Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sister City Revolution

Bay Area author Matt Stewart has turned loose a bright, peppery, infectious, debut novel, The French Revolution, an irreverent literacy farce that entertains for most of its cheerfully eccentric path. It’s fresh, funny, and bright, qualities seldom found in our overly earnest literature, when low-rent genre novels like Twilight are written with earnestness reminiscent of John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill.

Though it alludes indirectly to the traumatic events of 1789, The French Revolution is a contemporary novel and a mock family saga. Its arching tone strongly reminds me of another modern comic classic, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces—a picaresque tale populated by broadly drawn characters enraptured by delusions that range from petty to grand. It’s a comedy about family, food, lust, the quest for power and influence and—maybe less successfully—modern San Francisco politics.

Set in a circus-like world of modern San Francisco, the novel follows the history of the Van Twinkle family from 1989 (two hundred years after the titular event) to 2019. Esmerelda Van Twinkle is a brilliant but failed pastry chef who has retreated into the confines of an Upper Market Street copy shop where, garrulous and gargantuan, she rules with efficient iron hand as she balloons to a weight that forcibly attaches her to numerous modes of special transportation, including a walker. Most of her life seems dedicated to keeping her feet off the ground at all times.

Esmerelda seems no man’s idea of a hot romance. But most everyone’s attractive to someone  and so Esmerelda’s Special Someone is a lovable, coupon distributor named Jasper Winslow to whom Esmie looks “better than a pecan pie at Thanksgiving dinner.”  Jasper’s not just making sport of a fat woman. His sap runs so high that one afternoon, he slips Esmerelda a confectionery mickey and steers her into the blue water bed of a sex club swimming pool where, despite all fleshly obstacles, he leaves her with child.

Two childs to be precise, who pop out precisely on Bastille Day, July 14,  in a gas station bathroom, one of many happy grotesqueries that decorate the story. In tribute to this festive historical day, Esmerelda names the girl Robespierre and Marat, after two of the original revolution’s most prominent movers. We follow this new family home to their dictatorial grandmother and, from there, into the wider, ruthless world.

By tying, however remotely, the French Revolution to a family saga of misfits in San Francisco (the Paris of the West), the book seems to be conveying the idea that the same passions that drove that historic event are mirrored everywhere, even in the family dynamics of colorful outsiders. This not the place to argue whether or not this is true. The real pleasure—as in all novels, dramatic and comic—is in the telling and there’s plenty of that here.

However, events do sag somewhat toward the end. A parallel story following the murderous antics of a teenage East Coast sociopath starts out with great promise, but by the time his bloody path crosses the Van Twinkles’, he’s become less interesting and essential to the story. Robespierre’s entry into local politics doesn’t ping true either. U.S. foreign policy misadventures feel shoehorned in here to little effect, I think. The novel, at this point, loses its savvy as it seems to forget an essential truism, one equally ripe for satire—that all politics is local. As a result, the action flags and the novel stumbles to a whirlwindy but somewhat forgettable ending.

Still, Matt Stewart writes in a refreshing, entertaining voice that dances and sings at happily skewed pitch. I'd look forward to more, if I were you.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield's original comic screenplay Whackers will make its debut on Scrib'd on July 5, 2011, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. And if you're still not tired of him, he can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My Dark Muse: Reading "Dracula" (Part 2 of 2)

(The second part of an article which attempts, rightly or wrongly, to persuade that Dracula by Bram Stoker deserves to be called “literature.”)

“So great was the magnetism of his genius, so profound was the sense of his dominancy that I sat spellbound”—Bram Stoker on Henry Irving

The third stroke of genius to be found in Dracula is how Stoker stage manages his titular character. Once Dracula abandons Jonathan Harker to his blood-hungry (and equally abandoned) wives in his Transylvanian ruin in Chapter 4, the reader seldom sees the Count cavort across center stage again.

Instead, he stays hovering at the edge of the reader’s inner eye, creeping and teasing, red eyes glittering and glowing from every corner. From time to time, he storms in to slake his thirst, then dashes off, a prankish specter from a barely remembered dream, his only mark a bloody stain on the throat and metallic feeling in body and soul. His ability to shape shift and control the elements make him a prankster, screwing with people’s minds for the hellish joy of it.

Sometimes he appears as a stranger in encounters with unwary witnesses (such as a scene set in the Zoological Garden). Often he’s glimpsed from far off: for instance, when Mina Harker comes upon him at a distance as he feeds on Lucy Westenra in the Whitby cemetery (“ . . . and something raised a head and from where I was I could see a face and red, gleaming eyes”).

We also seem him at odd angles, as when Mina glimpses him feeding from Lucy as she slumps across her bedroom window sill; and, in another delightfully eerie episode when Renfield escapes from Dr. Seward’s asylum on one of his otherwise puzzling missions.

Some contemporary readers become impatient with this teasing, with expectations of action from page one. In fact, it would have been easy for Stoker to put Dracula at center stage of every chapter. But he chose not to, and he was spot-on right. He may have rightly sensed that too much of Dracula would only cheapen him, douse his mystery and magic, and diminish his threat. The devil, I recall it being said somewhere, is not even black when dragged into sunlight. Or that matter, under glaring stage lights.

Finally, we come to Dracula’s last stroke of genius. As an astute fellow admirer of this ungainly novel pointed out to me, no one reads Dracula because they want to root for Jonathan Harker, Professor Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, Renfield, or even Mina Harker (after Dracula, the novel’s most successful, nuanced characterization).

We read Dracula because we want to root for Dracula and no one else. The real hero of Dracula is . . . Dracula.

In traditional pop genre narratives, the protagonist is always also the good guy, the one we want to like and root, for as writing groups and online reviewers never tire of insisting: the hero must be “lovable” and work for the Good. Even in literary genre works like The Maltese Falcon, the venal Sam Spade still glimmers with some heroism when he overrides his passion to deliver Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the law. He’s not “likable” or “relatable,” but, pragmatically, he manages to do the right thing.

With Dracula, Bram Stoker—maybe without meaning to—turns heroic ideology completely on its head. Count Dracula is a romantic nihilist, barren of even a single redeeming moral feature. He doesn’t even qualify as an “anti-hero,” at least in my understanding of the word. He never invites sympathy. Even the “look of peace” that rises in his face before he sinks to dust, seems an uncertain, tacked-on gesture. The book has not done one thing to prepare us for it. This includes the Count’s remark, during Harker’s memorable encounter with his wives in Chapter 3: “Yes, I too can love” comes across as a shudder-inducing homo-erotic teasing, not an expression of humane sentiment.

Dracula’s attitude toward morality and humanity is as black as deep space, blacker than his sleep: “[Y]our peasant is at heart a coward and fool!” he claims with icy grandiosity. He’s ruthless, immoral, self-seeking and a hundred other synonymous adjectives from Roget’s. Humanity’s blood flows coldly through his veins.

And so my shadow, the place where it's always sunset and midnight and the moon always shines while wolfbane blooms, alights upon the dark earth and dances.

Dracula is, perversely, is the one we root for, the one we’ve always rooted for. How could we not? There is a perverse, anarchic joy about him: the capering of a man free and happy with himself, who savors his Eternal Stay in this Life. As with the purest sociopath, he’s a monster because his awful powers permit it. His real-life counterparts may be found in such figures as Hitler and bin laden.

Unlike real-life monsters though, Dracula is so much fun, this fiend who can shape shift into other animals, make himself invisible, turn himself into smoke and shadow and rides on beams of moonlight; he who commands the creatures of the night and lives free and above our grimy struggles, petty pains and deep loneliness. No matter how base and evil, this magician of flesh and soul, of matter and mind, enchants, a God turned morally inside out.

How does this happen, especially in a work intended to be popular, to soothe and entertain? One easy answer might be Stoker’s clumsy hand with his heroes. Dracula looks so good because the good guys—the ones we’re supposed to root for—are so dull.

So, perhaps, Bram Stoker simply wasn’t interested in his heroes. He put them in his narrative because he had to put someone—keeping with this book’s morally perverse tone, call them antagonists—in conflict with the real hero of the story.

This still leaves the question: Why Dracula the hero? The answer may well lie in Stoker’s thirty-year association with the greatest actor of the Victorian Era—Sir Henry Irving, a titan of his era.

Henry Irving was an extraordinary man. The first actor ever to be knighted by the Queen, he was both enormously popular and controversial and, not surprisingly, domineering and self-centered to a fault. As one story goes, he walked out on his wife for good from their horse-drawn carriage after she needled him about his future as an actor. He never spoke to her again, or, for many years, to their two children.

Stoker and Irving met in 1877, after Stoker, a theater critic at the time, extravagantly praised Irving’s performance in Hamlet. Stoker fell under the spell of Irving’s dynamism and hired on as the energetic, hard-working manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theater. Once Irving fastened on Stoker, there was no letting go.

Most sources—especially Barbara Belford’s book Bram Stoker and the Man Who was Dracula—say that Stoker (along with many others) worshipped Henry Irving. Working for Irving was no walk-on part, involving long, draining hours, exact attention to detail and catering to a boss known for imperiousness, extravagance, and recklessness. It was said that more than anyone, it was jovial, diligent Bram Stoker who kept Henry Irving’s Lyceum from going under until Irving’s death in 1905 (touchingly described in Bedford’s book—he left this life like a trouper!).

As much as Stoker adored Irving, however, keeping after this thundering whirlwind was a chore. It’s not too hard to imagine deep undercurrents of resentment and a certain moral tension welling to the surface. Given the hold Irving seems to have had over Stoker’s mind, it’s not surprising that a loyal employee might build up an unconscious store of resentment: “Can’t kill my boss . . . but I can portray him as a monster!” From there, rose the central figure and hero of Stoker’s most lasting contribution, a magical fusion of love and loathing, a unique palimpsest of the darkest corner of the human spirit.

(Re-edited 6/7/11)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.