In the Distance is an interesting novel. And I say that, recognizing that I tell students never to call anything “interesting” (you can usually find a better descriptor). It’s by Hernan Diaz, and is the story a young boy named Hakan. He leaves his native Sweden for New York, is accidentally separated from his brother, and winds up on America’s West coast. And thus he must traverse North America, and learn lessons along the way. Which makes this is a typical bildungsroman, right? And it’s billed as a Western as well. But here’s what no reviews seem to say about In the Distance: Diaz’s work is a retelling of Frankenstein. Almost down to the letter.
The parallels stuck out to me within the first few pages of Distance, probably because I just started Frankenstein with my 10th graders. Both books start on a ship stuck in ice. Both begin with frame stories. And both are about a monstrous individual—both in terms of stature as well as of perception. If you haven’t read Frankenstein, perhaps you should. A lot of people know the name doesn’t actually refer to the monster, but rather the creator, Victor Frankenstein. Beyond that, however, the novel has a lot more surprises compared to what’s in popular culture and cinema.
Victor pursues the monster, who has been misunderstood and mistreated, across countries and ice flows for time on end, attempting to destroy his creation. The real villain of Frankenstein is Victor Frankenstein, and the monster a sympathetic victim. Of course, the monster—nameless, which is a lot like Hakan whose name no one can pronounce—is made of various body parts and thus hideous. And he does some accidental killing. But Frankenstein does one of the best jobs I’ve ever seen of making a reader feel for what could be a vile individual, and this is why the book’s a classic. Also, it’s usually seen as either the very first, or at least one of the very first, scifi novels ever written.
So back to Distance. Hakan is an old man, stuck on a ship surrounded by ice. Everyone is scared of him due to his huge size, and also because of his cape made of numerous, different animals stitched together. Hakan decides to tell his story, and as a result, just like in Frankenstein, we hear of his birth into society. We also hear about how Hakan learns English. We hear about how everyone takes advantage of him, and how this leads him to become hideous. We also hear about a doctor obsessed with science and the creation of life, who “awakens” Hakan. So things really couldn’t be more clear—this is Frankenstein in the Southwest. And if you know about American literature and both the Gothic and Southern Gothic genres, I’m sure you can see some parallels here. And all of that is interesting.
If you’re a fan of Shelley’s original, In the Distance is worth checking out. I have to say that the style isn’t my cup of tea—I don’t love things that are extremely “literary,” but Leah loved it, and to each their own. More on this when I finish, I am sure!
–Jeff and Leah