Pandering and literary arrogance: The Case Study of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

When I first heard of the concept behind both the book and film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter I was exhilarated. I’ve read enough dry, historical texts to appreciate the levity of reconsidering Lincoln’s life through the lens of him splitting vampires in half with his axe (instead of rails). What quickly happened as I read the book this past week was the dampening of my enthusiasm by my critique of the text (and later, film), but also the realization that I brought my own literary arrogance to the experience. What followed were existential questions: Can someone who spends so much time on critique, both of other’s and of one’s own work, ever enjoy art without the encumbrance of critique?

I purchased the novel on on a whim to pass the time on my flight. The book itself begins with a prologue about a depressed, former writer running a general store who strikes up an acquaintance with a strange individual who is, unsurprisingly, a vampire. The vampire then bestows upon him the secret journals of Abraham Lincoln with the request that he take the information and compose a text based on the source material. The conceit is then dropped, as we are given the text that he supposedly authored and the prologue protagonist is never mentioned again.

I had numerous problems with the text as I was reading. It approaches the material from the perspective of a third-person narrator/journal curator, frequently delving into passages quoted from the secret journals. The function of the narrator seems to be to fill in historical gaps and deal with the problematic nature of scenery and character description (which is still remarkably scant) among other narrative necessities that are not typical fare for the diarist. I found myself irritated with the nuances of the presentation, such as the way in which Grahame-Smith attempts to mimic the errors that would have been endemic to an 18th century, autodidact country boy. They are too few to be believed, and later in the presentation of the journal passages they are completely missing. Under the assumption that errors are part and parcel with all writing, and considered in the context of the fictional conceit from the prologue, the narrator, at some point, has elected to edit the journals, and thus becomes Lincoln’s editor for posterity’s sake. To make it simpler, the whole matter could have been completely dispensed with.

Characters are introduced to plug up hole after hole in the plot (need bodyguards? here’s three nameless, descriptionless vampires), create foolish historical intrigue (e.g. a friendship between Edgar Allen Poe and Lincoln), and are tossed away just as easily (one of the early main characters gets killed by a horse and Lincoln hears of it second hand).

Manipulating the history is by far the greatest opportunity to make inroads in the artistic fulfillment of this piece, but it is handled with mixed results. In some cases, major historical events are cleverly weaved into the vampire narrative. Equally important is the counterbalancing, as this is a conspiracy text and the events must have a clever reason to be concealed or overlooked by history in order for the conspiracy angle to fly. A great example of this is the death of Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s rival in politics and love, and the way in which his death is both related to his late-in-life change from pro-slavery (and, by association pro-vampire) leanings to repentance and abolitionism.

In some cases, crutches are used to keep the concept going. Referencing the earlier point about dispatching characters, Lincoln’s life is one marred by death and working out how to relate those deaths to vampires would seem to be a challenge, but it wasn’t for Grahame-Smith: most anyone who died in Lincoln’s life did so because a vampire poisoned him or her with vampire blood. It’s a convenient trick, but each successive use of this concept serves to play out the concept a little bit more.

It seems, as the novel wears on, that the temptation of this juicy concept is too much for Grahame-Smith to rein in. Slavery becomes the enterprise of vampires. The civil war becomes a conflict between “good” vampires and “evil” vampires with humans as their pawns. Every subsequent problem of race relations in this country: vampires. It borders at times on an apologist history of the United States, where every supposed bad thing that we did as a country was somehow directly linked back to vampires. In a more reflective piece, one might be able to link the fictional scourge of vampires to our own real-life complicity in morally objectionable activities through the metaphor of vampires as a projection of our own shame-fractured psyches: “we couldn’t have done such things, so it must have been vampires.” That simply doesn’t happen however, and the ending of the text comes off as pointedly hackneyed as the constant, obvious references to Shakespeare’s five most widely read plays (I won’t spoil the ending if you still plan to read the book).

With all of those criticisms in mind, and as irritated as I sometimes was with the book, I still loved the concept. Portions of the book showed enormous potential. In fact, if the book had just been stopped right before Lincoln’s first trip to congress, it would have been all the better for it. Still, I wanted to see the film just to get an idea of how it could be translated into a compelling narrative.

I couldn’t have been more disappointed with this film. It takes only the broadest strokes of the concept and translates them into a ham-fisted action vehicle fit for Sylvester Stallone. There is zero acting talent, and most of the compelling characters are reworked into standard action hero cliches or, worse yet, copies of characters from other films (Lincoln’s vampire mentor Henry Sturges not only has his compelling backstory flattened and distorted, but his character appears to be a dime store knockoff of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes). Every ounce of history is all but obliterated from this film, with the apparent hope that people have at least heard of the Civil War and can make the connection that slavery = vampires = bad. It is pandering of the worst degree, making little to no effort to engage anything that made the book mildly entertaining.

If you knew nothing of Lincoln the man going in, you know less coming out, which is a pitiable shame. Where the novel has lofty ambitions yet fails in many of the supporting details, I can say that the film appears to have no ambitions and fails at even producing a coherent action story, which is by far the worse sin.

What’s disturbing to me is that neither book nor film are inherently bad, they just have certain faults that I don’t like. As the years go by, I find that list of annoyances growing and growing as I consume more and more, to the point where I rarely see something that doesn’t disappoint in one way or another. There are rare exceptions of course, but it leads me to question the soul-crushing nature of a life of criticism.

In the academy the trend is the same: we are all trained as skeptics and debunkers first, and that seems to persist (and intensify) to the point that some professors I meet can’t listen longer than twenty seconds before they start in on the problems with your study. In some cases, you either never get to explain your results or they fall on deaf ears, as you have some component of your study which causes a fatal hangup from the audience member who will never appreciate the contributions you do make.

As instructors, we search relentlessly for problems with student writing. I myself rarely issue perfect grades on assignments. Part of the process of learning is continual improvement, such that we feel the need to constantly critique in order to force students to improve. We play “devil’s advocate” in the classroom, countering students’ assertions to force them to think through problems. And we complete the cycle, forcing students into the critical mindset we espouse.

Criticism is not bad. In the anticipatory sense, it forces us to perform necessary self-edits and to exert a higher level of effort, ultimately resulting in more polished, mastered work. In the post-writing sense, it forces us to detach from our work and reflect on how we can improve. As it relates to aesthetic appreciation, it helps us define our tastes and collectively promote those works that reflect our own interests.

If there are lessons to be learned from the above experience, perhaps they center on appreciating something for what it is, not what it could be. As much fault as you find with one incarnation of a project, it could always be worse. That sounds like a dismal or glib conclusion, but it seems to be one that is overlooked, especially in our culture. A recent Pew study on Twitter and political opinions found that people were decidedly more negative in their sentiments when using Twitter versus reaction to the same events gathered through phone surveys. Laughably, I went on Twitter to criticize Pew’s lack of disclosure concerning methods after I read the report. If true, and if others feel the same way as I did about the study, it potentially reveals a doubly sad truth about the internet: we can’t help criticizing everything, and at the same time we can’t stand to accept that we are overly critical.

Tonoharu: Part One (2008)

coverBy Lars Martinson, Pliant Press, 116 pages

In his seminal work, Comics and Sequential Art, Will Eisner describes the relationship between illustrator and writer as the fundamental tension in comics. The writer pushes for a more developed story line, meaning more panels and more room for text boxes and speech bubbles. The artist pushes for high quality, beautiful art, meaning more splash pages (full page panels) and more room for artwork. An emphasis on writing leads to a plot driven story, while an emphasis on art leads to an image driven story: the former creates narrative, the latter creates atmosphere.

In the case of comics where the artist and writer are the same person, it’s not unusual to encounter a work with beautiful detail and a well developed story. The only problem is such a work might take a decade to complete.

With this in mind, Tonoharu: Part One by Lars Martinson did not surprise me with it’s brevity (it’s a lean 116 pages, mostly four panel pages) and spaced out volumes (four years later, only two are finished). Priced above your standard short-form, serial novel entry, it’s tempting to criticize the author for stiffing the reader out of story content.

In what is promised as a four-part series, part one introduces us to the life of an Assistant English Teacher in rural Japan: a mostly brainless and thankless position where the only real challenge is avoiding the crippling isolation of being the sole Anglophone in a foreign country with no companionship or understanding of the culture. This is a position on which Martinson can speak authoritatively, having lived the experiences of his protagonists (however, it should be noted he claims on his blog “This is the most fictional comic I’ve written in years”).

The narrative is divided into three parts (including a prologue that introduces us to a narrator–the successor of the protagonist in parts one and two of the first volume–who abruptly vanishes). There are long conversations that span pages and pages, pausing only to depict awkward silences that follow awkward conversations. While a few scenes drag on punishingly (especially an encounter between protagonist Dan and a mysterious group of European ex-pats living in a Buddhist monastery), I suppose I can give this volume the benefit of the doubt as “part one” of any series is saddled with the double burden of providing an entertaining story while finding a way to develop characters for subsequent entries.

tonoharu page

The artwork is beautiful and full of intricate cross hatching. It reminds me of a woodcut (an art form that the Japanese mastered), and at times threatens to make the frames too busy; the relief comes from cartoony people who seem too squat for their environment. The white space in their faces and the molded, dome-like manga hair (which reminded me of my Mii as I read) provide the counterpoint to their painstakingly hatched clothing. This contrast of figure and ground produces, for me, an image of likable characters in a harsh environment, something which perhaps (for westerners) builds some pathos for the hapless Dan, whose sluggish disposition and lack of effort to grasp the Japanese language and culture fuel his sense of alienation. The mix of slacker and “fish out of water” tropes are combined brilliantly at times by Martinson, who creates a universe of uncomfortable situations for his character to traverse (one which teachers will be familiar with is depicted above).

Does art triumph over story? It seems premature to judge, and I feel compelled to read the next volume before I pass judgement in that respect. After a rereading, I find that the atmosphere Martinson creates in this first part lingers and that I am looking forward to exploring this (limited) universe further.

AV Club: B-
Amazon: 4/5 Stars

Me: B+

When You Are Engulfed in Flames — David Sedaris (2008)

Back Bay Books, Paperback, 323 p., $15.99

I read a review in The New Yorker a while back of a book that’s on my reading list this summer which outlines the history of memoir. In that review, critic Daniel Mendelsohn describes memoir as:

a drunken guest at a wedding, […] constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention.

Wow, what a ringing endorsement for a genre. Seeing as I now teach young minds how to appreciate a public divulging of family secrets and a printed, mass-disseminated embarrassment of old friends, I’ll now defend memoir as a genre.

The question: is memoir more for the author, or for the audience? My answer: it’s for both. The author goes through a (sometimes solipsistic) process of self-discovery, unearthing truths about his or her inner life that resonate with the reader, who gets to experience the author’s life and be entertained by the content and style of the piece. The author need not be of note, though another dimension of enjoyment is added when the reader can compare conceptions of important (at least to the reader) events or cultural artifacts to the narrative told by a principle participant. What separates the good from the bad, that is, the thought provoking and moving piece of art from the tawdry tell-all? Probably the experience of the reader and the cultural significance associated with the author, but who can say for sure?

Sedaris is described as an essayist and compared to Mark Twain and James Thurber, but his collections of essays are really arranged around themes, as WYAEiF clearly demonstrates in it’s metaphorical and very real engagement with death. I probably should have read the review snippets on the back cover before buying and reading this book, as I was looking for something a little lighter and more “haw haw” than 22 essays on the snuffing of life’s brief candle. My personal preference aside, Sedaris goes to greater lengths than the last book I read by him, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), to delve deep into his own particularly slanted conceptions of life and evoke those stories which remind one of the shortness of life and fear of death. There’s plenty of humor, but in a sinister light which makes one laugh uneasily, such as story about purchasing a human skeleton in Paris for your boyfriend and having him hang it in your bedroom. I personally enjoyed it more than Dress Your Family… even if I wasn’t laughing out loud as frequently.

Many of the stories include vivid and humorous descriptions of oddball’s that Sedaris has met, worked/lived with, and whom society has rejected. “That’s Amore” is a prolonged character sketch of Sedaris’ cantankerous neighbor, who is redeemed from her violent racism and general bitterness through her aging and dependence, a reminder that most of us will one day depend on someone else for something. “This Old House” shows how life circumstances transform a boarding house proprietor from Sedaris’ dream of nostalgic glamor to a mundane caretaker, her integration into society violently extinguishing the glowing ember of intrigue.

Sedaris, on average, must encounter more interesting people every year of his life than the rest of us do in a lifetime, and some truly pitiful characters are recounted in this book. One of the chief reasons I believe that people read memoirs (or engage in most entertainment) is the desperate need to have contact with people more interesting than ourselves. The most interesting people in the book are pariahs, lunatics, and the type of person that you or I tend to avoid; this is no problem for Sedaris, who’s self-described obsessive journaling and note taking record his encounters with and explorations of the characters at the fringe of society. A question that dogs Sedaris and other memoirists is whether they capitalize on the lives of others in their writings. What is the standard by which a random but highly personal or telling encounter might be divulged? Does there have to be meaning or sacrifice to present it to an audience, so that another person’s personal problems seem significant or are transcribed with dignity, or can they be lampooned like the rest of us? I don’t have an answer. I just thought I’d mention it.

The final essay, “The Smoking Section” is probably one of the best I have ever read. It deals with addiction, the anxiety associated with life changes, and cultural barriers while also delivering a great deal of humor, vulnerability and descriptions of modernity and culture in Japan which deflate our sensibilities of Western individualism.

I won’t lie and say that along the way there are not some disposable essays or square pegs jammed into a book which could have lost 50 pages or so, but it was an engaging memoir that jabbed the consciousness of this reader and caused that moment of personal reflection that is so necessary in a genre that needs “to be the center of attention.”

Highly Recommended

Up Next: Iron Man 2

Crime and Punishment — Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)

When I purchased this book, the cashier said, sarcastically, “Nothing like some light summer reading.” She was right. There’s nothing light about Crime and Punishment in terms of plots or ideological conflicts. The book is the equivalent of eating a brick.

However, I never expect to pick up anything written in the nineteenth century and find it to be light and airy. As my mother would say, C&P reads “like a Russian novel,” meaning there are too many characters and too many lines of action to conveniently follow. Originally, Crime and Punishment appeared as a serial in a periodical, as was the style for nineteenth century novels. I was unable to find a visual of the original serialized edition, but a lot of serials had pictures and even recaps to get you back into the story or help you out if you missed an issue and, consequently, a segment of the plot. Hence, reading works like C&P in novelized form (or in my case, the $6.99 “Bantam Classic” edition with small print and no margins) is not how contemporary audiences consumed them originally.

As Poe put it, a novel is of “undue” length and excites the readers for “too prolonged” a period [paraphrased]. Both are true of this novel, but it doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience. The so called climax comes in the first act, where Raskolnikov, our anti-hero protagonist, murders an old pawnbroker and her peddler sister (who walks in unexpectedly during the murder) with a stolen axe. He’s able to escape, despite being detected, and retreat back to his apartment. His panic, which he was sure would be controllable due to his extensive preparation for the crime, not only causes him to flee without stealing the lion’s share of the pawnbroker’s wealth, but also puts him into a state of delirium after the crime which nearly causes his arrest.

By chance, his crime is not discovered, and he is not immediately suspected. There in lies the surprise of the novel. This will not be a detective story so much as a deep introspection into the workings of a criminal’s mind. The reader will be teased with variations on motives, and will try to understand why the criminal did what he did as opposed to discovering the criminal and ending the story with an execution. The storyline suggests a shift in opinion as to nineteenth century thinking: now that reason dominates over divinity, how can we explain how the world works and what motivates men’s actions? The introduction by Joseph Frank tackles the theoretical workings of the novel by analyzing Dostoevsky’s life and circumstances when authoring the text, but leaves untouched the radical shift from the divine to the secular explanation of society and individual actions. No longer are people tried by a priest or accused of demonic possession: corporeal motives are the root of men’s transgressions against authority.

The atmosphere of C&P is deeply introspective and psychological in nature. As Frank points out, despite the third person narration the book delivers intimate details of Raskolnikov’s thought process, even including (seemingly as an extension) other characters’ perspectives on Raskolnikov’s state of mind, and making excellent use of aposiopesis which results in poignant pauses that allow the reader to mime the thought process of the characters, essentially having the reader think what the characters’ considered unthinkable, all the way to the book’s chilling final conclusions on motivations and actions–the work of a skilled author.

There are political and social implications as well, which a historical analysis would illuminate, but this is summer, and I am not interested in doing that right now; Frank’s introduction to the Bantam Classic edition also discusses these aspects at lenght. I will say that having read very few Russian authors, this book inspired me to take another look at Tolstoy or Turgenev. Due to the heavy nature of this book and the amount of time it took me to read and jump back into the plot (having put it down for days at a time) I am going to try to hit up some lighter works with my remaining pleasure reading season.

Highly recommended

Note: For books and longer readings, I feel the 0-10 point rating system is a little reductive, especially since the time commitment is much higher. I am going to, therefore, use the following pompous scale: not recommended, highly recommended, required reading.