Island of the Mad: A Hybrid Novel Involving Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and Venice

Mon, Sep 24, 2018, 4:30 pm
245 East Pyne
Program in Creative Writing

Island of the Mad follows the hunchbacked, solitary Ambrose A from his days as a book-scanner in a digitizing firm’s office to his travels in Venice and his search for a lost notebook. As time and space become increasingly porous, he encounters such figures as Pontius Pilate, Titian, Dostoevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Bulgakov’s resourceful devil, Woland. He also encounters the murderess Frieda, a walk-on character from Master and Margarita, who here resides on a plague island in the Venetian Lagoon as day after day she makes visitations to Ambrose and schools him in the facts of the Venetian Plague of 1575. Her facts lead him into questions of ethical loneliness, tenderness, injustice, and ultimately what constitutes the human.

After Frieda’s sudden disappearance, Ambrose comes upon the written traces of two former inhabitants of San Servolo, the Venetian Lagoon’s old hospital island, commonly known as the Island of the Mad. One epileptic and the other suffering from Fatal Familial Insomnia, they spend their days together reading from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Fueled by the transformative compelling dynamics of the internet, while at the same time deeply anchored in an ongoing conversation with past writers and thinkers, Island of the Mad explores the often contradictory, complex, nature of empathy as it turns the ordinary world inside out and shows us its glittering seams.


Laurie Sheck is the author of two hybrid fictions: Island of the Mad (2016) and A Monster’s Notes (2009), centered around the un-named monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, still alive in the 21st century. A Monster’s Notes was nominated for the International DUBLIN Literary Award and was named one of the 10 Best Fictions of the Year by Entertainment Weekly. She has also written five books of poems, one of which, The Willow Grove, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her essays have appeared online in The Paris Review, Granta, The Atlantic, and Bill Moyers & Company. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and a Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and has twice been awarded fellowships from the NFA. Her work has been reviewed in such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Boston Review, and The New Yorker. In spring 2012 she was Sidney Harman Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Baruch College, CUNY, and has taught as well at Rutgers, Princeton, and Columbia. She is currently a member of the Core MFA Writing Faculty at the New School.

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