Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Book of Hope 1: The Villa Neodati

Everybody knows how the story of Frankenstein was written, right? Well, not everybody, maybe just English Lit majors. The way it happened was that Alfred Lord Byron invited his fellow-poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, her stepsister (and also her husband Shelley's mistress) Claire Clarement, their fellow-writer Matthew Lewis, and Byron's own personal doctor, John Polidori, to spend the summer at his house, Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The weather sucked, so they spent a lot of time hanging inside doing drugs and group sex or whatever (sorry dudes,no parallels here!) One stormy night, after listening to Byron dramatically read a scary poem about ghosts, they started talking about the sorry state of ghost stories, or what modern readers would call horror fiction, I guess. So they all sort of dared each other to write one.

Obviously, Mary Shelley's effort got finished and published, but so did Dr. Polidori's, which was called The Vampyre, and was the beginning of vampire fiction. And later Matthew Lewis wrote The Monk, which features demonic possession and Satan flying off with people. Actually, it's my favorite of the three books. So, it was quite a momentous literary evening--though, spooky thought, none of these folks, except Claire Claremont (who was the inspiration for The Aspern Papers), lived to a ripe old age!

Fast-forward to last June, exactly 190 years to the day since that dark and stormy night, to a rented 'villa' on Delaware Street in Rehoboth Beach, DE. The occasion was the annual reunion of me and my three best friends, who try to meet at least once every year, sometimes at New Year's or at the end of August just before school starts. This past year, the only week we could all arrange to get together was in early June. 'We' are me, Kerry, Chris, and Jo, all housemates for two years at UChi, first all together in an apartment in Hyde Park, then a rowhouse in Bronzeville (more about that later). I've sent out invites to this site to all three of them, so I'm pretty pissed that none of them has even left a comment here yet--and until they give me permission to I would feel funny about posting any pix of them, either. So for now, here's just another of me. As you can see, the weather was cold and rainy, so just like for Mary Shelley "it proved a wet, ungenial summer". Actually, it cleared up by the end of the week, and the sun even came out. But too late to do any tanning or body-surfing!

OK, I can't upload any pix of them yet, but maybe I can sort of describe the three of them for you. People usually say that I'm the shy (and the gullible) one, Kerry is the loud one, Chris is the serious one, and Jo is the sarcastic one. Kerry is originally from Savannah, GA, she's basically followed the same exact 'cursus honorum' as me, and is now getting her PhD in Mythology at NYU. Christina is Swedish, and after she got her MA here she went back to Sweden, where she now teaches in a Waldorf school near Malmo (sp?). Jo is an Aussie, and after totally dropping out of her MA English Lit program at UChi, she went back to Perth--and is now in Med school! So, as you can guess, we had a lot of catching up to do our first night at the 'villa'. Which was just as well, because it was freezing, even by Chicago standards. Jo had flown into JFK just that morning and rode down with Kerry (in her red Saturn), and Chris flew into Dulles where I picked her up and drove the two of us to the beach in my (correction, the Mothership's) boring old white Toyota. So as a group we were already half caught up, or is that one-quarter? I can never do the math.

What do you do at the beach when you're dead? There aren't exactly 100 things or whatever to do there, but there are a couple. You can go shopping, for one thing, and you can pig out. So the next night, after we had sushi and tempura at the 'Cultured Pearl', we bought a lot of wine and a bunch of Presto-Logs at Lingo's Market, because the house came with a fireplace, and in spite of the little note the landlady had left taped to its hood ('Do nut open the flue!'), Kerry was, as usual, super-determined to have her way and build a fire. So we did (Sorry about that, lady, whoever and wherever you are). Lucky thing we did, too. Because later that night while we were chilling (literally) and watching TV, a huge storm blew in, lightning, thunder, the works. Actually, the four of us traditionally have a little TV-watching problem together: we almost never do it because we can never agree on any program to watch! That night we compromised on The Birth of Frankenstein on the Learning Channel--and halfway through, the electricity went out. So we lit candles, the remains of which you can see in the pic of me below taken the next morning, and drank the wine and talked around the fire.

What we *did not* do is tell ghost stories! There is a reason for this, and I'll get into that in another post, but for now, just take it on faith that we are all total wimps about anything to do with the supernatural. Well, all of us except Jo, as you will see. So what do four Lit-chicks talk about? Aside from clothes? Books, of course, and more books. And guys. OK, mostly guys! As in how come none of us had any at that particular time in our lives. Which really was kind of weird, I gotta admit, because Chris and Jo always seem to have a BF, and of course, Kerry attracts men like flies. The men in my life, on the other hand, have always been more like ticks or fleas. Anyway, there was the usual "What about...?" and "Why didn't you ever give...a try? He really liked you," and ".... was so hot!" etc, etc. But the upshot of it was that we all realized at the same time we were collectively suffering through a super-dry spell, kind of the opposite of what was going on with the weather outside. So then Kerry suggested that since we were all stuck in the 'Villa Neodati' together, we should all four of us write stories about our 'dream guy', which really was pretty much what Mary Shelley was writing about, psychologically speaking, in Frankenstein. I mean, she was creating a man, one who seemed all fresh and pure and even godlike--and then the 'process reversed itself', which it always seems to do in horror flicks, and he slowly turned a monster, kind of like her husband Percy. Or most men, really. I'm just saying.

Actually, to be fair 'dream guy' isn't really how Kerry put it. "Since none of us have a man, let's invent our own," were her exact words, as I recall. Usually, we just play 'Consequences'. And whenever we play anything, the way it works is: Christina makes the rules, I diligently try to follow them, Kerry pretends she doesn't remember them, and Jo thinks up clever ways to get around them. The rules were that we were all to spend the rest of the week writing a short story/novella (or in my case, War and Peace) about a man. The man we most wanted to spend the rest of our lives with, or in other words, a man who didn't exist. "Yet," said Kerry. But we all agreed, this fictional creation didn't have to be perfect or even particularly awesome ("How can he be, if Hope's creating him?" said Jo)--he just had to be the ultimate guy we were each individually the most into. Our Frankenstein's monster. So I shared with the others the Mothership's own solution to the man problem, which I have dubbed 'The Frankenstein Syndrome' (god, I so pray she NEVER reads this.)

After my dad died, my mother went through a number of gears in her attitudes about dating again. First she was all like, "I'm never under any circumstances going out on a date again--I'm too old" (she was 54). Then, of course, a few of my dad's so-called friends tried their luck with her, and I'm guessing she caved a few times. Then suddenly she's all like, "Honey, show me how to register at" So, many bad dates and a few embarrassing (and very short) relationships later, the Mothership has invented her very own lifestyle. See, my dad did everything for her, he was the complete package--he took care of her, handled their finances, booked their vacations, found their restaurants, fixed the roof, repaired the cars, did the yard work, etc, etc. Plus he was cute and funny and wonderful and a colonel in the Marine Air Corps. So where's she gonna find all that again? The easy answer is...'never'. But she's only human (well, sometimes), so naturally she needs company, attention, her cars fixed, and whatever. Sex. She can't find the perfect man, so she's created a composite one, a Frankenstein's monster--one guy takes her on cruises, another hangs around fixing up the place on weekends, another owns a landscaping firm, another a car dealership. They're all nice enough guys, the ones I've met anyway, and this arrangement suits them, too. Most of them are like 10 years older than she is, divorced, with kids, so nobody wants to rock the boat and get married again. Instead of one man, she uses the spare parts and the spare time of several. And from what I've seen, this is very typical of folks her age, so the Syndrome is pretty universal. If you're really old, of course. But after I told this story to everyone, they all agreed that they knew someone our age who was already assembling a relationship out of spare parts. In other words, already settling for second-best.

"All the greater reason," said Chris, "To clearly define your goals in a man--and never settle for anything less than what you want! That is a good excuse for this exercise."

That was when Jo said, "And maybe if we create him, he'll come to life."

Continued here...


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