All entries for Wednesday 10 September 2008

September 10, 2008

The Black Hole Machine

         We need to talk. I love you x

         I notice him before Jack has a chance.

         “That our man?” I ask him. He turns in his seat.

         “Peter!” he shouts, and waves. The silver-haired man smiles, waves back, and approaches. A tall man, I notice, with one of those long faces I’ve always associated with schoolteachers. His eyebrows soar in greeting.

         “Today,” he says, unwinding his woollen scarf, “the world will come to an end.”

         “Pint,” Jack says in encouragement, nudging the glass forward across the table. “This is my friend William- the children’s author. William, meet Peter Blakeley.”

         Blakeley shakes my hand with a kind of grimace.

         “I haven’t had the pleasure of coming across your work, sir,” he says, and sits across from me. “Have you read up on the Black Hole Machine?” he adds, glancing at Jack.

         “The hadron collider?” Jack asks.

        

         I glance down, and write,

         We are talking, aren’t we?

         In a final, pathetic attempt to translate anger into the text message, I leave off the kiss-mark at the end.

        

         “The universe will be destroyed,” Blakeley says. “I have no doubt of that.”

         “Really?” I ask, stowing the mobile away in my trousers. He continues, ignoring the pint set before him,

         “It’s an instinct, I suppose, but I can’t help but believe in it...the sensation that things are coming to an end. Don’t you feel that, sir? All of the important matters seem to have ended, and-” he glances out into the street, “-all the new matters seem either so apocalyptic or so utterly trivial that you know they can’t possibly lead anywhere.”

         His grey eyes watch me for a moment.

         “Well,” Jack says, “we’re in a pub which also happens to be dashing distance from a very beautiful church. I’d say we’re covered both ways. Pint,” he adds, in case Blakeley has forgotten.

         My pocket rumbles. Tricia has written,

         This isn’t talking.

         I realise, with a pang of self-pity, that she’s taken her kiss-mark away too.

         “Will you put that damn thing away?” Jack asks, draining the last of his lager. “You’re better company when you’re not focused on a bit of plastic.”

         Blakeley finally takes a sip of his drink. Jack, who has never wasted a penny in his life, seems to relax in the knowledge that his gesture has not gone to fast.  A ticklish sensation makes me look down again;a young tabby cat saunters through our legs, purring.

         “Was that your wife, young man?” Blakeley asks, still gazing at me.

         “Girlfriend,” I reply, and put the phone away.

         “When you’re young,” he says, his eyes drawing over to the barmaid, “you think everything lasts forever.”

        

         The church bells strike twelve. Outside, a couple of tourists have gathered to watch. The lager froths through my mouth.

         “Excuse me,” Blakeley says, and rises. “Do you know where the bathroom is?” he asks Jack, who points it out with a kind of grim cheer.

         I reply;

         Meet me at the Cafe later. I do want to talk to you. I wish I wasn't such an arse.

         Gushing, I think, after the message has gone. Gushing, and the wrong words entirely. Jack is watching me with a simmering rage.

         “Can you try to avoid getting in a fight with this man?” he asks after a few moments of silence. “Some of us actually want to penetrate the inner circle. And it’s your round.”

         I finish my drink.

         “If he’s not senile,” I reply, “then there won’t be any inner circle to penetrate in twenty minutes’ time.” Childish, again. What’s the matter with me?

Jack snarls back,

         “For God’s sake, at least try to be civil. If I’m very lucky I can still take him to lunch afterwards.”

         I leave him at the table. The barmaid is from South Africa, as it turns out, and looking for a place to live.

         “So, young man,” Blakeley says, returning, and I notice for the first time how he’s abandoned ‘sir’ in favour of ‘young man’, “You don’t feel as though the universe is coming to a close?”

         Jack flinches.

         “Call me childish,” I reply, “but when it does happen, I’d prefer to think it’ll be more climactic. People running around screaming, flames in the clouds, etcetera.”

         “You’re a writer,” he says. The insult stings. Jack swigs at his lager, casting sullen eyes at the pair of us. We’re not playing his game.

         “I feel like Scheherazade,” Blakeley says, and his eyes, no longer challenging mine, are on the clock. He clears his throat, and begins,

         “All I’ve ever done is to tell story upon story- on the grounds that I myself was not much more than the sum of them. And, of course, it follows that I would die if I ever stopped.

         “I never felt much for my wife. I married her on the assumption that she was a sort of love interest- imagine my horror when I realised she, or whatever it was which used her face, seemed to believe I was a good man. My son’s disrespect matters less than you’d think, because I know it’s directed towards another figure, a father-puppet, standing a few feet in front of me.”

         My pocket rumbles. God, I think, watching the old man, perhaps she said ‘no’. I run my hand along the shape of the phone; a box, I think, containing the world.

         “Things can’t be allowed to just peter out,” Blakeley says. “We deserve to go up in flames.” He stares at his empty glass. The clock reads twenty-five past twelve. The time has passed.

         I consider saying something. But the truth is, I feel a little sorry for the old man. He’s given away too much of himself; sacrificed himself to a god who never came. The cat mews from somewhere below our feet, as if in agitation.

        

         “Well,” says Jack, with a meaningful glance at his watch, “What now?”

        

        


Peter Ackroyd review

The lives of the Romantics are filled with fascinating coincidences. It’s curious that Mary Shelley should have written a classic novel featuring evil doubles and a central character whose body is found washed up on the shore when her own husband would later be have his death at sea predicted by his doppelganger. It’s equally as strange that Shelley’s friend Keats, whose surgical background also connects him tenuously to Frankenstein, and whose epitaph read “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”, should have been present, through his volume of poetry, at Shelley’s death by water. But none of these peculiarities go anywhere- and Peter Ackroyd has, in The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, constructed an entire novel around them.

           In Ackroyd’s novel, Frankenstein is a London student of the sciences and a friend of Shelley, who fits neatly into the role of Henry Clerval from the original, and indeed, who will eventually invite him to an Alpine holiday with his new wife and a few choice friends.  In the meantime, however, Victor is living a secret life accepting bodies from the city’s grave-robbers- and eventually he succeeds in returning to life the corpse of a young Cockney poet who has recently died of consumption.

           If any of the plot so far has made you groan, then this is not the book for you. Ackroyd’s skill, and indeed, audacity in reshaping the past has given him a name as an author, as well as a historian- his best novel, Hawksmoor, depicted the eponymous London architect as a devil-worshipping genius. But that - much better - novel played on our ignorance of history, forcing us to realise that while Hawksmoor’s works are a familiar and comforting part of our daily lives, we, the average reader, know next to nothing about the man himself or his motives. The first, most obvious blunder here is that every literate human being knows the story of Frankenstein and the Romantics; the source material is close to over-familiar. Ackroyd, however- and perhaps we must accept that historical minds sometimes fail to distinguish the popular knowledge from the expert- makes obvious references to the original with the pride of a man who thinks he has constructed a brilliant Joycean enigma. Some of these nudges are subtle; not everyone will pick up on Victor’s flight through London by a “frightful fiend” of shadow, just as not every reader will understand why the Creature (“Keat” as he is known) is suddenly aquatic. But it’s hard to suppress a groan when Victor muses,

           “I could no more prepare myself for society than if I had spent the past months in the frozen wastes of the Arctic.”

           Or, equally, when Mary Godwin gasps,

           “I wonder, Mr Shelley, that you keep a boat in this dreadful weather.”

           Friedberg and Seltzer, the film-makers responsible for the string of execrable “... Movie” movies, have been jeered by critics everywhere because their ‘spoofs’ think it’s enough to reference celebrities and films without actually having anything to say about them. It’s much the same here; why, for instance, does Polidori read out a section of Dracula in Switzerland, rather than the real story of the vampiric Lord Ruthven? And sometimes Ackroyd just gets things wrong, as when Shelley, fifty years too early, begins to discuss the “pale Galilean.” It’s a peculiar error from a historian, but then this is a book full of peculiar errors, not least the title, which calls upon the cliché of the original title while abandoning its brevity.

           The other real issue here is that, as this is essentially a rewrite of an already bizarre novel, Ackroyd has to somehow avoid seeming weak in comparison. He attempts this through excess - the first action of the Keats-Creature is to masturbate – and through odd little plot twists. Some of these are fine; I liked the fact that, in place of the shambling assistant the Universal films forced upon us, Victor’s experiments are aided by a cheerful Cockney lad called ‘Fred’. Others are directly detrimental to the novel’s themes. Elizabeth, Victor’s incestuous bride, dies of natural causes early on, eliminating any theories about Frankenstein desiring a non-sexual method of reproduction. And while Shelley is prominent, the theme of “the Modern Prometheus” is all but wiped out because Ackroyd has his Creature read, in place of Paradise Lost...Robinson Crusoe. Even the characters suffer. The original Victor studies the works of the dark magicians Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa because, he tells us, he longed for secret knowledge, hidden from the masses. Ackroyd’s Victor studies the same authors because his friend Shelley recommends them.

           This is an exceptionally infuriating book. It doesn’t lack intelligence exactly so much as the wisdom not to flaunt its own intelligence- I couldn’t help but be reminded of the passages in The Da Vinci Code where characters quote endless encyclopaedia facts about their surroundings, which is not a comparison Ackroyd would want put on the dust-jacket. There are some pleasures to be had. An absurdly Byronic Byron pops up late on, enlivening the proceedings with sparkling breakfast repartee such as,

           “I thought you were about to bugger him. Where are the kidneys?” It’s definitely better-written than the original Frankenstein, in general. But the rawness of Mary Shelley’s novel, much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was heightened by its tendencies to melodrama as a sort of emotional nightmare. Ackroyd’s Victor may no longer be a sententious bore, but he is now so measured and sane that it’s impossible in him as a man straining towards godhood. And there are still patches of clunking rhetoric;

           “I did not ask to come into this world. Am I monstrous? Are you monstrous? Is the world monstrous?”

           The real crime of this pointless curiosity of a novel is that it saps, vampire-like, at the worth of everything it touches. Mary Shelley, whose victory was surely to have risen above the novel’s three posturing masculine voices, is reduced to a damsel-in-distress within the narrative. Shelley’s death loses something of his tragedy with the suggestion that he was dragged underwater by a zombified, aquatic Keats- if only there was something in the novel to suggest that Ackroyd meant this to be funny. Even the Whitbread-winning Hawksmoor suffers, because Victor, now urbane and cat-torturing, has been lifted straight from the earlier character. And we begin to wonder; is Peter Ackroyd’s success in nothing more than referencing hidden knowledge to form atmosphere? After Shelley’s death, the natural climax, the whole affair falls apart. There are a few apparently random references to Dostoyevskyan freedom from morality, and the final twist – if I can use the word ‘twist’ to describe such a crumbling plot device- will be a surprise to nobody who has read the original, or, perhaps, read a book or seen a film.

           I can now only recall one moment when the author finds a new perspective on this very, very familiar story.  An innocent man, hanged for a crime committed by the Creature, is left to the mercy of the grave-robbers, who, it is suggested, will sell the body to more experimenters like Victor himself. It makes a pretty good allegory for the state of both the Frankenstein tale and the history of the Romantics, dug up again and again in different forms and wearing ever more peculiar masks.

          


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  • This is really good Jon. Nice understatement that subtly builds to an excellent final sentence. by on this entry
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