Described as a “genderbent, queer, biracial modern-retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein,” Addie Tsai delivers on all descriptors. Unwieldy Creatures follows Plum and Dr. Frank, two queer, nonbinary scientists who embark on their journey to play gods and create a human embryo without egg or sperm. In frame stories nestled into each other like Russian dolls and flashbacks that slowly and painstakingly peel back the racial, familial traumas both characters have faced, Dr. Frank’s mortal flaws are revealed, showing just how close to her namesake she is. Shelley’s Frankenstein is reimagined in a 21st century world where we dispose of cobbling together living corpses from cadavers and instead, immerse ourselves in the very real world of in vitro fertilization and gestation, dipping into the dark side of fertility ethics.
Plum, a half-Chinese, half-white woman raised by her immigrant Chinese father, is queer in gender and sexuality. Her story revolves around her paternal relationship, her lost lady-love, and how she found her way into the kind of science happening at Dr. Frank’s fertility lab. Dr. Frank’s story is a mirror of Plum’s own. Where Plum has a white mother, Dr. Frank has a white father; where Plum is Chinese, Dr. Frank is Indonesian; and where Plum identifies as more butch and finds her way back to love, Dr. Frank is calalai (an Indonesian word for someone in a female body that identifies more as male) and loses her love forever.
Tsai balances the absurdities of fertility science creating embryos without human sex cells, with the banal evils of filial abuse. Whether it was the physical and emotional slaps from both Plum’s and Dr. Frank’s fathers or the negligence and silence from their mothers, Tsai could always soothe the smarts of literary pains with a horrific curveball from the sci-fi side of the house. Try Dr. Frank impregnating her girlfriend with an embryo made from herself (Dr. Frank) and her (adopted) brother—without the girlfriend knowing. Oh yes, Tsai paid homage to not only Shelley, but to the genre of horror itself. Tsai understands that we live in a contemporary time where a headline like Texan Man Robs Local Cemetery for Spare Parts inspires more comedy than horror, whereas Texan Woman Forced To Bear Unwanted Child of Her Partner and Brother inspires more horror than any other emotion. Tsai has set modern parallels to Shelley’s gothic masterpiece in a way that the specific kind of horror of Shelley’s audience is replicated in her own audience during her own time.
When it comes to the monsters at the end of the book, in this case Drs. Frankenstein’s and Frank’s literal monsters, they are mirrored by the monsters of parental abandon in all senses of the word. For Plum, it is her mother’s literal running away and her father’s refusal to accept her for who she is. For Dr. Frank, it is her mother’s inability to fight to protect them and her father’s need to control everyone in his life—including her. And for Dr. Frank’s first monster and biological child, it is Dr. Frank’s attempted-murder, denial, and refusal to be accepting of dia (an Indonesia pronoun that the ‘monster,’ Ash, uses) that parallels the earlier calls of parental trauma of both Plum and Dr. Frank from their respective parents. Beautifully, the audience sees the hypocrisy of Dr. Frank in how she acts towards her creation in just the same way as her own father acted towards her and how the original, fictional Dr. Frankenstein acted towards his own creation—which Dr. Frank ironically scorns.
Here is the book as a duality—in her two main characters of the student and the teacher, in the two literary works of Frankenstein and Unwieldy Creatures itself, and in the two monsters of parental abuse and abused/abusive creatures.
Unwieldy Creatures easily achieves status as a particularly creative and apt homage to Shelley’s original work. And on further inspection, this duality whose parts are running so closely parallel to one another is a sum that becomes at risk of getting tangled up in its parts. The duality then becomes a duet, with Shelley being used to finish every one of Tsai’s thoughts.
Upon zooming out, one sees that Tsai follows Shelley’s plot to as close a T as she can get. Perhaps too close. By using the frame story of Plum being the intern Dr. Frank is left in the care of to tell the true story of Unwieldy Creatures, Tsai mimics the Arctic captain being the person Dr. Frankenstein was left in the care of to unleash the tale of the Creature. By giving Dr. Frank an adopted brother who is also referred to as a cousin, she replicates both versions of Victor Frankenstein’s actual spouse—a cousin in the original 1818 and an adopted sibling in the 1831 edit—instead of simply choosing one. This adds some confusion and discomfort when comparing modern family dynamics, adopted or blood-related, as this was a modern retelling. And by making both Shelley’s creature and her own demand another abomination be made for companionship, Tsai recycles the cost of the doctor’s mistake in playing god. These are just a few examples of how followed Shelley’s plot is by Tsai. It makes for very predictable reading, which can take the joy and excitement out of the modern, dirty fertility science ethics. While hardly a true sin, plot bits that were outdated (Victor marrying a cousin) felt taboo and ill-fittingly shoehorned into their modern reincarnations (Dr. Frank being blackmailed into marrying her brother-cousin).
Speaking of outdated, zooming into the text shows that either Tsai was greatly excited at mimicking Shelley’s style or eager to have her novel considered traditionally literary. A side by side comparison of the original Frankenstein would reveal Unwieldy Creatures follows a very similar writing style from diction to sentence structure as the former 18th century text. Perhaps it’s a difference in tastes, but I always liked Frankenstein for the ingenuity of subject matter and less for the style in which it was written. The exponential Victorian era devices such as “I will tell you my story,” to set up the story and give an excuse to have the characters communicate, and “But we are not at that part of the story yet,” as an excuse to slow the writing pace or go off on a tangent, are painful to read through for a modern audience. These devices are cliché and clunky writing at worst and too on-the-nose at best. Modernizing the way the story was told would have gone a long way for audiences expecting a fresh sci-fi take from this modern retelling.
Perhaps Tsai simply didn’t want to change anything else from the story after having changed the gender, race, science, setting, and era of the tale’s characters. Or, perhaps she simply didn’t trust her own style or new ideas. There were times when Tsai actually had to attribute lines of her novel to Shelley, a literal lifting out of one novel and dropping into another. This style felt as though it limited the space the story had to tell itself; if Tsai couldn’t figure out how to squeeze something original into Shelley’s plot or how to express something in Shelley’s style, the detail either disappeared or felt out of place, taking us out of the story and therefore out of our enjoyment. There are key differences in storytelling of course. The Shelley-used captain gets their own side of the story in Unwieldy Creatures as Plum. Dr. Frank has a biological stake as the Creature’s parent as opposed to having made it of the dead. And of course, the creature has a name in this—Ash—one that is frequently used once they enter the story, very close to the end.
After I was done being frustrated with the prose that was almost painfully purple like a fresh bruise for the first two-thirds of the novel, I was wowed by Tsai’s original ideas and writing in the last third. Something that would have been helped by not following Shelley’s original plot or writing style so closely is how much of the book could be dedicated to Tsai’s own material. The last 50 pages were a whirlwind of Plum not learning at all from the mistakes Dr. Frank had made and falling into the same trap as Dr. Frank’s previous love. These pages were fast-paced and grueling, the audience seeing far earlier that Plum was being taken advantage of by Dr. Frank than Plum was able to see. And the most powerful part of the story, even more so than the acknowledgements of their abused pasts or the moral of admitting you were wrong in order to be with the one you loved, was the changed ending, something completely the brainchild of Tsai herself. I just wish that Tsai had kept the rest of the book so well balanced a duet, as much of the middle of the story was overshadowed by the clear “Shelley plot and style” side of the duo, stamped across the pages with Tsai’s characters as fill-in-the-blank names.
Unwieldy Creatures, by Addie Tsai. Jaded Ibis Press, August 2022. 300 pages. $17.99, paper
Maxx Fidalgo is a 26-year-old queer, trans man from southeastern Massachusetts with a love of writing about the occult, the holy, and cosmic horror. He is the first generation of his Azorean-Portuguese family born in the USA, and his heritage and culture mean everything to him. Maxx plays the guitar and sings, is a lover of travel, and recently went back to school for journalism. When not writing, he works for a nonprofit farm that engages with issues of environmental and food sustainability. Past publications include short story “Graveyards Full” in American Gothic Short Stories from Flame Tree Publishing and short story “In The Woods, Somewhere” in Monstroddities from Sliced Up Press.