A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer Page-Turners (and Some Aren't)

The following review appeared today in the Dallas Morning News:

THE GARGOYLE

By Andrew Davidson

Doubleday, 480 pp., $25.95

“The Gargoyle” is a tricked-out romance about a man who was severely burned when his car went off a cliff and a woman who sculpts grotesque statues and may be schizophrenic. But wait, there more. Before he was disfigured, the man was a devastatingly handsome porn star and a coke-head. And the woman claims that she’s 700 years old and that she and the man were lovers back in the 14th century, when she was a nun and he was a mercenary soldier. You don’t get hookups like that on Match.com.

By now you may have decided whether this novel sounds like it’s for you, and you’re probably right. If you’re interested in spending almost 500 pages deciding if he was and if she isn’t, then “The Gargoyle” will keep you happily turning pages for several summer days. And if you aren’t, then you’ve been warned.

This is the first novel by Andrew Davidson, a Canadian writer in his 30s who says in an interview supplied with the review copy, “I have a list of things that I want to do before I die: become a published novelist was on that list. The list remains long.” He also reveals that at successive stages in his earlier life, he “wrote a great many mediocre” poems, plays and screenplays.

“The Gargoyle” isn’t mediocre, thanks to Davidson’s solid research into the effects and the treatment of burns. The first part of the novel contains harrowingly convincing descriptions of what the novel’s anonymous narrator underwent during the accident and his recovery. They give the novel a grounding in reality that it seriously needs.

Davidson also knows how to tell a story, how to withhold and reveal details at the right time. As the narrator recovers, the woman – who calls herself Marianne Engel, her surname being the German word for “angel” -- tells him engaging old tales of true love, and gradually unfolds the story of the relationship she claims they had in their earlier life together.

But Davidson also has the novice fiction writer’s inability to self-edit, to toss out both the needlessly clever and the tiresomely familiar. As the narrator grows more and more dependent on morphine to help him through recovery, he imagines that his spine has been replaced by a demonic serpent: “The sibilant sermons of the snake as she discoursed upon the disposition of my sinner’s soul seemed ceaseless,” he writes, summoning up a silly, self-conscious hiss. At other times, even such dubious cleverness eludes him, as when the narrator tells us at a moment of crisis that “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” reminding us that weary writers resort to dried-up catchphrases.

And in the end, the narrator and Marianne never become much more than puppets in Davidson’s pageant of Love and Redemption. They are sometimes provocatively imagined, but they’re not such fully living characters that we put much emotional stock into what direction their relationship takes. They’re only ideas, and not terribly original ones at that.


The Gargoyle reminded me of another much-hyped debut novel of a few years ago, which I reviewed at the time for the Mercury News:

THE HISTORIAN

By Elizabeth Kostova

Back Bay, 642 pp.


If you've never read ''Dracula,'' that great, clumsy novel by Bram Stoker, you really should go do it. And don't think because you've seen any number of film versions of the story that you've really gotten at its creepy essence.

The vampire legend reaches back to antiquity, but because it's really about our fear of and fascination with sex, it seems to crop up most in times of repression or anxiety. That may be why it got its definitive treatment from Stoker at the end of the Victorian era. And why the age of AIDS has seen a charnel-houseful of cold-blooded but hot vampires. Think of Lestat and his cohorts in Anne Rice's novels, and the broody dudes Angel and Spike and the femmes très fatales Darla and Drusilla on ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer.''

''Buffy'' put a feminist spin on the vampire story, which in Stoker's hands had been about imperiled virgins and their doughty male defenders. And now Elizabeth Kostova gives us another intrepid heroine, less hip than Buffy but no less determined to stake her claim as an eradicator of evil.

Kostova's heroine, who remains unnamed throughout the book, is a historian at Oxford University. Thirty years ago, when she was 16, she discovered a strange old book in her father's library. All the pages were blank except the ones in the center, which showed an image of a dragon bearing in its claws a banner with the word ''Drakulya.'' Her father, whose name is Paul, tells her that when he was a graduate student, the book mysteriously showed up one night in his library carrel. It spurred him to research the historical Dracula (the name comes from the Romanian for ''dragon''), Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century Walachian feudal lord with an unsavory reputation for torturing his serfs and impaling his enemies alive on stakes.

When Paul showed the book to one of his professors, Bartholomew Rossi, he learned that Rossi possessed a similar book, and had tried to trace its origins. What Rossi learned convinced him that ''Dracula -- Vlad Tepes -- is still alive.'' A few days after telling Paul this, Rossi disappeared, leaving traces of blood in his office.

So Paul began a quest to find out what happened to Rossi, which led him to an encounter with a woman named Helen Rossi, who claimed to be the professor's unacknowledged daughter. And she joined forces with Paul in the search for Rossi.

The narrator is fascinated, not least because her mother, whom she never knew, was named Helen: ''I did not dare repeat the name aloud . . . she was a topic my father never discussed.'' But before she can hear the rest of her father's story, she awakes one morning to find a note from him: He's been ''called away on some new business,'' and he wants her to wear a crucifix and carry garlic in her pockets.

No self-respecting heroine is going to leave it at that, of course. And so we get three related stories all mixed up together: the narrator's search for her father, his search for Rossi, and Rossi's own quest for the truth about the undead Vlad Tepes. And these stories, set in three different eras (the '30s, the '50s and the '70s), take us to France, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. Will she find her father? What happened to Rossi? Is Helen really his daughter? Is she really the narrator's mother? Is Dracula really still with us -- and if so, what's to be done about it?

And will you care enough to keep reading for more than 600 pages?

Sure you will. Vampire stories are irresistible, and Kostova has stuffed hers with arcane history and colorful locales. There are plenty of narrative cliffs from which the story is hung, and an abundance of creepy or dubious characters. (My favorite is the ''evil librarian'' -- an epithet that made me laugh every time I encountered it.) ''The Historian'' is the kind of book you won't put down -- but you may not be glad you picked it up.

Kostova not only resuscitates Stoker's villain -- apparently all that business about Van Helsing and company putting a dusty end to Count Dracula was just fiction -- but also evokes Stoker's way of telling a story. ''Dracula'' is an epistolary novel -- or, more precisely, a documentary novel, since it's told not only through letters but also through entries in the characters' journals and diaries. Kostova's heroine is the central narrator, but this is a book of stories nested within stories, flashbacks within flashbacks, so a lot of it is told through the journals and letters she uncovers.

''Dracula'' zips along so breathlessly that you don't trouble yourself with the awkwardness of the documentary narrative, the story's inconsistencies and improbabilities, and the fact that Stoker is nobody's idea of a prose stylist. ''The Historian,'' on the other hand, feels overextended, and there are so many digressions -- stories within stories within stories -- that the pacing goes slack, giving you time to wonder, for example, how her characters can recollect, in precise detail, events and conversations that took place years earlier. And when you ask that, the illusion goes poof.

''The Historian'' is Kostova's first novel, and it's said to have taken her 10 years to research and write. Too bad she didn't take a little more time and work out some of the kinks in her prose. She slips too often into cliches: ''Chills crawled on the back of my neck.'' And there's way too much dialogue in which the exposition seems to have gotten stuck in the characters' throats, like this: ''It seems to me too much of a coincidence that you appeared when we had just arrived in Istanbul, looking for the archive you have been so much interested in all these years.''

But worst of all, Kostova forgets what made ''Dracula'' such a grabber. It's the Count who counts, and Stoker -- with the help of actors from Max Schreck to Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman -- made him the stuff of our nightmares. Kostova often seems more interested in giving us lore about the historical Dracula and in touring Eastern Europe than in giving us the creeps. By the time Dracula himself shows up, we've almost forgotten why we should be scared of him. Buffy would take this guy out with a pointed stick and a wisecrack, and it wouldn't take her 600-odd pages to do it.