial of the initial publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a new crop of narratives retell, reimagine, resuscitate, and remix the urtext. These books are the latest in a long line of Shelley's "hideous progeny" spanning nearly one hundred feature films, countless television episodes, songs, comics, toys, video games, and even a very pink (the color of the monster's flesh?) strawberry-flavored breakfast cereal, Franken Berry. Frankenstein's monster no longer only terrifies: he counsels us as a wise father figure, he makes us laugh, he sells us things.
Frankenstein fills a hybrid role in literary history as both an important text for gothic literature and a very early science fiction novel. The four new retellings of Frankenstein reviewed here harness both the gothic and the sci-fi modes, frequently simultaneously. Obsessions, uncanny doublings, haunted landscapes, and boundary transgressions (living/ [End Page 179] dead, male/female, innocent/guilty) blend with cutting-edge technologies that change the way we humans interact with the world and think of ourselves and our bodies. The familiar narrative and characters of Frankenstein give writers the freedom to experiment with form, to stitch together something entirely new. The texts engage pressing twenty-first-century concerns such as the trauma of endless war, the grief of losing a child to police violence, the possibility of a transhuman future, and the new types of cruelty that scientific advances allow. The freshness of these narratives, their sense of play and structural innovation, suggests that, far from a creaking and aging collection of tropes, the story of a scientist's dark, boundary-pushing obsession has plenty to tell us today.
Frankenstein in Baghdad
by Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright trans.
Penguin Books, 2018, 281 pp., $16 (paper)
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi begins with a short document labeled "Final Report," the words "Top Secret" stamped across the top. The document describes a shadowy Iraqi government entity called the Tracking and Pursuit Department and details how an anonymous "author" has fashioned the text of the novel that follows from secret government files. The Tracking and Pursuit Department is made up of longtime bureaucrats and mystics. The department staffers monitor supernatural occurrences and peer into the future to prevent crimes such as suicide bombings and armed attacks by militias. The department, like many characters in the world of the novel, attempts to make sense out of a twisty, ambiguous narrative that is inflected by the supernatural. As with many characters in the novel, the department might or might not have malign intentions.
This initial document shows one of the novel's major themes, borrowed from gothic literature: the difficulty in getting a story told and the complexity of the multilayered, multivoiced "truth." Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is assembled from a chorus of voices—the young Arctic explorer Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, the creature. Frankenstein in Baghdad uses a similar technique, collaging perspectives to tell the story of a uniquely modern monster, the [End Page 180] Whatsitsname. The report concludes with the proviso that the text of the novel should never be revealed. We readers are accessing a forbidden document.
The novel opens with a literal bang: a bomb detonates in a car park close to Tayaran Square, where most of the novel's action takes place. Debris and body parts scatter: one character notices "blood and hair on [an electricity] pole, mere inches from his nose and thick white moustache." The setting is central Baghdad, around 2003 to 2006, a time of great unrest and violence in which constant car bombings and suicide bombings by members of sectarian militias shatter the peace. The corrupt Iraqi government and invading Americans with their tanks and helicopters, tasked ostensibly with maintaining order, contribute equally to...