May 15, 2013

Dracula (#71a)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

What I said then:

The original, but is it the best?

What I say now:

Dracula, I'm sorry to report, is most definitely not the best. In fact, it's not even very good.

Jonathan Harker, a young real estate agent, travels from London to Romania to help settle the purchases of some land in England for a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Count Dracula. Once there, it slowly (too slowly) dawns on Harker that Dracula is creepy as fuck, that weird happenings are afoot, and that he, Harker, is now a prisoner in Dracula's ancient, crumbling castle. Once Dracula sets off for England, Harker's wife Mina and occult expert Abraham Van Helsing gather together a small group of monster hunters to counter his plans to take over the world, one innocent English neck at a time.

The book's got a heap of problems, but the main one is the simplest: there's not enough Dracula in it. The Count's eminent position in pop culture makes obvious that he's by far Stoker's most interesting/original/captivating creation. The novel's first section, involving Harker trapped in the Count's castle and slowly realising the horrifying truth about his host, is actually pretty good. Unfortunately, once the action moves to England, Dracula basically exits the book, never to return. From that point on we hear about his actions, but never really see them; we see how much other characters fear him, but never see anything that makes us fear him ourselves. It's a genuinely strange choice on Stoker's part.

In some respects he's hamstrung by his choice to make the novel epistolary(ish) --- that is, it's constructed entirely of letters, diaries and journal entries. Dracula isn't one of our correspondents, and as he spends most of the novel hiding from the characters whose point of view we're getting, we just don't see him. Still, there had to be a way to give us more blood-sucking action.

The other big issue Stoker has with his letters/diaries style is that almost every single character speaks in exactly the same tone of voice. Even Van Helsing, who has a few 'foreign' mannerisms to his speech, still speaks in basically the same manner, and with the same vocabulary, as everybody else. The other members of the anti-Drac league might as well be the same person, for all the personality that comes through their voices.

The other major issue I had with the book was the nature of the action: Stoker seems to have no idea how to structure his story to make the most of its inherent drama. The vast majority of the book is spent having theoretical discussions. When the anti-Drac league does take action, it's most often through waiting in doorways, or writing letters to shipping agents, or looking up train timetables. Even in the final denouement, which should be super-duper satisfying after we've waited so long for it, they kill Dracula without actually having to confront him! I mean, surely that's a no-brainer, right? I couldn't believe it.

Obviously the book is super famous and continues to be read widely, and it's not for no reason. And in some ways I can understand the appeal: not only would the text itself have been pretty daring for its time, but the subtext is absolutely, positively drenched in sex (or, more specifically, the fear of sex). I have no idea what Stoker had going on in his personal life, but I suspect he was pretty hung-up about a lot of things, because a hell of a lot of psychological weirdness seeps through the edges of the novel. Unfortunately, in my opinion he wasn't in control enough of that psychological stuff to make it focussed and thematically coherent, and he certainly wasn't able to marry it to a well structured story. This ended up a pretty major disappointment for me.

Cheers, JC.

May 5, 2013

The Glass Bead Game (#72)

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse

What I said then:

Weirdly, this seems to have the same basic plot as Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games. Maybe I’ll read them back to back.

What I say now:

Haha, wow, they're not very similar at all. I think I was fooled by the word 'game' appearing in both titles. Where Banks' novel is an enjoyable romp, Hesse's is a stately, philosophical, largely plotless examination of life, spirituality, art, and the meaning of it all.

One of the reasons I've been absent from this blog for so long is that this review was the next I had to write and I have no idea how to go about it, because I simply lack the vocabulary to follow Hesse into the never-ending abstractions of thought that he leads us. I'm no philosopher; I'm just a guy.

In the 23rd Century, all intellectual and artistic production has ceased: at some point along the way it was decided that, with the music of the great classical composers, art had reached its highest apogee. In this future, a caste of 'game-players' have synthesised all knowledge into its root concepts, concepts that the 'game' (which is part music, part mathematics, part performance) then states and recombines in ways which give intellectual pleasure to the audience. Here's Hesse himself: "The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colours on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property --- on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ." It's an incredibly ambitious concept, tying the entirety of the arts, of science, and of religion together into one great attempt to perfectly understand humanity.

So that's the background. Hesse's novel has us follow the life of Joseph Knecht, who begins as a passionate but unfocused student and ends up as the Magister Ludi (the supreme Glass Bead Game player in the world), which allows the author to expand on his concepts one piece at a time, the reader gaining knowledge and understanding as Knecht does. And that's basically the book: Knecht wrestles with philosophical ideas and with his own place in the world, and we watch him do it. It's dense and difficult, with barely any story to speak of, but it's also kind of amazing (it's hard not to be dazzled by the breadth of knowledge Hesse displays).

The book ends with three short stories that are linked to the main body of the novel, and those stories were probably the highlight of the novel for me: they managed to combine their exploration of Hesse's philosophical concerns with more rigorously focussed storytelling, and I felt they were more successful as a result.

The Glass Bead Game is a really unusual book, and though I can't honestly recommend it (it's just too likely to bore people, I think), I can say without reservation that I'm glad I read it myself, and if you approach it like it's a philosophical tract rather than a novel, I think you'd find much to admire in it.

Cheers, JC.