Monday, April 1, 2013

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2009) by Peter Ackroyd

Left the book in Cork, forgot to take a picture. Sorry, internet.
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 Have you ever wondered what Frankenstein would have been like if the titular character, instead of remaining in Switzerland, travelled to England in order to carry out his grotesque scientific investigations in early-19th century London rather than continental Europe? Me neither – and I’m not really sure why Peter Ackroyd wondered either. I mean, it’s not exactly a massive difference, or any kind of important re-imagining that tells you things about the characters you didn’t know in the original text. Wide Sargasso Sea, this ain’t. For the most part, it’s just Frankenstein as you know it, only happening in a slightly different location.

And, as it happens, it’s the location that’s key. Anyone familiar with Ackroyd’s back-catalogue knows that the man is obsessed with the history of London. He’s written a lot of books set in London, and with Casebook, he’s even set a story there that normally belongs somewhere else. As an aside, ever since reading From Hell, I’ve taken an interest in the architect Hawksmoor; wandering through London, I’ve tracked down most of his churches and wondered at the supposed ‘occult’ meanings that lie behind their geographical placement. Ackroyd has written a fictionalised biography of Hawksmoor which I really ought to check out, and whenever I'm looking at one of the churches I think 'I really ought to track down a copy of that Hawksmoor book'. So yeah, it's not like we've got history or anything, but I know Ackroyd.

Anyway, on to Frankenstein. The story gets underway when Victor, a boy fascinated by the power of nature and the elements, persuades his father to let him travel to England to study at Oxford. The old man reluctantly allows this, and the reader quickly figures out the real reason that the infamous scientist has been transposed by Ackroyd: so he can faff about having college-age adventures with his real-life creators (sort of) Shelley and Byron. Yes, it’s like an early-Victorian Animal House as the learned poets come to grips with college life, hanging out in disreputable taverns, gorging themselves on theatre and high culture, and having a high old time. Soon after, they move to London, where the good times continue in settings more familiar to me, given as I’ve not yet breathed the rarefied air of Oxford (though they’ve still cause to remember me in Cambridge, I’d reckon). I felt that Ackroyd was quite enjoying himself here, and could have let this bit go on for quite a while if the bloody plot hadn’t intervened, spoiling the lads’ fun.

'Away, away ye notes of woe!'
 But intervene it does, and soon Victor finds himself treading down a path that is well-worn, though it may be happening in the slums of Limehouse rather than a spooky old castle in Europe. Victor picks up a few things about science during his time at the city of spires, but it’s mostly his own work that teaches him what he needs to know about the boundary between life and death. Ackroyd of course misses no opportunity to fill his prose with galvanism, ether, magnetism and other discredited 19th-century sciences, though he goes light on the jargon, and anyone hoping for Umberto Eco-style in-depth diversions into these arcane areas will go home hungry.

Eventually he succeeds, creating the monster we all know and love, which he subsequently abandons and fears for the rest of the novel as it begins to destroy his life. Apart from the setting – and one oddity which might just make or break the novel for some readers, but which is not as clever as Ackroyd thinks – this section of the story is very similar to the original. By now, Victor’s hanging around with Byron and Shelley’s extended circle of friends, including Dr Polidori (creator of The Vampyre) and Mary Shelley (who is of course his own true creator), and he even manages to work in the famous story night at the Swiss lakehouse where the idea for the original Frankenstein was born.

None of which I found particularly clever – I’ve read too many books recently where it’s clear that the author is just amusing themselves playing around in a time/place/location that they love, chuckling to themselves everytime they use a historical or fictional character in a sliiiightly different way - but it’s well-written, and it’s fun. Yeah, I love 19th-century London, and I never get bored of seeing it portrayed in different ways. In this book, I enjoyed it being used as a fun place for intelligent, artistic young men to run riot as they push the boundaries of known science and meddle with things that should not be. The writing is crisp and efficient and the story doesn’t stay still for a moment. Historically, I didn’t learn too much about life during this period – and yet somehow the actual day-to-day living of it felt real to me.

'So we'll have The Saint in there as well... God this is fun!'
 Having said all this, my final point is: what’s the point? To which I have to admit that I haven’t a bloody clue. I mean, not every book’s got to have a point. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of airport fodder, if that’s what you fancy. But Frankenstein was about lots of things; about fear of progress and the discovery of man’s place in the Universe; about tampering with natural laws; about hubris. It’s a classic story that had some very important new ideas in it, pretty much inventing science fiction and modern horror. Casebook, on the other hand… is a lark. It’s great fun, it tells an exciting story… but it’s handling such idealogically heavy material that it’s difficult to imagine that Ackroyd didn’t intend there to be more beneath the surface. It's not exactly like writing a light opera about the Holocaust, but it is an odd juxtaposition. Whatever point there might be, it’s hard to discern it beneath the cod-gothic prose and use of themes so commonplace that they’ve become almost threadbare.

So while I recommend The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, I’ve no idea what kind of book it really is or what it was written to achieve.

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