I’m sure this has happened to every reader at one time or another. It could be something as simple as a new book by a long time favorite author that turns out to be a huge disappointment. The story is too close to the previous stories; the principal character hasn’t learned anything from the earlier books in the series or makes a pivotal choice that upends the character you’ve come to know & love; or the author diverges so far from the books you love that it reads like something by an entirely new—and not very interesting—writer.
It could also happen to a reader when they “discover” a missing book by the author of a treasured masterpiece. Maybe it’s an awful early mystery by a writer who went on to write great fantasy novels? Maybe it’s just a dreadful experiment by an otherwise excellent storyteller? It happens…
I recently found myself pushing and plodding and yawning and shaking my head in frustration, as I trudged through the mountain of mud that is Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man’ with what felt like a heavy pack on my back. What was in the backpack? ‘Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus,’ of course—it cast an impossible shadow across any pleasure I might manage to unearth from ‘The Last Man.’
While Frankenstein inspired a sub-genre of books & movies, a descriptive term that is applied to all sorts of amalgams of mismatched pieces; and lives on as a phenomenal story in millions of imaginations, this other novel by Mary Shelley is a chore.
The opening holds great promise with the discovery of text in bits & pieces in a cave in Greece. The narrator in a distant, dystopian future informs the reader that he has pieced together the story from fragments in that he found in the prophet Sibyl’s cave. It’s a story about class & opportunity; power & democracy; romance & ambition; and a knot of talented, exceptional people, drawn together and pulled apart by class, opportunity, power, democracy, romance, and ambition.
In the first third of the book there’s a great deal of time spent in political debates and poetic idylls in the country, but instead of drawing me into the circle of friends, family, & lovers, I kept wondering about the relationships. Who in this mix was a faux Percy, a stand-in for Byron, a woman in the mold of Mary Wollstonecraft (the feminist icon & Mary Shelley’s mom), a philosopher like William Godwin, and so on?
Will I finish the slog through ‘The Last Man’? I’m not sure, but I have long plane ride in my near future so… Maybe.