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Thursday 3 May 2012

Does interactivity have a downside?

As you’d expect of a book that has been in print for two centuries, there have been many interpretations of Frankenstein. Most derive less from the original novel than from Richard Brinsley Peake’s stage play, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, performed five years after Mary Shelley first sent her “hideous progeny” out into the world. Like Peake’s version, later adaptations usually opt for a surface reading that feels a little lazy to me. Victor is callous, if not sneeringly evil, the woebegone monster provides his comeuppance, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a science-gone-mad cautionary tale. Hence all the rifled graves, stitched body parts and creepy castles stirred into the mix to provoke shudders.

Well, Frankenstein is an overdetermined work, rich in possible meanings, so that’s okay as far as it goes. But, when we consider the clue that Mary Shelley left for us in those words “a modern Prometheus”, we might usefully dig a little deeper.

Victor Frankenstein in the book is a genius and a rebel, a Byron of the sciences. He descends into the belly of the beast, risking insanity and broken health to bring back a secret that gods have tried to keep from Man. In finding fire he creates life. If this is a tale of duality, then the monster is the unruly, all-too-human side of the hero. A decade ago we might still have said that Victor’s monster is the Id that he has made strong by focussing too exclusively on the Super-Ego, except that Freud’s terminology now seems even quainter than Mary Shelley’s schoolbookish prose.

Some have said that Frankenstein is a story of a bad parenting giving rise to a troubled child. On the level of social metaphor, that’s a reading Mary Shelley certainly intended, and it’s the reason I moved Victor’s university from Ingolstadt to Paris during the Revolution. But there is more to a work of fiction than picking at the plot as if it were an account of real events. We could ask whether Pip could have got to the Gargerys’ house to club his sister over the head, or whether Holmes could have faked the existence of Moriarty, but a literal interpretation is not the point of fiction. Pip is seething with repressed grievances of his youth and he is desperate to cast off his embarrassingly humble origins; the injury that tames his bullying sister is a manifestation of his desires. Moriarty is both an actual antagonist (in the “reality” of the story) and Holmes’s alter-ego (in the story as a work of fiction).

Likewise with other stories of duality. Is Deckard a replicant? Yawn. He’s the flipside of Roy Batty, is what matters. Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt is not, within the universe of Thornton Wilder’s screenplay, a literal demon conjured from Young Charlie’s subconscious – though in fictive terms he’s nothing but. It is the richness of literature (and cinema) that it allows for more than just a literal reading.

A well-written novel, the most immersive of all forms of storytelling, should command your full attention and belief. Yet, even while held by the spell of belief, you can appreciate the novel simultaneously on several levels: as a description (honest or otherwise) of the events of the plot; as insight into the characters’ feelings and relationships; and, on a level beyond the plot seen as a make-believe reality, you can tune into the themes and resonances that the author has placed there that make it, not a mere account of events, but art.

The risk of interactivity is that it can strip away that liminal level of fictionality that lies between imaginary reportage (“here’s what is supposed to have happened”) and authorial artifice (“here’s the iceberg of meaning beneath the events themselves”). Interactivity is a powerful tool that can draw you so deeply into the interior of the story world that you lose sight of it as a story. You think you are there.

That’s why my interactive retelling of Frankenstein is not intended as a replacement for the novel, any more than Mrs Shelley intended her story to supplant Paradise Lost. Like a movie adaptation, it emphasizes some aspects, downplays others. It’s told in a style that is necessarily right in the moment, and the interactivity certainly does pull you inside the story. That sounds like marketing spiel, right? Who wouldn’t want to get pulled inside the story? But the downside is that that comes at the expense of removing the reader’s ability to absorb the work’s meaning in parallel with its story. While talking things over with Victor, you are no more likely to regard him as one side of a divided soul than you are to take that view of a rival you're arguing with in real life. Interactivity values the direct, personal connection. It places fiction above fictiveness.

So, if you read the new version, do interact with Victor and his creature – but don’t just leave it there. Take a look at the narrative that’s left behind in the wake of all your choices. There you have a unique, personal version of Frankenstein, created by your interaction with the text, that you can go back and read as a traditional novel. The themes are all present, you just need to raise your view from the decision tree to see the whole forest of ideas that Mary Shelley planted. And the richness of her story, not the cackling hunchbacks and brains in jars, is the reason Frankenstein is likely to remain a bestseller for another two hundred years.

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