Saturday, October 31, 2020
After the disaster that was reading The Last Man, I was anxious to get into another book and revive my interest in reading. Next up on my list was The Witches by Stacy Schiff. This nonfiction novel about the Salem witch trials was part of my True Books 2020 Challenge. I had been saving this one until October to read, as it seemed to be a good match for the season. I live close enough to Salem to go there for a weekend, so I was hoping to learn about all about what happened back in 1692, and then go see some of the historical sites. Covid has ruined that plan, at least for now, but I was still interested to learn about this weird part of American history.
Trigger warning: This novel is about a plague that ends humanity, so anyone struggling with anxiety about Covid might want to steer clear.
After finishing Frankenstein earlier this month, I moved onto another novel by Mary Shelley, The Last Man. I picked this up for my Then Versus Now Challenge. Prior to doing research for this challenge, I had no idea that Mary Shelley even wrote any other novels, and I was really interested to try something else from her. I have a very high opinion of Frankenstein, so I went into my reading hoping for something with similar, creepy vibes, or maybe another novel full of interesting psychological questions. What I ended up getting was depression, one literal nightmare, and quite a bit of disappointment.
The novel begins with a framing device - an unnamed narrator, while exploring a cave on a holiday in Greece, stumbles into the long lost cave of an ancient Seer. He finds several papers scattered around the cave, which he translates and assembles into a manuscript. The manuscript contains the story of the last man alive on earth, which the seer recorded from a prophetic vision she received centuries ago. The narrator shares this manuscript with us, and that forms the plot of the novel. In this way, the novel is supposed to be a glimpse into our future, and explains the story of how humanity will end from the point of view of the last living person.
The narrator of the manuscript is Lionel Verney, a young man living in England in the year 2074. He begins by explaining his history, beginning with his birth to a disgraced nobleman. Due to the tarnished reputation of his father, he starts out in a lowly station in life until he meets and befriends a young man named Adrian, the Earl of Windsor. The monarchy has been abolished in favor of a democratic republic by this time, but the royal family has retained social prominence and titles. Adrian lifts Lionel up out of his rough, gloomy life and introduces him to art, music, and culture. They become like brothers and from that moment forward, he lives the life of a gentleman. The path Adrian sets him on eventually leads him to Idris, his one true love. It also introduces Lionel's beloved sister Perdita to Lord Raymond, another prominent nobleman that she eventually marries. Both couples go on to have children and live together in a manor in the idyllic English countryside.
Before long, however, their happy world is shattered by an unusually virulent plague that sweeps from Middle Eastern and Asian nations to the rest of the world. The sickness doesn't discriminate; both rich and poor people become infected equally, and all who contract it die. Lionel and his friends try quarantining and helping the ill as much as they can, but unlike previous versions of the plague that they have encountered, this one doesn't gradually fade away. Instead, it becomes stronger, taking more and more people each day. Years go by with all of humanity living in constant fear of being sick. As population grows smaller and smaller, Lionel and his family decide to gather as many survivors together as possible and leave England to seek their fortunes elsewhere. They are hoping to find a safe haven, but they soon discover that the illness follows them wherever they go. Throughout it all, Lionel records their struggles and reactions to the tragedy unfolding around them, presenting a harrowing story about the end of mankind.
The Last Man was a difficult read for me, for reasons beyond the heavy subject matter. Right from the beginning, pacing was an issue. This novel is about 500 pages, and the plague doesn't enter into matters until right around page 200. All the time prior to that was spent detailing Lionel's life, which is full of dramatic turns of fortune and cliched romances that feel like they belong in a much older book. This novel was published in 1826, but it felt like it could have been 50 years earlier. I was reminded of Tom Jones or Don Quixote a bit while reading, just without the comedy. The characters had that similar feel of being larger than life with clear, distinctive personality traits, but at the same time being completely unbelievable as human beings. Flat and overly virtuous, they did nothing to engage me in their stories and I consistently struggled to feel any connection to them. This beginning section was, simply put, dreadfully boring, and it took me longer than it should have to get through. I just wasn't excited to pick it up.
In addition to being an apocalyptic novel, this also falls partially into roman à clef territory, with Shelley modeling Adrian and Lord Raymond after her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her friend, Lord Byron, respectively. As such, her descriptions of them are overly effusive in their praise, to the point of ridiculousness. Both Adrian and Raymond are impossible attractive, good, and noble characters, and the narrator is sure to remind us of this at every available opportunity. I believe at one point, Lionel waxes poetic about Adrian's eyelashes. Much of the narration did not read like a man speaking about dear friends. It read like an infatuated woman describing men she was attracted to, which is exactly what it was. This further damaged the unbelievability of the characters and further disconnected me from the story.
Another consistent issue while reading was the world-building, which was almost non-existent. It was very easy to forget that this story was taking place in the distant future because almost nothing was different than how the world would have been in 1826. I don't blame Mary Shelley for not being able to predict future technology accurately. After all, the world we live in today would be utterly unrecognizable to her, and The Last Man takes place over fifty years from right now. However, I do think some attempt should have been made at depicting future advancements. This novel starts off in the year 2074 and ends up around the year 3000, and people are still traveling by horse and carriage and living and working the same way they did in the 19th century. Aside from a throwaway reference to traveling by air in a balloon-type conveyance and her prediction that England would eventually do away with the monarchy, there were no details that would suggest this novel is set in the future. In an attempt to gloss over this, Shelley actually gives very few specific details about how life works for her characters, which had the effect of making the setting quite bland. Much like in Frankenstein, she wrote a story that was technically science fiction, but she was not interested in the details of how her world worked. However, her omission of specifics was fine in Frankenstein. The novel was short and the vagueness increased its mystery and suspense. Here, however, in a 500 page novel, the omission of details was a noticeable flaw that made the story worse.
I could really continue on at length describing issues I had with this book, but the last one I'll get into here was the endless misery of the plot. This is an apocalyptic book about a deadly pandemic. Obviously, it was not intended to be lighthearted. However, its slow pacing and relatively empty plot made the dread, fear, and sadness of the characters very difficult to endure. Once the plague comes into the story, we have about 300 pages of abject suffering as the characters move from place to place, slowly dying. As I mentioned before, the characters weren't realistic enough to actually get attached to, so the reading wasn't difficult because it was emotionally draining. It was difficult because it was boring and joyless. The plot didn't really raise interesting questions or make astute observations about humanity. It was just abject misery for hundreds of pages. To make matters worse, at one point I fell asleep while reading and had a terrible dream that my husband was slowly dying from a plague, which was an absolutely terrible experience. I don't think the fact that we are currently in a pandemic influenced this reaction. It was just that I was reading page upon page of people dying in this book and it bubbled up in my sleep. I don't think a book has ever given me an actual nightmare before, so this was a first for me.
There was very little that I liked about The Last Man. I didn't mind the ending, which I thought contained the right amount of melancholy, for once. I also thought some of the writing was beautiful. There are a handful of quotes throughout the pages that struck me as quite smart and relatable to the current situation the world is in right now. However, anything good about this novel was swallowed up in the dreary, largely uneventful plot and unrealistic character portrayals. This was undoubtedly my worst reading experience of the year, because not only is this poorly written (my unenlightened opinion, I know), it spoiled all my reading momentum for the month. I'm not going to get to half the books I wanted to read in October, and it's because of this novel. It made me want to avoid reading, which is not a feeling I'm used to having. I literally never quit books. If I did, I would have quit reading this one.
Total Books Read in 2020: 71