Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Show, don't tell, for God's sake, Bram

Yes, it has been a great many days since we last checked in on Dracula and the valiant attempt to finish him off. I speak of the book's heroes' attempt, not my own. My efforts have been less than valiant. It's true that I have been unusually absorbed in trying to get my novel finally, finally out the freaking electronic door (nearly there! so close!). But it is also true that as I look at the battered paperback waiting for me on the coffee table, I see not a classic of Victorian literature, but a football-sized field of wet concrete, on the other side of which is...more wet concrete.

This should be the most thrilling part of the entire novel--the pursuit of the arch-villain back to his homeland--but there is just. too. damn. much. blabbing. There's interesting stuff going on, including Mina and the Count's psychic connection, which turns her into a sort of broken office intercom that allows the evil boss to eavesdrop on his rebellious employees. But every time the momentum picks up just a tad, we are treated to paragraphs like this:

"What does this tell us? Not much? No! The Count's child thought see nothing, therefore he speak so free. Your man thought see nothing. My man thought see nothing, till just now. No! But there comes another word from some one who speak without thought because she, too, know not what it mean, what it might mean. Just as there are elements which rest, yet when in nature's course they move on their way and they touch, the pouf! And there comes a flash of light, heaven wide, that blind and kill and destroy some. But that show up all earth below for leagues and leagues. Is it not so? Well, I shall explain. To begin, have you ever study the philosophy of crime? 'Yes' and 'No.' You, John, yes, for it is a study of insanity. You, no, Madam Mina, for crime touch you not, not but once. Still, your mind works true, and argues not a particulari ad universale. There is this peculiarity in criminals. It is so constant, in all countries and at all times, that even police, who know not much from philosophy, come to know it empirically, that it is. That is to be empiric. The criminal always work at one crime, that is the true criminal who seems predestinate to crime, and who will of none other. This criminal has not full man brain. He is clever and cunning and resourceful, but he be not of man stature as to brain. He be of child brain in much. Now this criminal of ours is predestinate to crime also. He, too, have child brain, and it is of the child to do what he have done. The little bird, the little fish, the little animal learn not by principle, but empirically. And when he learn to do, then there is to him the ground to start from to do more. 'Dos pou sto,' said Archimedes. 'Give me a fulcrum, and I shall move the world!' To do once, is the fulcrum whereby child brain become man brain. And until he have the purpose to do more, he continue to do the same again every time, just as he have done before! Oh, my dear, I see that your eyes are opened, and that to you the lightning flash show all the leagues," for Mrs. Harker began to clap her hands and her eyes sparkled.

First, and least of all: if you are going to do info dumps like this, please, please, not to do them in the voice of a guy whose command of the language is imperfect, and who nevertheless (Newt Gingrich-like) enjoys quoting from The Ancient Sages and The Latest Sciences to reveal his own amazing learnedness!

But why is this happening in the first place? Of course Stoker's was less of a show-don't-tell age than our own. Not bombarded by glowing, rapidly moving images every second of their lives, his audience most likely had both the patience and desire to slog through...I mean, peruse lengthy accounts of esoteric subjects. It is also likely that the desire for such information was stronger in them, certainly on the topic of vampires, which were not nearly as familiar a subject as they are to us. Insights not only into vampire lore, but into the makings of this particularly dangerous example of the type, were probably welcomed rather than skimmed.

However, this raises the more general problem I have with lots of genre literature: the overemphasis on world-building. Many people (Tom Clancy fans, say) love genre fiction precisely for the information it delivers about unfamiliar places, procedures, and times. Ultimately, reading such novels, for these readers, is just a more fun way of learning than studying a technical manual. Nothing wrong with that; I'd just rather learn the stuff by watching characters interact with these worlds. And I don't think much would have been lost had all this information been shown to us through the course of Dracula's misadventures in England and on the high seas.

And that's the other key issue. We have multiple points of view in this novel, but never Dracula's. I get the reasoning: he must be mysterious and therefore opaque. We also must not be tempted to sympathize with him in any way, although Mina herself, at one point, suggests that any decent Christian ought to try. (If what Van Helsing says is true, he really must be suffering something awful.) BUT. An inventive author could certainly present Dracula's point of view without demystifying him--in fact, one could make him far more mysterious that Van H's dry treatises (which he even admits are dry) turn out to be. Our sympathies with him, if invoked, could make the story even more disturbing.

The fact is, we don't quite see enough of Dracula. Yes, he has to be shadowy, and a little of him goes a long way.* But thus far we have really had too little, apart from his very entertaining scenes in the beginning. (Remember climbing down the castle wall headfirst, dressed as Jonathan?) He has become less of a being than a scholarly project of Van Helsing's--and Van Helsing clearly does not possess the gift of bringing the subjects of his inquiries to life.

Nevertheless, I press on...

*In the course of writing my novel, I have also learned that this is true of Bigfoot. I now no longer tell people my novel is "about" Bigfoot. However, he is a significant minor character.


Volly said...

Don't forget... Prof. Van Helsing was rumoured to have imbibed a considerable amount of absinthe. This probably accounts for the incoherent verbosity.

Ann said...

That's hilarious...I didn't realize that. Thanks!