Monday, October 31, 2022

Book Review: Frankenstein

book cover for FrankensteinAt once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Even if one hasn't read the book or seen any of the numerous film adaptations, it would be difficult to believe that anyone in Western Civilization had not at least heard about Frankenstein in some fashion. It is a classic tale already two centuries old that will live on for centuries to come.

If you haven't read the book, it bears little resemblance to the majority of films that were inspired by it. Most films devote significant screen time to portraying how the monster was created and how Frankenstein is thrilled with his creation. Frankenstein tries to educate it, make it more human, but the process is frustratingly difficult. Said creation then runs amok, much to Frankenstein's chagrin. The films are typically a warning about the dangers of science run amok.

But the book spends scant time on the monster's creation. We're given Frankenstein's motivations for reanimating the dead (grief over his mother's death) and his research into the matter—primarily reading ancient, discredited tomes—but no mention of where he got body parts or what process provided that spark to reanimate the flesh. It's just handwaved onward, not important. And then when the monster is created, Frankenstein rejects it outright. It is so hideous an abomination that he can't stand to be in the same room with it and drives it away.

Shelley attacks the canard that beauty is good and ugliness is evil. The monster is attacked by all who gaze upon it for no reason other than it is so hideous it must be evil. The monster secretly provides firewood and game for a poor family of seemingly kind people, but they attack it on sight. Later, after the monster learns how to speak (No, not "Fire bad!"), it engages with Frankenstein in debate, slinging purple prose in his face, lamenting how lonely it is because of its wretched existence. But Frankenstein can't get past the ugly and rejects the monster again and again.

Naturally, all of this rejection is too much for the monster. It resorts to committing evil deeds which only incense Frankenstein's animosity towards the monster. Ultimately, the monster feels that negative attention is better than no attention and torments its creator further.

Sure, Frankenstein blames himself for creating the monster. He hides this fact from people for years, all the while crying out to the stars about his woe and misery and longing to be with his love and his wonderful family. But ultimately, he never accepts the blame for his true crime: rejecting his creation upon its birth. Think of it this way: If a parent rejects his/her child all of that child's life, never shows that child love, what sort of person will that child grow up to be? The rest of us would think that parent was a lousy human being. Frankenstein is no different. But instead, Captain Walton, who meets Frankenstein while he's out in pursuit of the monster, showers such slavish admiration upon the man that I swear he was smitten by him, regardless of what Frankenstein told him that he'd done.

Frankenstein is the true monster here, not his hideous creation. I'll take the Hollywood version of Dr. Frankenstein. At least his twisted heart was in the right place.

3 stars

By the way, Young Frankenstein was the best of them all.


Saturday, October 1, 2022

Book Review: Pharoni

book cover for PharoniWhen the body of Harry Injurides - playwright, provocateur and bodybuilder - washes up on a beach, his friends are shocked, but not altogether surprised. But when they meet to mourn Harry, he shows up and says he's been resurrected.

Pharoni is the story of those friends. Tommy Pharoni tries to overcome his shock by writing about his friend's resurrection, and accidentally starts a religion. Roy Sudden starts a tech empire based on digital empathy and digital pain, drawing in billionaire investors, femme-fatale programmers, and tsunamis of capital. And, Roy's on-again, off-again girlfriend Maud works in secret to bring radical justice to the most neglected and abused corners of society.

As Tommy's religion grows, Roy and his backers try to take control of it. The battle, about more than doctrine, engulfs Tommy's marriage and threatens his life, leading to a conflict with strangely humane results that no one could predict.

Told in the first person, Pharoni has the feel of a memoir or a really long confession. Tommy Pharoni is a struggling screenplay writer who pays his bills and alimony by working a soulless marketing job. His closest friends were aspiring artists of different sorts in college. Now in their mid-thirties, they've set aside those aspirations to "adult" properly. All except for Harry, whose death opens the story. Harry struggled to fit into contemporary society, instead preferring to help the homeless while penning "words of wisdom" in his many notebooks. After his death and subsequent re-birth, those notebooks wound up in Tommy's possession. Ultimately, Tommy would collect them into a coherent manuscript and seek out a way to get them published.

As Tommy is a screenwriter, the format of the story periodically shifts into screenplay mode. This works particularly well for conversations as it affords opportunity to get to know the other characters through their dialogue rather than relying on Tommy's narrative. I wouldn't say Tommy is an unreliable narrator, but he does limit what we can learn about what's going on elsewhere with other characters. References to things that have been written elsewhere and NDAs force the reader to fill in the gaps.

After Harry's resurrection, the lives of Tommy and his friends change as described in the blurb, but there's so much more. The group of friends find themselves splattered by the seven deadly sins, fitting for a story where a religion is founded upon the philosophical musings of a character that has died and miraculously resurrected days later. At least Christianity didn't get partnered with a health and wellness brand. The corrupting influence of millions and billions of dollars seeps its way into their lives and rots them from within. What is friendship worth? Can you put a dollar amount on it?

If there's one overarching theme that I can take away from this tale, it's that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Keeping this spoiler free, I'll say that Tommy started out as a character that I could connect with to someone I didn't want anything to do with. But I stuck with him because act two opens with:
This is where I get unrelatable, maybe even unlikable. As the writer of failed screenplays, I know what a mortal sin unlikability can be.
That gave me hope for him in act three. But Tommy is far from the only person to be corrupted by power. It's everyone up to the very end of the story. And the only characters whose souls are left intact are those who never possess it.

Colin Dodds has crafted an excellent morality play with vivid characters. Pharoni offers modern day parallels to the founding of Christianity, right down to the Christmas star, but in an age of unbridled capitalism. If you're old enough, with all of the life experience that implies, it forces you to take a look at this fellowship of friends and how they sacrificed art and friendship for wealth and power and check to make sure that this isn't a mirror of your own life.

4 stars