Sunday, August 20, 2006

On annotation

You may vaguely know about the circumstances in which Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein; they're chronicled in the rather bad Ken Russell movie called Gothic (1986), basically Mary and Percy Shelley and Byron and Dr. Polidori were all cooped up in a villa and told ghost stories to amuse themselves during what Mary Shelley described (writing in the introduction to the novel's 1831 edition) as "a wet, ungenial summer" in which "incessant rain often confined us to the house." But the editor of the authoritative scholarly edition of Frankenstein offers the most extraordinary footnote to this, I can't decide at all whether it's absolutely delightful or utterly pedantic; it cites two contemporary sources (one of which describes this period as "a week of rain," the other--Polidori's diary--suggesting the rain began on 8 June 1816), then says, "The wet summer was the result of climatic changes caused by the eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia." ?!? How great. I don't think I would recommend this as a model for annotation, and yet there is something wonderful about it. I am going to try and fit it into conversation at the next available opportunity: "Did you know that the rain that kept Mary Shelley indoors and telling ghost stories with Byron and Shelley and Polidori and ultimately writing Frankenstein was actually spurred by the eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia?"

I am irresistibly reminded of the "Did you know . . .?" format of the back-cover copy for the Let's Go travel guides as of the early nineties. I've got an allusion to this in my travel-guide novel, but there was no way (or no reason) to fit in there my particular memory of a conversation I had about those "Did you know . . .?"s the summer I worked as an assistant editor for one of the guides. I of course have a passion for the macabre, especially in its most medical incarnations; we all had to come up with some suggestions (frugal, appealing) for the back-cover copy, and my best suggestion concerned the excellent Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, where you can see the tumor removed from Grover Cleveland's jaw. I have no idea what the admission price was in those days, but you can imagine the sort of thing I had in mind: "Did you know that for $2.50 you can see the tumor . . .?"

This did not go over well, needless to say (it was actually one of those moments where you have a revelation about your utter lack of ability/interest in fitting in to a more or less corporate publishing world!); the idea was thoroughly condemned by my colleagues, especially as one of our office-mates--a guy called Ravi Desai, a very bright and well-liked Harvard undergraduate--had been diagnosed earlier in the summer with cancer and had to take significant time off from Let's Go for chemotherapy and other treatment. And yet that diagnosis was also attended with other peculiar details--I was not friends with the guy, and I was congenitally skeptical (this will make me sound awful, which I think I am not, but trust me that there was something over-the-top about it) about the particular ways in which he seemed to be manipulating the natural good wishes of others to accommodate him in his illness. I remember my friend L. mentioning to me a few years later that Ravi (who she'd been very close to) had, you know, bravely joked to her that the one good thing about chemotherapy was that though he was overwhelmed with nausea much of the time, the doctors had told him it was important to get enough calories and that he shouldn't worry if most of them came in the form of alcohol, i.e. if he could keep down a few gin and tonics it was better than nothing. I didn't say anything, but it struck me as quite implausible; and then the strangest story came out some years later, in which it emerged that Ravi had become a bizarre-slash-tragic-slash grifterish figure of some notoriety (here's another related story). It is a sad story, I cannot imagine what was going through his head; I heard last year that he died, and I have no wish to reflect on his memory other than to say that it seems likely that his tall tales arose more from good intentions and self-delusion than from any malice, despite their no doubt destructive consequences for others in his life. RIP.

But all this was also the long way round to me having a brief in-the-middle-of-it rave about the wonderfully good horse-racing anthology Bloodlines (edited by Jason Starr and Maggie Estep, and forthcoming from Vintage in September) I've been dipping into when I need a quick fiction fix but don't have time for a novel. The quality of the stories and articles (it's a mix of fiction and non-fiction, an unorthodox but on the whole interesting choice) is uniformly high, it opens with a highly Dick Franciscan tale from my favorite Lee Child for instance, but I fell absolutely in love with a story by Maggie Estep. I've been meaning to read her crime fiction for a while (I thought that hers and Ken Bruen's were by far the best two stories in the Brooklyn Noir collection). Now I need to make it a top priority, because guess what? Her story's about a professional thief who finds himself watching the race on TV one afternoon for an interesting reason:

He wouldn't even be watching the race if he didn't desperately need to clear his mind. Where some folks went in for massages, yoga, or Valium to steady themselves, Harry looked at racehorses. It rendered him capable of great things. And he needed to be capable just then. He'd been hired by a gentleman collector to steal President Grover Cleveland's jaw tumor from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Harry had never burglarized a museum, and while the Mutter, a museum of medical curiosities, didn't have a traditional museum's level of security, it was still a lot trickier than a common house. Harry had agreed to the job because the collector, who'd gotten Harry's number from Harry's lone friend, Nick, had offered twenty K. Harry planned to use the money to send Samantha to a posh rehab. He didn't want her drinking herself to death or getting stabbed in one of the barroom catfights she was fond of starting while under the influence.

Pretty great, eh? I strongly suggest that you get hold of this one if you like crime stories or have an interest in racing, it's a good one: other contributors include Bruen, Laura Lippman, Scott Phillips, Jonathan Ames, Charlie Stella and many other writers of note.


  1. The global climate changes because of that eruption were definitely intense. Most of the world just didn't have summer that year. I read somewhere that even one summer like that could start another ice age, because if the snow in northern latitudes doesn't melt, it reflects more sunlight, cooling temperatures even more, and the climate gets into a circular downward spiral. The author mentioned that 1816 was the closest we've ever come to getting into that pattern, and the "little ice age" that followed over the next 50 years can definitely be traced to that eruption. I LOVE that there are literary implications to it, too!

  2. I vote for absolutely delightful *and* utterly pedantic, if possible :) Funny, I studied under one of these editors and she always made much of the nasty summer of 1816 as a factor in Shelley's work; in fact, there's lots more "Did You Know" info out there about it if you're interested. Tons of cocktail-party-trivia here:

  3. sorry, try this:

  4. I knew Ravi that summer as well and was insufficiently skeptical. Apparently he spilled a lot of red wine on a white carpet in the house he and some others were subletting, and they all felt so badly about his cancer that no one wanted to raise it with him.

    I thought he had died, so I was a little surprised to see him in an apartment building in Chicago five years later, but it was him and that was his name on a mailbox. And then he found quite a bit of notoreity a few years after that.

    Having mistakenly thought he was dead once before, I have a hard time believing it this time.

  5. By the time I knew of Ravi, he was already dead, but I was more than a little involved in some of the sadder consequences of his death. I reiterate that I didn't know Ravi, and I stumbled on your blog quite inadvertently, but I did want to say thank you for your compassionate view on his illness. He was both unbelievably destructive and fiercely loved.