Filthy Creation, Caroline Hagood

Caroline Hagood’s ‘Filthy Creation’ Makes the Monster Within a Work of Fiction

The inner Frankenstein that informed Caroline Hagood’s non-fiction Weird Girls lurches through her new work of fiction, Filthy Creation.

Filthy Creation
Caroline Hagood
May 2023

Caroline Hagood is working on a very interesting experiment. How will her readers and the marketplace treat two versions of the same feminist argument, one in the fictionalized mouth of a teenage protagonist and one in the motherhood memoir about her own creative process? In winter, I reviewed her essayistic concept, saying that Weird Girls does a supremely good job of prodding the monster within all creative women to snarling life. But spring has sprung, and the companion novel to Weird Girls is upon us.

These books are not explicitly being marketed side by side, and they are published by two different presses, but anyone who reads a half dozen pages of both will immediately see a plethora of connections. Ultimately, I quite liked Filthy Creation and saw how it was doing as much as 80 percent of what Weird Girls could do, but my own lean toward non-fiction leads me to prefer that project to this novel.

On its own merits, the plot of Filthy Creation is a well-done version of a well-trod path. Warning, this review contains a spoiler—but it’s an obvious one that most readers will suspect, as I did, the moment the relevant character is introduced. Dylan is a gifted teen looking to get an art school scholarship. She lacks a cool project and more often feels called to light her artwork on fire than to fill out paperwork for college applications. She doesn’t get along with her mom, who was, at some point, a promising young artist herself. Mother and daughter act as foils, a slowly simmering conflict relegated to the back burner while Dylan tries to win the heart of the ultimate goth goddess, Shay. You’re in the correct zone if you’re picturing two Winona Ryders swaying to the Cure as they stare out over the Brooklyn Bridge. They bond over their dead dads, and Shay helps Dylan try to solve the mystery of who her biological father is. It turns out to be a very famous photographer who is a total bastard in super predictable ways.

Hagood’s treatment of this character, Simon Ambrosio, is perfect feminist fiction for me. He is necessarily the plot-driving focal point of many scenes in the thick of Filthy Creation‘s middle, and yet Hagood succeeds admirably in making him barely there. Look, buddy, none of us want to hear about the sad inner turmoil that caused you to harass a female art student young enough to be your daughter. Mentorship isn’t the same as fatherhood, and wanting to be a father or a mentor isn’t the same as doing the work to be either one. But hey, nice photos, and feel free to leave town without any consequences because that’s your privilege as a dude who once created one item of Great Art. The author doesn’t even bother to offer him closure or a conclusion. Filthy Creation is not his story.

The female characters here are complex, remaining robust even when they fulfill the duties of their archetypes, like the awesome teacher who happens to be Shay’s mom. All of the women in Filthy Creation are seen engaging in parts of their lifelong negotiation with the sometimes-zero-sum game of creativity versus everything else, like family, career, and common sense. These are the same essential questions posited by Weird Girls, and one can see how Hagood answers these questions for herself as she prepares her characters to do the same. For example, the symbolism of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is foundational in both books.

Filthy Creation incorporates a monster mask substantially into the plot to protect the anonymity of a lynchpin character, and the girls are also reading Frankenstein for class, while Weird Girls directly gives the author’s thoughts on why this text is such a useful metaphor for the creative process. I preferred the more monstrously adult version of these ideas given in Weird Girls, but I can easily understand why the semi-articulate teenage voice laden with all the pathos of someone still grokking their way toward self-acceptance might be more appealing to many readers. Kudos to this one young character for having read enough Hart Crane and Mary Oliver to slip in a couple of lines of poetry here and there as her circumstances demand. A good little slice of Dylan’s voice, representing how she is so cool and articulate, yet also at crucial moments too emotionally raw and not quite cool enough, is seen in this passage:

“Not knowing what else to do, I went down the basement stairs, picked up the Frankenstein shadow box and my lighter, and headed out to the courtyard grill. I placed the box, with its creature and creator and their vividly rendered features, gently on top of the burner and I lit that shit up. In the book, when Dr. Frankenstein encounters the monster he’s created, this is the moment of father meeting child symbolically, and I’d had it with all my fathers at this point. I was embracing my orphan status officially, at least in the paternity department.”

While I give it high marks for its plot and characters, Filthy Creation falls down in two ways, both related to the setting. I would have liked a deeper dive into New York City as well as into art school. Dylan already lives in NYC and wants to stay there for college. It seems to me that any teenager in NYC who wants to do art has about a million ways to skin that cat. Even if she wants to attend a specific art school because her mother also went there, this seems like a relatively low-stakes conflict.

Indeed, there’s a whole ecosystem associated with schooling in the arts, and that her mother is a legacy student should be worth more mileage in the montage. When a novel is set in NYC or an art school, I expect NYC or the art school to show up as more of a character. Filthy Creation offers an emotionally significant bit on bridges, and it does give us an eccentric headmaster type, but I still wanted more in part because Hagood’s non-fiction already proves she has the chops to deliver it.

This is a good experiment, publishing these two books side by side within a year of each other. It’s possible one or both will be relegated to the narrow field of “chick lit”. Filthy Creation is only 70 pages longer than Weird Girls. They have enough similarities and yet also enough differences to warrant reading both in one semester. If you are going to teach or read both back-to-back, I’d suggest Filthy Creation first and then Weird Girls. The fictional voices are less assured than the author’s own, so going from fiction to non-fiction allows more of an ideological evolution for the reader. Either book is also a good excuse to return to Frankenstein itself.

Creative women are always being asked to choose between the chopping block and the pedestal. Whenever the culture wars begin to heat up again, we are called to explore our own monstrosity more deeply, to understand how the choices the culture forces us to make lead us to be construed as monsters here to terrorize the patriarchy. I take solace in doing this battle alongside the flesh and blood Caroline Hagood, though her fictional characters will certainly do in a pinch.

RATING 7 / 10