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  • Sonia Gonzalez

Sonia Gonzalez Reviews Olivas's Chicano Frankenstein

Updated: Mar 13

"He didn't seem to belong anywhere. Neither here nor there." This is how Daniel A. Olivas describes the unnamed protagonist of his new novel Chicano Frankenstein (Forest Avenue Press, 2024). In this work of political satire, Olivas cleverly employs a "reanimated" community—people who consent to a “donor program” that, once they are deceased, will bring them back to life with no memory of their past life—to underscore the dangers of manufactured culture wars, discrimination, political manipulation, and the overreach of corporatization and capitalism at the expense of basic human decency. Inspired by Mary Shelley's iconic novel, Chicano Frankenstein takes a magnifying glass to American life and politics in the midst of unprecedented polarization and partisanship to examine the fragility of social acceptance and what it truly means to be human.

 

Set in Pasadena, California in the very near future, Chicano Frankenstein draws on today's political climate, making it a timely read that, at times, feels a little too familiar. Olivas draws many parallels to current politics: Instead of MAGA, Olivas adopts the acronym MASA (Make America Safe Again). Olivas also employs “White House transcripts” to convey behind-the-scenes negotiations and motives of the sitting U.S. president and her cabinet as well as excerpts of news interviews that lean on and mimic real-life—Anderson Cooper, Ari Melber, Joy Reid, and Steve Kornacki all make appearances. Invoking contemporary political platforms, the novel's sitting administration’s main focus ahead of midterm elections is to manufacture a narrative of reanimated people or “stitchers” (the derogatory slur) as violent and dangerous, inciting fear and igniting culture wars in order to mobilize voters.

 

The fictional reanimated community provides social and political commentary on some of today's most pressing issues and the mechanics—and dangers—of performative politics. Olivas addresses buzzwords and weaponized terms like “science-speak” and “critical stitcher theory." He also illustrates how religion is invoked for political favor: “[A]re they really people in the biblical sense?...God didn’t make them, science did.” There is the ever-present rhetoric that reanimated people are “not ‘real Americans’” and a palpable fear that they “could replace native-born U.S. residents.” These and other accusations are designed to ignite fear and hatred toward this particular group of people.

 

Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster in Shelley’s novel, Olivas’s protagonist remains unnamed. However, Shelley’s creature is never given a name because he is shunned by all he comes in contact with. He is never given the courtesy of being considered a person by anyone. He is alone, abandoned, and abhorred. In Olivas’ novel, the man remains unnamed to the reader only. He has a job, an apartment, and a girlfriend. He engages with people and aside from being reanimated, leads a blessedly unremarkable life. His feelings of uncertainty and alienation are mostly internal negotiations as he learns to navigate his new life, not the result of wholesale societal rejection. Olivas informs the reader that reanimated people are given new government-sanctioned identities and begin their reanimated lives with no connection to their past lives. While they do face discrimination and an administration that is actively trying to dehumanize and criminalize them for political gain, they have been largely accepted in society, while continuing to fight for their right to exist. As a result, withholding the protagonist's name from the reader does not have the same effect as Shelley’s creature remaining nameless.

 

While entertaining and accessible, elements of the novel’s world-building feel incomplete. Olivas alludes to a national (or global?) birthrate decline which has led to an increased demand for reanimated workers as well as the loosening of regulations around fertility and other policies. However, Olivas does not elaborate on potential causes for this decline. This is an interesting component of the narrative that I wish had been explored in the novel. Overall, Oliva’s novel was an enjoyable and quick read that highlights the fractures in our current political climate and elevates the struggle of minoritized populations across the country.



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