‘After everyone else was dead, I sat by a window for three days watching the glacier creak and break.’
My Name Is Monster
By Katie Hale
Published by Canongate
Monster is shipwrecked on the island of Great Britain, a designation purely geographical, referring to the landmass that comprises England, Scotland, and Wales. There is nothing Great about it. The landscape has witnessed the disintegration of the world humans have wrought, in an all-too-plausible scenario: competition over resources destroyed the world economy, the War brought dirty bombs and the Sickness. Monster is only alive because her longing for isolation took her to work at the Seed Vault, a repository in the Arctic circle. She begins the business of survival in this depopulated land, salvaging what she can from her small boat and heading south. Beset by hunger, cold, fatigue, she scavenges her way towards familiar territory and begins to establish a life.
Katie Hale’s debut novel, My Name Is Monster, is partly inspired by two classic novels, Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein and, therefore, is freighted with quite some literary baggage. It doesn’t bend under this weight, I’m pleased to find, for Hale has produced a book that combines a post-apocalyptic setting, a fascinating and resourceful protagonist, and a tight, tense plot that ticks, or, as we should rather say, tickerts along. This exploration of isolation and resilience, language and power, feels thoroughly modern and, aside from the name Monster itself, the novel wears its antecedents lightly.
Hale has not attempted a point-by-point reworking of Defoe and Shelley’s novels, and My Name Is Monster is the stronger for it. Certainly, characteristics typical of a re-boot may be discerned: the shipwreck washing up on the shores of post-everything Britain inverts Robinson Crusoe’s colonialism. The setting is a deliberately female and feminist world. The novel shares with Crusoe a relentless focus on the collecting or making of objects necessary for survival (food, tools, clothing), offering a critique of the genre’s precisely three-hundred-year partnership with consumer capitalism and drawing it forcibly to a close. Hale’s Man-Friday moment, though, is a game-changer that leaves Defoe in its dust.
In early chapters, Monster repeatedly professes her desire for solitude, claiming not to mind the isolation per se. She longed to be alone as a child, to fulfil a compelling need and ambition, to ‘shut out all the noise, make my mind go still enough to explore, to experiment with circuits and motors and cogs, to create. … I would become an inventor, left alone in a lab or workshop to develop my brilliant ideas, to bring my new creations into being. The logical complexities of objects, set apart from human inconsistency.’ Young Monster is a proto-Victor Frankenstein, a collector of plugs, and mechanical fragments from which she draws solace. Yet in this new world, having achieved total isolation, she finds her creative drive thwarted: ‘there is nothing to create, and nobody to create it for. There is only survival, a continuous plateau of existence’ – until, that is, there isn’t, and things get really interesting.
That name, ‘Monster’ is a play on the afterlife of Mary Shelley’s novel and the infamous slippage of the name ‘Frankenstein’ from creator to creature. As such, it underlines the productively loose relationship between Hale’s novel and its 200-year-old predecessor, which casts Monster as both enthusiastic scientist and lonely progeny, both a creator and a creature.
In the novel’s tense central, pivotal scene, Monster encounters a feral girl in the boarded-up corner shop she had been using as a store cupboard. She describes, in a reversal of previous declarations, her breathlessness at the ‘simple beauty of another human face, the unexpected ecstasy of touch’ but the climactic, transformative moment is brought about through language. ‘I use my free hand to point to myself. Monster, I am about to say – but what if she recognises the word and is afraid? Instead, I think of the most comforting and caring word I can. I point to myself and say, “Mother.”’ By changing her name in this instinctive but unforeshadowed gesture of protection, Monster transforms herself into a different kind of creator. Becoming Mother to this new Monster she bestows language on the girl, binding them together in an imperfect relationship that is sustained by will, generosity, the careful disclosure and withholding of information, and a kind of love not betokened by Monster’s earliest self-narration.
In depicting this coming together of two traumatized people, Hale handles the different voices of these two women deftly, all the time drawing attention to the words they share and the words they don’t. Neither is passionately eloquent, as Shelley’s creature taught himself to be, but their (and Hale’s) careful attentiveness to words and silence combines to make a novel that is exquisitely paced. Time’s passing is marked in the silence between the ticks of a broken clock and the blank space on the page between the novel’s mostly short chapters, as the story and the reader is drawn inexorably on.
My Name is Monster is published within weeks of another Frankenstein novel, Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein: A Love Story (Jonathan Cape). The two wear their connections to Shelley in near-opposite ways. Winterson’s is a virtuosic re-telling of the novel’s famous composition story (the creation parable’s creation myth, if you like) paralleled by the developing romance between young transgender doctor Ry Shelley and AI academic Victor Stein. Artfully constructed, it fizzes with winks and nods across centuries of scientific progress speculating on the challenges for gender, sexuality, and individual liberty posed by accelerated evolution, reanimation and artificial intelligence.
With its interweaving of environmental, social, and political catastrophe into a story so tightly focused on just two consciousnesses, My Name Is Monster stops progress in its tracks to ponder the nature of humanity’s original technologies, speech and feeling. This is a novel at its most powerful when dealing with those subjects, when the conventional trappings of the post-apocalypse are stripped away, a trait that bodes well for Hale’s future as a novelist.
My Name Is Monster by Katie Hale is published by Canongate, priced £16.99