Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram

Love dead. Hate living,” says the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein, and now these words are echoed by James Whale, the creator of the film version of Frankenstein. Having suffered a stroke that has short-circuited his brain, both his days and his nights are filled with scenes and smells from his past, but they come unbidden and in a tumble of time that leaves him constantly dazed and confused. His frenzied half-sleep at night leaves him shattered and exhausted in the mornings, and the Phenobarbital that allows him a thick, black sleep at night, leaves him so foggy and fuzzed in the mornings that he can barely sit up in bed and is unable to direct his limbs enough to walk himself to bathroom, unbutton his fly, begin his day without the aid of his old Mexican maid.

This is the setting for Christopher Bram’s superb novel, Father of Frankenstein, a novel that is rich and insightful on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin. For those of you have seen “Gods and Monsters,” the film adaptation of this novel, I should probably begin by pointing out what an excellent critique of American homophobia this novel provides. The movie is quite a good one and does a fair job of getting inside the head of the aging director, James Whale, and of describing Hollywood of the thirties and forties, a kind of zoo of odd characters that both attracts and repels the movie-going American public, who are fascinated by the social and sexual behavior of the ‘animals,’ though they would be only horrified by the same behavior in their neighbors. But the novel does so much more than the movie, since it allows the reader to also get inside the head of the ‘monster,’ Clayton Boone, whom we first see simply as the paradigm of shallow American maleness—angry, often violent, fiercely homophobic, and almost entirely homocentric. As Whale first describes him: “Yes, he does have that stony, sullen masculinity that Americans found dangerous in juvenile delinquents but becoming in their soldiery.”

In fact, it would not be much of a stretch in the end to call this a love story, a story about a friendship that evolves over a two week period between Whale and his yardman, Clayton Boone. Whale, frightened by the daily disintegration of his mental life and wanting to be shut of it before he forgets completely who he is or why he wants to die, sees in his yardman, Boone, not only a big lug of a man whom it might be fun to tease and prod a little, cause him to twist and turn with disgust as he acts out his homophobia, but that he may even be able, without much effort, to get Boone to kill him—to end this wretched half-life he is living.

While thoughtful readers will initially find themselves simply disgusted by Boone, contemptuous of his ignorance and his shallowness, the genius of Bram is that in the end he shows Boone to be a sympathetic character who is simply mired in his own socially constructed maleness and heterosexuality. Whale is unhappy not with his life or his sexuality, but with the disintegration caused by his illness; it is Boone who, although physically healthy, is deeply depressed, unhappy with the shallow relationships he has with women and by what he sees as the failure of his own life. Although he wears the Marine tattoo that announces “Death before Dishonor!”, he sees himself as utterly dishonored, a bully around even his closest friends, a man who lies about his military service, grovels before the rich clients whom he both envies and hates and who he knows see him simply as a faceless lunk who maintains their yards.

For the most part, this is the story of James Whale, a portrait that is carefully and sympathetically drawn by Bram and taken from the real circumstances of Whale’s life. But it is so much more than biography. By introducing Boone as a character (and according to Bram a wholly fictionalized one), the author provides an audience for Whale. Most of his so-called American friends know only the made-up past that Whale wants to show them, a story of private schools and privilege. But as Boone sits for him, a flattered but somewhat reluctant model for this mad old painter and famous director, Whale begins to spill out the real story of his impoverished past, of his early, awkward attempts to act on his sexuality, even of the grisly details of mud and blood and trenches of World War 1. Boone is repelled, even frightened by stories about male love affairs, and yet finds himself flattered by the fact that he has been chosen to hear Whale’s real story. Nothing this important has ever happened to him before, and even if it is only an old fruit who has chosen to befriend him, still this seems to give him a status that he has lacked, and despite himself and his manliness, he cannot help but like this old man, even feel sympathetic towards him. In Boone’s words:
It should be pathetic, disgusting, but Clay can’t help being moved. So many things that should be opposite, manliness and mush, war and perversion, barbed wire and tenderness, run together here. Clay almost envies the two men’s moment of closeness.
The war stories are not ones that Whale relates with pride, nothing like the stories Clay has heard from his American friends about killing gooks and Japs and commies. Indeed, Whale has, if anything, repressed all of these memories of bodies and barbed wire, of weeks living in knee-deep mud and the over-ripe smell of men both living and dead. It is the stroke that has interfered with his wired-in repression, and now his life tumbles out, exhausting and frightening him even more than it does Boone. War becomes something different for Boone, nothing like American war movies full of glory and heroism. Boone finds himself thinking about Whale even when he is not with him, thinking about him despite how disgusting his life is:
It’s strange and unhealthy to think too much about anything, but, driving to his next job on the other side of the canyon, Clay finds himself trying to get a grip on what Whale means to him now. Clay knows more about him than is safe to know about any man. He is a fruit, and foreign, and unpredictable, and he keeps spilling secrets Clay would rather not hear. But the old fellow had done and seen more than anyone else Clay’s ever met. His war was too long ago to count for much, but it does count, doesn’t it? It’s a privilege to listen to him, a privilege and a challenge. Maybe he has dirty thoughts about Clay, but he’s too old to do anything about them, too old to even have a body somewhere beneath his clothes. Clay would never admit it, but with a younger, more physically real homosexual, he would’ve fled long ago.
Of course, as Clay listens to Whale’s stories, as he sits with him, poses for him, eats meals with him, he begins to see him not as a dangerous and disgusting fruit, but as a human being—a man of sadness and joy, with a past full of relationships both successful and failed. And just as Whale becomes human for Boone, so Boone becomes human for Whale and for the reader. Fortunately, Boone’s dawning affection and sympathy for Whale, and Whale’s reluctant but unavoidable seeing of Boone not as the monster who will help him to die, but as a person in his own right, changes the course of their relationship. “… his beast was human. He was irritable, polite, and human. And when an awful memory from the past slipped out, the beast became concerned.”

Ah, so both men have confronted their beasts and seen them transmogrified into humans, soft and sad and lonely. What better love story than that?

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