Backtalk (on George Saunders)

The Frankenstein monster spoke French. Despite what we may have read in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature did not begin his famous diatribe by saying “All men hate the wretched,” and asking the doctor “have I not suffered enough?”* Instead, he would have said something to the effect of “Tous les hommes haïssent les misérables” and “n’ai-je pas assez souffert?” Likewise, the creature never declared that “mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery,” but more likely said “Mon sort ne sera pas celui de asservissement misérable.” As for the threats he made against the doctor and his loved ones (“I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear”), he probably said something like: “Je me vengerai du tort qu’on m’a fait; si je ne puis inspirer l’amour, je provoquerai l’effroi.” And the creature’s most ominous warning must have been: “Je serai avec vous votre nuit de noces.”

This linguistic premise is of course built into the novel’s basic plot; the doctor hails from a French-speaking Swiss family, and in his choice of tongue the monster takes after his creator. But Shelley’s narrative gambit requires that the reader imagine everything the creature says as voiced otherwise than we see on the page. Moreover, we can suppose that the creature’s verbal mannerisms must have been quite different, too, as his speech is reported second hand by Frankenstein, his nemesis, and relayed third-hand by the doctor’s friend, captain Walton. Like his anatomy, then, the creature’s words in Frankenstein are fundamentally and irretrievably deformed.

Even putting aside the doctor’s unarguable malice toward his creature, the text’s infidelity to the monster’s words leads to an ethical conundrum. A sympathetic reader may claim to understand the monster’s motives, but we cannot claim to ever “hear” him. And a sympathetic ear is precisely what the monster requests of us. “I intreat you to hear me” (145), he says. “Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me” (146). The creature insists on this listening no less than six times. “Listen to me, Frankenstein,” he implores the doctor. And as if turning aside to the reader, he drops the surname to repeat, “listen to me.”

Ecoutez-moi, Frankenstein. Ecoutez-moi.

We have to suspend our disbelief to accept Shelley’s fictional premise that a creature only one year old could speak such eloquent lines. The author goes to some lengths to render this idea plausible and makes the monster’s awakening to conscience an allegory of enlightenment reason and the romantic imagination. A blank slate of confused sensory impressions, the newly-created monster stumbles upon a humble cottage in the German countryside and takes refuge in its adjoining “kennel,” as he calls it (mon chenil(?)). From his hiding-place he is able to observe the cottagers through a chink in a boarded-up window, eventually learning to speak good French, for, as it happens, the residents are exiled Parisians of high breeding who have fallen on dark times. He listens and watches closely as the young man in the family reads historical tomes aloud to his lover and in this way he learns to read books himself, including, not so shabby, Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Fox 8 cover (detail). Illustration by Chelsea Cardinal

This educational premise of Shelley’s is taken up by George Saunders in his short story “Fox 8,” which was recently republished as a hardbound volume with illustrations. The fox who narrates the story is an inquisitive dreamer who one day hears “the most amazing sound” coming through a window, and he is inspired to learn human speech by returning to the house every night and listening in on the bedtime stories a mother reads to her children.** Soon enough our protagonist is disconcerted to learn that foxes are maligned in human stories — a bitter discovery that presages many disappointments to come. Like Frankenstein, Saunders’ tale is the righteous vindication of a hunted, misunderstood outcast and an indictment of humanity’s reckless domination of nature. Appearing as it did at the end of 2018, Fox 8 is a fitting addition to the year’s bicentennial celebrations of Shelley’s novel; Frankenstein was released on January 1, 1818. Why, then, has no-one noticed the parallels?

The oversight is striking given that Fox 8 deftly targets the ethical conundrum of Frankenstein‘s linguistic infidelity, its implicit silencing of the monster’s own speech. Saunders, in contrast to Shelley, turns the distinctive inarticulateness of his narrator into a major premise of the tale. Whereas in Frankenstein we can only imagine and fatally misrepresent the words of the creature, Saunders foregrounds his creature’s own words and in so doing makes the experience of reading into a strangely pleasurable challenge. Like Fox 8 himself, the reader must learn to speak a new language.

One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music! I listened to those music werds until the sun went down, when all of a suden I woslike: Fox 8, crazy nut, when sun goes down, werld goes dark, skedaddle home, or else there can be danjer!

Fox 8 at his “Story window.” Illustration by C. Cardinal

This apparent demotion of English is deceptively simple. Fox 8’s misfirings hit surprising targets (“I herd”; “They sounded grate!”) and his solecisms (“woslike”) seem perfectly warranted by the idiomatic speech they adopt as their own. Even the limping grammar, closely based as well on current vernacular, is highly suggestive (“what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice”): doesn’t the phrase is, was condense the essential gambit of narrative art, the storyteller’s near-magical wielding of narrative presents and present pasts? It seems not so farfetched to make this claim, as Saunders’ tale plumbs the primordial source of “storys” and enchants us like the children Fox 8 eavesdrops on from outside the window (4).

This is very much a story about storytelling; Fox 8’s innocent sincerity allows Saunders to foreground narration and metafiction, as when the protagonist charmingly but clumsily refers to conventions of suspense, to a venerable quote from Dickens, or chides other “buks” for being “fawlse” in various ways. Most importantly, Fox 8 learns that narrative is a way of teaching empathy: he finds out early on that Storys and luv always go together (4). For this reason, too, “a gud riter will make the reeder feel as bad as the Yuman does in there Story” (12), a bid for righteous sympathy that takes on Byronic dimensions, as when Fox 8 says, “I woslike: Why did the Curator do it so rong, making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?” (37-8). Surely not a rhetorical question?

Saunders is hardly the first to raise lofty existential questions in childlike narrative. But the writer’s unique gifts can be seen in Fox 8‘s sudden shifts of affect and the subtle turns and shadings of empathetic feeling. This is a signature of Saunders’ work — its specific “curativity,” as Fox 8 might say. But the distinct aesthetic challenge and unlikely triumph of this little book lies in the jarring and disorienting way that Saunders can make silliness convey heartbreak and tragedy. Against all odds Fox 8’s goofy malapropisms and zany daydreams rise to the level of the Frankenstein monster’s stentorian flak. But that impressive monologue was badly deformed, we’re guessing, by Shelley’s romantic English. Saunders, in contrast, shows us that we can hear and empathize with people and other beings who do not speak like us, who we perhaps can’t understand at all. But we fail to do so, why? Fox 8 would like to know.

In Frankenstein, the monster’s first words to the scornful doctor are sulky and resentful: “I expected this reception” (“Je m’attendais à cet accueil”). Fox 8, only somewhat more hopeful, concludes his letter to us “Yumans” with a challenging offer: “I awate your answer.”


*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 145.

**George Saunders, Fox 8 (New York: Random House, 2018), 3.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s