Friday, July 30, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Creating realism through the problem of other minds

I've already mentioned how impressed I am with Stoker's use of detail in Dracula. His landscapes are truly stunning and immersive. Because Stoker is committed to making us feel present in his heightened reality, in which vampires roam both Transylvania and England, he provides a wealth of details that are both realistic for those places, and also "off." As it turns out, the stranger your tale, the more detail you actually need to make it believable.

In the same vein (ha!) Mina's attention to detail is one reason we trust her, and also, I think, believe in her as a character. She seems to have a complex mind, so much so that she threatens to go beyond the boundaries Stoker has set for her. In fact, maybe it's that threat that convinces us a character is "real"--you sense him or her straining against the prison of the medium. Still, Mina ought to have a little more room to begin with.

The other characters, especially the men, don't make it out of their cardboard boxes, in my opinion. Stoker spends a little too much time insisting on their bravery and goodness, as reported by other characters.* Their primary role is to coalesce into a collective force of good, fighting the singular but multifaceted evil that is Dracula.

Still, there is considerable complexity to their thoughts, if not to their emotions. Defeating Dracula is not just a matter of physical bravery--he must be outsmarted, and he is really smart. We get a sense of the kind of mental agility that's required in Dr. Seward's encounter with the madman Renfield, who is...well, let's just say he's a minion. So far he's mostly just been eating bugs and birds, and it's not yet clear how this is preparing him for his role in Dracula's scheme. But he is up to something:

I found Renfield sitting placidly in his room with his hands folded, smiling benignly. At the moment he seemed as sane as any one I ever saw. I sat down and talked with him on a lot of subjects, all of which he treated naturally. He then, of his own accord, spoke of going home, a subject he has never mentioned to my knowledge during his sojourn here. In fact, he spoke quite confidently of getting his discharge at once. I believe that, had I not had the chat with Harker and read the letters and the dates of his outbursts, I should have been prepared to sign for him after a brief time of observation. As it is, I am darkly suspicious. All those out-breaks were in some way linked with the proximity of the Count. What then does this absolute content mean? Can it be that his instinct is satisfied as to the vampire's ultimate triumph? Stay. He is himself zoophagous, and in his wild ravings outside the chapel door of the deserted house he always spoke of 'master'. This all seems confirmation of our idea. However, after a while I came away. My friend is just a little too sane at present to make it safe to probe him too deep with questions. He might begin to think, and then… So I came away. I mistrust these quiet moods of his, so I have given the attendant a hint to look closely after him, and to have a strait waistcoat ready in case of need.

What's interesting here is the complexity involved in trying to keep pace with Renfield's state of mind. Seward recognizes he is "too sane" to be probed "too deep"--because then he will figure out what Seward is up to. I don't know about you, but this scene reminds me of Jane Austen. You know, all the minute parsing of what so-and-so meant when he said such-and-such, and how maybe one should employ this strategy in order to elicit that reaction...These characters are not as nuanced as Austen's (although they are not that far off, the more I think about it), but all these layers of conjecture ultimately stem from a similar source: we cannot know other minds. At the same time, Seward's conjectures imply that both Renfield and he have minds--say what you will about the condition of Renfield's--and Seward struggles with the same fundamental problem real humans have: knowing for sure what others are thinking and feeling.

In other words, real humans spend a great deal of effort trying to fathom other humans' minds, and failing at it. Depicting your characters engaged in such a task, revealing both the nuances and the ultimate impossibility of the effort, is a good way of making them, or at least your story, more palpably realistic.

*This is especially the case with Jonathan. The characters keep insisting on how brave and unusually smart he is. For me, this protesting-too-much only proves that Francis Ford Coppola was right to choose Keanu Reeves for the role.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chipping away at the meat monolith in the sky

I upgraded to first class on my flight back to Cleveland late last night--which I really, really needed to do. So the following transcribed conversation is not exactly a complaint. It is merely a report.

Flight Attendant: Would you like a snack?
Me: Sure. What is it?
FA: Cheese, crackers, and fruit.
Me: Is there meat?
FA: Yes.
Me: No, thanks, then. I don't eat meat.
FA: Are you a toucher?
Me: What?
FA: Some people are OK as long as the meat is not touching the other food.
Me: Never mind. No snack, thanks.
FA: How about just the fruit?
Me: OK.

So I ended up with a small fruit plate, cookies, crackers, and--for some reason--a packet of ranch dressing. It could have been worse.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Idea for a novel: The New Lucy Westenra

This week in Dracula, we are forced to rescind some of the feminist props we gave Stoker for his depiction of Mina Harker. I'm not up for an exhaustive analysis, as usual, so I'll just opine here that the man was ambivalent about what Mina calls the New Woman. With Lucy's transformation into a vampire (a new woman indeed), Stoker outlines his concerns about the prospect, i.e. previously docile and manageable females will run amok, start making the first move on their husbands, and prefer to feed on children rather than having it the other way around.

Here the ad-hoc band of vampire hunters, led by Van Helsing, encounters the New Lucy:

There was a long spell of silence, big, aching, void, and then from the Professor a keen "S-s-s-s!" He pointed, and far down the avenue of yews we saw a white figure advance, a dim white figure, which held something dark at its breast. The figure stopped, and at the moment a ray of moonlight fell upon the masses of driving clouds, and showed in startling prominence a dark-haired woman, dressed in the cerements of the grave. We could not see the face, for it was bent down over what we saw to be a fair-haired child. There was a pause and a sharp little cry, such as a child gives in sleep, or a dog as it lies before the fire and dreams. We were starting forward, but the Professor's warning hand, seen by us as he stood behind a yew tree, kept us back. And then as we looked the white figure moved forwards again. It was now near enough for us to see clearly, and the moonlight still held. My own heart grew cold as ice, and I could hear the gasp of Arthur, as we recognized the features of Lucy Westenra. Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed. The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.

Van Helsing stepped out, and obedient to his gesture, we all advanced too. The four of us ranged in a line before the door of the tomb. Van Helsing raised his lantern and drew the slide. By the concentrated light that fell on Lucy's face we could see that the lips were crimson with fresh blood, and that the stream had trickled over her chin and stained the purity of her lawn death-robe.

We shuddered with horror. I could see by the tremulous light that even Van Helsing's iron nerve had failed. Arthur was next to me, and if I had not seized his arm and held him up, he would have fallen.

When Lucy, I call the thing that was before us Lucy because it bore her shape, saw us she drew back with an angry snarl, such as a cat gives when taken unawares, then her eyes ranged over us. Lucy's eyes in form and colour, but Lucy's eyes unclean and full of hell fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew. At that moment the remnant of my love passed into hate and loathing. Had she then to be killed, I could have done it with savage delight. As she looked, her eyes blazed with unholy light, and the face became wreathed with a voluptuous smile. Oh, God, how it made me shudder to see it! With a careless motion, she flung to the ground, callous as a devil, the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast, growling over it as a dog growls over a bone. The child gave a sharp cry, and lay there moaning. There was a cold-bloodedness in the act which wrung a groan from Arthur. When she advanced to him with outstretched arms and a wanton smile he fell back and hid his face in his hands.

She still advanced, however, and with a languorous, voluptuous grace, said, "Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!"

Not too subtle, is Stoker. Purity ---> Voluptuous wantonness. Maternal instinct ---> Callousness. And those hungry arms! This thing must be staked and beheaded asap, or there's no telling how far the infection will spread! Womanhood as we know it will be destroyed, as women start expressing...their own desires. Is Dracula evil because he unleashes those desires? Is he spreading the plague of feminism throughout Britain?

Mina's been given a heroic afterlife, at least in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So I propose a similar retelling of Lucy's life--before, during, or after Dracula gets her. This retelling might show she wasn't quite as pure as everyone thought, and/or she rather likes the changes that the count wrought. A quick, probably inconclusive Google search shows this hasn't been done yet. Or not done famously, at any rate.

Because I'm off on another ghoulish tangent with my murder novel, I may not get to this for awhile. So I'll throw the idea out there, and if you write the story before me--well, best of luck with it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

King, Kubrick, and The Shining

Because I'm always fascinated by what Stephen King has to say about writing--especially in his novels--I'll pass along this nice bit of film criticism by James Parker from the Atlantic. Basically King didn't like Kubrick's version of The Shining. In this analysis of one scene, Parker lays out why:

Parker's comments on the opening credit sequence are also interesting. Kind of makes me want to watch the film. I don't think I ever made it through the whole thing; and I am likely still too much of a wuss.

Borrowed Fire: How (not) to depict an expert

We have now reached the part of Dracula where Van Helsing, the "great specialist," is introduced, bringing with him what we might call the problem of the expert. This is more of an issue in stories that emphasize plot over character. Simply put, once you bring in the expert, the story is at great risk of slamming to a halt, because the expert, if he really is one, is highly likely to solve the story's main problem. On the other hand, we don't want to see non-experts (or just plain dumb people) floundering for three hundred pages, either. So the solution seems to be, bring in the expert, but put plausible obstacles in his path, so that he's thwarted time and again without losing credibility as an expert.

I'd say Stoker struggles with this in the case of Van Helsing. One problem is that the readers know what's happening to Lucy--i.e. she's having the mortal life drained out of her night after night by the Count--but the other characters don't. This makes for a certain type of suspense, but also necessitates some rather unbelievable choices. For instance, Jonathan, recovering in Budapest from his ordeal in the Castle Dracula, hands his quite informative diary over to Mina, but tells her he never wants to read it again, and she agrees never to read it except in the most dire circumstances. He wants to put the horrors all behind him, see. Meanwhile the nuns taking care of him know darn well what's happened, but they won't speak of it because it's unholy.

And Van Helsing, while implementing various temporarily effective treatments against vampire visits, tells no one of his suspicions--ostensibly because he wants to be sure, before he makes such an extraordinary claim. But this leads him to not sufficiently explain the importance of various measures--namely Don't Open the Windows and Don't Take off the Garlic Necklace for God's Sake--to the other characters, including Lucy herself. Also, conveniently, Lucy's mother has a fatal heart condition, which means she can't be told anything, lest she risk dying of shock. Which, spoiler, she does anyway. And Lucy's fiance's father is sick also, so he has to be away and can't help out much. Etc.

Van Helsing also has a way of being in Antwerp, or asleep in a chair, when he is most needed. But is he just being pushed out of the way by Stoker in these cases to make way for the plot? Or is there something about Van Helsing himself that makes him a flawed expert--and perhaps a more realistic character in the bargain? We are given to understand that Van Helsing has a sly sense of humor and a big personality. Also he's foreign, so he talks funny.

How appealing these features actually are, is another question:

Found Van Helsing in excellent spirits, and Lucy much better. Shortly after I had arrived, a big parcel from abroad came for the Professor. He opened it with much impressment, assumed, of course, and showed a great bundle of white flowers.

"These are for you, Miss Lucy," he said.

"For me? Oh, Dr. Van Helsing!"

"Yes, my dear, but not for you to play with. These are medicines." Here Lucy made a wry face. "Nay, but they are not to take in a decoction or in nauseous form, so you need not snub that so charming nose, or I shall point out to my friend Arthur what woes he may have to endure in seeing so much beauty that he so loves so much distort. Aha, my pretty miss, that bring the so nice nose all straight again. This is medicinal, but you do not know how. I put him in your window, I make pretty wreath, and hang him round your neck, so you sleep well. Oh, yes! They, like the lotus flower, make your trouble forgotten. It smell so like the waters of Lethe, and of that fountain of youth that the Conquistadores sought for in the Floridas, and find him all too late."

"Not for you to play with?" "You need not snub that so charming nose?" Oh, ICK. I know all the other characters treat Lucy like a child, and that is meant to indicate both their kindness and her irresistible womanly innocence. But Van Helsing's supposedly erudite babbling, combined with this condescension and the weird attempt at having an accent, just does not inspire confidence.

The scene above goes on:

Whilst he was speaking, Lucy had been examining the flowers and smelling them. Now she threw them down saying, with half laughter, and half disgust,

"Oh, Professor, I believe you are only putting up a joke on me. Why, these flowers are only common garlic."

To my surprise, Van Helsing rose up and said with all his sternness, his iron jaw set and his bushy eyebrows meeting,

"No trifling with me! I never jest! There is grim purpose in what I do, and I warn you that you do not thwart me. Take care, for the sake of others if not for your own." Then seeing poor Lucy scared, as she might well be, he went on more gently, "Oh, little miss, my dear, do not fear me. I only do for your good, but there is much virtue to you in those so common flowers. See, I place them myself in your room. I make myself the wreath that you are to wear. But hush! No telling to others that make so inquisitive questions. We must obey, and silence is a part of obedience, and obedience is to bring you strong and well into loving arms that wait for you. Now sit still a while..."

I think we are to take this sudden flare-up of temper, add it to the general loopiness of speech and affect, and be convinced that Van Helsing is eccentric, and therefore a genius. His frequent lapses in the early going are meant to be products of circumstance, not results of his own failings.

But what if the reverse were true? What if he is a self-defeating genius, one who secretly has a fear of success and so undermines his own efforts with trips to Antwerp? What if, deep down, he admires the Count and wants to be a vampire himself--so that his tormented subconscious causes him to carry out the Count's wishes even as he seems to be fighting him?

As I say, I'm pretty sure this is not what Stoker is up to. He's just not that much for characterization, even though I think there's more to his characters than other books of this ilk tend to offer. But for those of us who want to bring experts into our own fiction--without wrecking either the story or the belief in the character's competence--the self-defeating expert could be an option.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How to be generous to your characters

It's not a new idea that Mina is the hero of Dracula. For example, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, she gets transformed into a Victorian super-spy.

She also has her own Wikipedia page, which tells us that "[l]ike her friend Lucy, Mina is highly idealized: she is described by Stoker as a pure, angelic wife and (symbolic) mother." Well, sorta. Yes, she is utterly dedicated to Jonathan, and learns shorthand so she can help him with his profession as a solicitor. She makes jokes about the "New Woman," suggesting she does not harbor unseemly aspirations beyond being the helpmeet. On the other hand, she is exceedingly smart and resourceful. She is level-headed, unlike the more flighty Lucy, whom Mina keeps having to rescue from her sleepwalking excursions. If the women are idealized, they're idealized in completely different ways: Lucy is the beautiful, trusting, helpless victim. Mina takes charge. It may be that Stoker will keep her within the acceptable boundaries of female behavior, possibly through the offices of the novel's title character; but she's going to put up a struggle.

I think it's significant that Stoker gives a good portion of the story to Mina to narrate. And to do so, he gives her his own considerable powers of observation and description. For example, Mina writes:

There were very few people about, and though the sun was bright, and the air clear and fresh, the big, grim-looking waves, that seemed dark themselves because the foam that topped them was like snow, forced themselves in through the mouth of the harbour, like a bullying man going through a crowd.

Good, huh? Stoker lets this character, who might easily be cast as a victim, be as smart as he is. This is an act of generosity and respect. It also proves extremely useful, since he needs her to tell his story as precisely and believably as possible.

Mina deploys her powers again to excellent effect a few pages later, after rescuing Lucy from atop their favorite seat in the churchyard, where "something" with "a white face and red, gleaming eyes" is bending over her. Mina wraps a shawl around Lucy and attempts to fasten it with a safety pin. The next day, she writes in her journal:

The adventure of the night does not seem to have harmed her, on the contrary, it has benefited her, for she looks better this morning than she has done for weeks. I was sorry to notice that my clumsiness with the safety-pin hurt her. Indeed, it might have been serious, for the skin of her throat was pierced. I must have pinched up a piece of loose skin and have transfixed it, for there are two little red points like pin-pricks, and on the band of her nightdress was a drop of blood. When I apologised and was concerned about it, she laughed and petted me, and said she did not even feel it. Fortunately it cannot leave a scar, as it is so tiny.

For suspense to build, we need the point of view of someone astute enough to closely observe what's going on and describe it accurately. At the same time, she must be plausibly deceived, so that the truth can be revealed over time--and so the unfortunate Lucy can get in more trouble. Mina's attentiveness to the safety pin shows a highly alert, sensitive character making a reasonable mistake. It's true that she gives less thought than might be expected, at least initially, to the red-eyed figure she saw bending over Lucy in the churchyard. But I am willing to forgive Stoker this possible lapse, because of how precisely observed this safety-pin business is. I have done some of Stoker's work for him: I've told myself that Mina's so relieved that she hasn't hurt Lucy that she "forgot" everything else. An author can earn that effort from a reader by creating characters that he himself clearly respects. He's generous in the gifts he gives them, so we want to do the same.

Still, you can maybe pull this off once in a novel. You can't rely on smart characters to get you through your implausible plot points. Stoker can't manage the same trick when other characters, namely Lucy's mother and Van Helsing, get involved. Maybe because Mina's so savvy, he needs these other characters to do something really foolish so that Lucy can be properly victimized. Left to Mina, she'd have been out of danger long ago.