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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
John Marks, Fangland 
27th-Jun-2008 09:34 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
Okay, yes, I am a nut for retellings and/or reimaginings of stories, so it's not surprising that I liked Fangland quite a bit.

The following discussion is intensely spoilery, to the point that it will probably only make sense if you've already read Fangland. The short, book-review version is that I liked this book a lot, although I think it has some problems. It will be most rewarding for people who have read Dracula, but it has things to say of its own.

I particularly liked the games it played with its source material (which are located mostly in the first section). To begin with, Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray are collapsed into one character, Evangeline Harker, which honestly makes a good deal more sense of Dracula's deep structure. Evangeline is both the unfortunate traveler in Transylvania and the protagonist who struggles with vampirism for the rest of the novel. The "brides of Dracula" who nearly kill Jonathan Harker become Greek brothers (a neat little gender reversal that parallels the gender reversal of Evangeline's relationship with her fiancé Robert). Mostly, for reasons that I'll talk about more in a moment, Marks doesn't play gender games, but the Vourkulakis brothers are a really charming cookie for Dracula readers.

And, of course, "charming" is utterly the wrong word for them. I'll also get back to that in a moment.

The conceit of Fangland is to translate Dracula's fin-de-siècle landed gentry/madhouse milieu into the offices of a television show called The Hour (semi-affectionately known as Fangland to those who work for it), which is a transparent roman-a-clef of 60 Minutes, for which Marks worked. I actually wish he'd done more with it; for me, the setting never quite took that one step forward it needed to become a character. But he uses the paranoia of that particular hothouse environment beautifully, and I like very much the games he plays with vampires and technology and what Ion Torgu (his Dracula, although Torgu is grossly offended when characters compare him to his illustrious literary forebear) can and cannot do. Renfield becomes a wannabe artiste named Stimson Beevers (who shares a last name with that other magnificent monster of mediocrity, Harry Beevers in Peter Straub's Koko--I've no idea if that's intentional, but if it is, it's nifty) who communicates with his master via email. Van Helsing, I think, is split. The person with information, the person who can explain and guide and warn, is Clementine Spence, a missionary (or "change agent," as her ex-husband preferred they call themselves) with an organization called World Ministries Central--and it looks, briefly, like the novel will become a secret-society-against-the-vampires story, but then Clemmie fails. Van Helsing's other half, the paternalistic older man with authority, becomes an aged Jewish news correspondent named Austen Trotta--Torgu unearths and insists on using the "von" that Trotta has dropped from his name. And my favorite thing about Trotta is that, as Van Helsing, he is an abject failure. He fails to protect; he fails to listen; he fails to rally the other characters around his banner. At the end, he even fails to believe. It's a very clever trick, and it gets right to the heart of the way we're programmed to read stories. Every time it looked like Trotta was getting on board, I'd feel this surge of hope and optimism, and every time, things would fall apart again.

I don't know if the other FVH (Fearless Vampire Hunters) can be mapped onto Godalming and Seward and Stoker's terrible parody American, Quincey P. Morris, and I don't think it matters. What matters is the Harker-Dracula-Van Helsing triangle and the way in which Marks's conception of vampires changes all the axes.

It's no accident that our main protagonist's first name is Evangeline--clue one is her encounter with Clementine Spence, a missionary, clue two is the evangelistic nature of Torgu's project. He has a message, and his driving passion is to get people to hear it. Marks's vampirism is actually less about the drinking of blood--although that's a part of it--than it is about the inhumanity of human beings to other human beings. Torgu's message is a list of all the places where atrocities have been committed, and this list infects everyone who hears it. At The Hour, they assume it's a software virus, and it can transmit itself like one, but it's the people who are affected, not the machines. As Evangeline's vampirism develops, she becomes able to hear the murdered dead. She knows where they were buried, how and why they were murdered. The vampire, says Marks, is the distilled essence of two million years of murder. The fact that The Hour's offices are in a building next to where the World Trade Center used to stand gains more and more resonance as the story goes on.

And, yes, Evangline is infected with vampirism, and, no, it doesn't work like Stoker. Evangeline's vampirism is not pretty or Victorian or restrained. She murders Clementine Spence, who has been her lover. She dominates and brutalizes her fiancé. She becomes a monster. And she very very nearly fails to defeat Torgu instead of merely becoming the next Torgu. Evangeline isn't a sympathetic character to begin with--she's spoiled and self-absorbed and intensely preoccupied with the image she presents to others--and I wouldn't say she becomes more sympathetic as she becomes a murderer and a predator and a conduit of violence, but Marks puts her through the crucible and she comes out reforged into a person who at least understands her own failure to be human.

The other important reworking of Stoker's vampires is the polar reversal around sexuality. Vampires in Dracula are intensely, illicitly sexual, but Torgu is actually almost allergic to sex; Evangeline defeats him the first time by using her sexuality against him. On the other hand, sex doesn't seem to be a positive force in and of itself--Evangeline's love affair with Clemmie doesn't prevent her (E) from murdering her (C). Evangeline's relationship with Robert seems constructed of sexual dysfunction, first as she rejects a costume he bought in Amsterdam--which so offends her Victorian sensibilities that she won't even describe it (it's not clear what Robert's motives are, but as a sexual overture it is an abject failure)--and then, after they've both been attacked by Torgu and their gender roles have reversed, his rejection of her . . . and what happens after that is a little difficult to determine, but I think it's not unfair to call it rape, with Evangeline as the aggressor. I'm not quite sure how to parse Marks's take on sexuality, since (a.) there are no positive examples, and (b.) Evangeline's use of her sexuality to defeat Torgu succeeds, but it seems also to be what makes her become a vampire herself. This may be simply the truth that you can't defeat a monster without becoming a monster, but I also think that the novel sees sex as a destructive force. Insofar as there are "good" relationships in the book, they are all nonsexual: Julia Barnes' love for her children, Evangeline's love for her friend Ian, Trotta's affection for Evangeline. Once sex enters the picture, it all goes south; it doesn't save you (no magical healing through sex here--sex just makes things worse for Evangeline and Robert), and it makes you vulnerable: Stimson Beevers initially lets Torgu in (metaphorically, and then literally) because of his infatuation with Evangeline.

Vampires in Marks's world are not attractive, not physically--their teeth aren't fangs, they're little rotted nubs--and not charismatically. They are brutal predators, and they are effective because they drag out the predator, or the prey, in each of us. Trotta, a Jew, repeatedly finds himself imagining himself as a Nazi murdering Jews; Sam Dambles, The Hour's only black correspondent, finds himself helping in his own lynching. And what Evangeline is becoming--her dead friend Ian (who may be a ghost or a visitor from an alternate reality or a mirage) tells her, "You're what they used to call a goddess, in the scariest sense"--is sexually charged, but still a force of darkness and murder. Kali. Medusa. Becoming more than human means becoming less than human; evil is defeated not by the triumph of the good and pure at heart but by a weird combination of an equal evil and simple human error. This is a much less optimistic book than Dracula.

Which leads me to the place where I think the flaws creep in, which is the frame narrative and the structure. Our frame narrator, who put together the documents of Fangland, is a vice-president of The Hour's parent network, whom--we discover fairly late in the book--once had an affair with Evangeline Harker which led to her getting the job at The Hour that sent her to Transylvania in the first place. We are given to understand that once he completed assembly of the novel (and after one last visit from Evangeline), this vice-president committed suicide. And while you can make this frame structure make sense, doing so takes more energy and attention than the novel itself seems to budget for. We're given no reason to care about John O'Malley, either as protagonist or antagonist or simple victim, and the intrusions of the omniscient narrator into the story of the novel are either too few or too many. Stoker makes no effort at a frame, though he goes to elaborate and ridiculous lengths to get his "exactly contemporary" records; Marks has O'Malley step forward into the narrative at some points (the description of a "normal day" at The Hour, some other bits of bridging material), but at other points, where O'Malley should be obtrusive, he isn't. In particular, the third person limited narrative of Julia Barnes is inexplicable under the rubric Marks has chosen. We don't know where O'Malley could possibly be getting this information from. And the feebleness of the frame device becomes transparent at the end, when O'Malley announces that Evangeline's testimony is the result of a "final conversation" between the two of them. In other words, if you're going to use a meta framing device, you have to own the ridiculousness of it; half-measures result, as half-measures usually do, in a muddle. And I think this ambivalence in O'Malley's position may be the reason for what I find to be the book's most pervasive flaw, which is the persistent sense of detachment from its main characters.

Now, it is also the case that, as this is a work of contemporary fiction, this detachment may be perceived by the author, and by many readers, as a feature rather than a bug. But I don't find it so, and if we treat it as a flaw, I think the problem lies in O'Malley, who is obtrusive enough to distance us from the characters within his narrative--particularly Julia Barnes and Sally Benchborn, who never get to speak for themselves--but not obtrusive enough to become a character in his own right.

On the whole, however, this was an interesting and entertaining read, and I love it particularly for its insistence that vampires are not sexy. They are not romantic. They are not grand. They are the anthropomorphic personifications of the propensity of human beings to murder and torture and degrade each other. There is not, and should not be, anything attractive about them, and Fangland understands that.
27th-Jun-2008 06:14 pm (UTC)
Yee! Oh, I'm really glad you thought it was a think-able as I thought it was! :)

[:: bounce bounce ::]
27th-Jun-2008 08:00 pm (UTC)
Oh yes. And I have that nagging feeling that I probably missed a lot of stuff, too.
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