A 1000-piece puzzle is not a project for Frankenstein. The pieces were cut from a unified starting picture; the problem was deliberately made and has a predictable, well-fitting solution. No, a worthy project requires the invention or the discovery of something previously inconceivable.
Like stitching together pieces of flesh and reanimating them (science).
Like connecting pieces of metal and animating them (engineering).
Like layering paint or notes or movements and binding them (art).
Like assembling concepts and words and creating a coherent story world, character, or creature (writing).
I mean it in all in a positive way.
Credibility and resonance is achieved by using what’s around us:
- Story worlds recycle and recombine common tropes in new ways. (Few go ahead and do the Tolkienesque thing of inventing new languages as well.)
- Interesting characters are made up of different already-observed personality traits: take a bit from Aunt Veronica, a bit from Ruth the next door neighbour, a bit from Mum, together with a generous dollop of yourself, then mix with convenient imaginary glue till the gallimaufry congeals into an appetising dessert.
- New creatures are often forged through similar borrowings; though, unlike with shape-shifters and cross-breeds where the number of sourced parts or shifts is limited, the creatures I call beautiful frankensteins come from so many sources their existence is as unexpected as it is baffling.
Here’s Kafka’s example of a beautiful frankenstein from the story The Cares of a Family Man (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir). Meet Odradek.
At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread would upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.
Odradek is actually a he, and we hear him speaking and laughing:
… but it is only the kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves.
This creature is more than a bizarre collection of parts.
- The crossbar with rod serves as one “leg” while any point of the star serves as another. When something has legs, it makes more sense to the human mind.
- The tangle of knots is described through words that belong together: old, broken off, knotted, varied.
- The mode of laughter is appropriate—a deep bellow or a watery gurgle would have clashed with the physical description.
As a whole, Odradek evokes a certain unease, like that of a broken doll or spider dragging about pieces of house dirt. But the flavour of the unease would change with each variation of Odradek’s body: if instead of a rod, the crossbar had a wheel, he would appear more mechanised; if instead of old he collected new threads, that would imply the unravelling of clothes and a more immediate threat to the humans around him.
Different frankensteins belong in different fictional landscapes. The more original they are, the more they define the landscape with their presence.
Imbuing life into a collection of disparate elements should be a triumph for creator (Frankenstein, the scientist) and creation (Frankenstein, the symbolic creature). Mary Shelly’s novel has the creature be ugly, clumsy, and destructive despite its attempts to connect with mankind. But ultimately, originality and uniqueness can only be achieved through a mixing of many influences: heritage and environment, luck and willpower.
Put that way, we are all beautiful frankensteins.
Summary of traits for this week’s creatures:
- Transformations are reversible.
- Core identity is permanent.
- Result from a few different, but easily defined influences.
- Inhabit a new niche in the fictional ecosystem.
- Result from multiple influences that are not clearly delineated.
- Original in existence and made to redefine the fictional ecosystem.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Various articles on Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949): Fearing Fate; Fearing Change; Fearing Pain; Terror-Horror-Revulsion; Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words; Writing Helplessness; Dangerous Associations; Paralipsis and Ironic Process; Zeus in the Attic.
- Unsaid Goodbyes: on Gabrielle Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures (1998).
- Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem: on mixing metaphors in a quote from Exemplary Departures.
- Wittkop’s Necrophiliac: On Gabrielle Wittkop’s Necrophiliac (1972) and the questions in raises.
- Kafka’s Harrow: On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony (1919).
- Kafka’s Hunger Artist: On Kafka’s Hunger Artist (1922) and the performance art of fasting.
- Kafka’s Invisibles: On invisibility in Kafka’s The Bucket Rider, Investigations of a Dog, Rejection, The Bridge.
- Imaginary Creatures: Shape-Shifters: On shape-shifting creatures and Kafka’s Report to an Academy (1917).
- Imaginary Creatures: Cross-Breeds: On hybrid creatures, and in particular on Kafka’s half-kitten, half-lamb in Crossbreed.
- Imaginary Creatures: Beautiful Frankensteins: