Pete, Drinker of Blood, Part 1

Sometimes I get the impression the universe is messing with me. A couple months ago, I was invited to a group which has as its mandate reading serialized novels – like Dickens or wait, holy cats, Madame Bovary was serialized? (so sayeth wiki) – in the manner they were originally published and consumed. I did my thing where I joined, lurked a bit, thought about serial fiction for a while, and then decided the whole thing was too much like work for me. Now, I’m not calling you weird, Serial Reading Cats, I just lack the patience to read a million page Dickens novel, let alone to take 4987 weeks to get through one. (I know. I am a total philistine when it comes to Dickens, and I’m very sorry for it.) (And I know you’re reading other stuff too.) 

But I think the exercise of trying to experience a completed work of art as originally experienced is worthy, if maybe a little doomed. My main experience with serial fiction is television, of course. (Comics are another heavily serialized contemporary form, but I almost always come at them well after the serial arc has been completed.) Though this is changing as the Internets and on-demand media fracture viewerships and toss a barrage of media at us so we’re always bound to miss a continuing series as it unfolds, some of my funnest watching experiences have happened in ongoing serial television. The X-Files was a Friday night destination for me, as was Star Trek, Buffy, BSG, and a bunch of other stuff that will only make me look even more nerdy than I have already freely admitted to. Half of the joy was the addictive buzz of turning down the lights, watching like a maniac, and then squealing like an idiot when the drama was enacted and then set up for the next week. There’s no cheating there. I’ve certainly gulped down series after the fact – Deadwood, Carnivale, even re-watches of Buffy or Firefly (whose on-air experience was seriously screwed in the first place, airing out of order) – but there’s something very different about consuming something that is understood to be finished (if not completed) as it happens versus after the fact. That the wait isn’t really enforced, that the conversation doesn’t have the same unknowing…

Dangit, it sounds like I’m totally bagging this group, and I’m not – I’m just bloviating out loud. The joys of consuming serial art while it’s being produced are social, on another level – these were fictions being consumed by other people too, and the week before the next fix would be punctuated by conversations with other viewers, chopping it up, predicting, nerding out, complaining. That group could function that way for those involved, and that is the beauty of the Internet. (The AVClub’s TV Club does some interesting articles as its critics re-watch series television.) My main serial television right now is Walking Dead, and it’s almost a sport for me to bitch about everyone and everything on that show – good lawd, the dialogue! the “characters”! – only to tune in the next week to see if Walking Dead can pull off another sublime action sequence in among all the godamn stupid whining. And then they do! And then I bitch and praise to everyone who will listen. I didn’t even watch much Sopranos, but I’ve gone to the homes of the HBO’d to eat junk food and watch along with the screaming fans, because it was totally fun. 

So, anyway, how the world is messing with me: Scott S. Phillips – who is a friend, in interests of full disclosure – sent me this opening bit of a serial novel he’s just put out. I spent some time checking for cameras, because, seriously, that’s creepy that I’d been thinking about the serial format in contemporary media, and then bang! Here it is. And, based on somewhat limited research by moi, it seems like the serial novel is having a comeback in teh age of teh Internet. It makes sense: bit-sized bits that are easily and cheaply downloadable, which can function as their own advertisement, or let you know without a full commitment that you don’t want any more of that. Instead of putting all your eggs in one basket, and then watching that basket, the writer can sell some eggs and keep laying. And then you can scramble them and…forget it, this metaphor officially does not work. You dig what I’m saying though, right? 

Pete, Drinker of Blood begins the story of the titular Pete, a sad-sack vampire who is schlubbing his way through a less than glamorous LA. The principles are established: Pete, the bartender he’s smitten with, and the badass vamp who is likely the antagonist of this story. The pace is good: bang! slowly revealing character and world-building, then bang! I’m admittedly biased, but I love the way Phillips tells stories, the way he turns idiom halfway so it’s surprising, the tragicomic defeatism of his main character. Pete’s obviously not in with the cool crowd, the Anne Riceian dudes in leather pants, who frequent a bar call the Emoglobin (hee!). He’s like a rat-eating Angel, before he got cool again and found Buffy, only he’s never ever been cool in the first place. There’s uneaten hamburgers and classic rock, and an interlude with a tiny model windshield. I guess I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, which is a little silly because it’s not like I can spoil something that isn’t even completed. But, you know. 

And now the long wait until next month…

Sunshine: Not Talking about that Other Vampire Book for Teens

I’ve been falling behind on my reviewing, and as a consequence, my memory begins to drift and the shape of the thing looses focus. Add in the fact I felt kind of bowled over by the torrential first person narrator in this one, and a few weeks after my read, I have this clear, loud image of Sunshine, the character, still ringing in my mind, and a series of afterimages burnt on my eyes, and not such a good grasp on connectives and plot. So. 

I don’t think I’ve read an opening as good as the one in Sunshine by Robin McKinley for a long while. It starts with a lot of chat and gossip, laying out this relationship of that, origins, trivia. I’m just snuggling down for a sprawling family drama, and then McKinley his me with it: this is a profoundly alternate future, after a magical world war that decimated much of the world’s population. She never backstories this too much, which I count as a strength, not just because I bore easily when world-building builds the world too worldbuildily, but also because I felt it made sense for the narrator to have a hazy sense of history. The Vietnam War was going on when I was born, and I couldn’t give anything but the sketchiest of timelines for the conflict itself, but I could identify aspects of the culture now that could be traced back to not just the conflict itself, but the secondary social conflicts going on in the US at the time. And that’s the way Sunshine talks about the magical wars, not with a series of dates of skirmishes, but as the starting point for world view and cultural expressions. I mean, this is a little dorky, but I really enjoyed the really concrete ways that Sunshine talked about neighborhood activism, civic boundaries, hell, even building codes. 

Then another hit when Sunshine – her real name is Rae, thank heavens – is abducted by ghoulish vampires and left like livestock with another captive vampire who appears to be starving. It’s a hideous, claustrophobic situation, made better by the fact that none of these vamps, not even the captive with whom she comes to an understanding of mutual necessity, is anything but an inhuman monster. I’m not a huge fan of vampires in contemporary fiction, I think because the whole sex/death thing tends to be weighted too far to the sex side of the equation. One time when I was living in the dorms, and my only source of DVDs was a small town public library – gather round, children, and hear how I walked uphill both ways – I checked out the creaky old 1932 film Vampyr. The titular vampire – it’s in German, hence the emo spelling – is a ghoul, an old woman who crawls out of her grave and murders. When they put her down, it’s bloody and messy, not a discrete spray of ash or some cheery fire. You’ve gotta get your hands in it, death. These vamps are more like that ghoulish woman than they are like certain neutered sparklers I can think of. (Oh, hai, I’m ur one Twilight reference in this review, cuz I think they may be obligatory.)

I’m not going to get into the latter plot too much, partially because the mechanics of it are mostly gone to me, but Sunshine spends the rest of the book in a profound state of shock and trauma, babbling out her ordinary existence almost like a ward against death and its embodiments. She’s a talker, Rae, as a narrator, often spending hundreds of words on her job, her baking, the minutia of arranging her bandages. But especially the baking. It was a little frustrating at first for me, and likely it will annoy lots of readers, but eventually I learned to stop worrying and love the baking. For one thing, I just like when characters work at real jobs. And all the politics and hierarchy of a family, within a kitchen, within a restaurant, within a community were a smart way to convey this world to me. But then I also liked the way her voluminous chatter was a sign of her near-death trauma and her working through it through life and it’s mundanity. 

I know there’s other stuff I wanted to say, but I can’t think of it now. I’ll just end with some stray thoughts: 

I liked that Sunshine has a boyfriend, even though she has this weird, glancingly sexual connection with the vampire. I liked that she and her boyfriend had a relationship full of silence and lacuna, but that it was still real in its own, soundless way. The scene where she and her boyfriend make love in the sunlight was one that stuck with me, partially because it was so fragile and unsaid. 

I enjoyed the descriptions of the vampire’s home, which was so cliche and overwrought. It was a clever nod to the vampire conventions, one that Con, the vampire, shrugs about. Yes, well, that’s what created me, and I won’t tear it down, but that’s not what I am. 

The magic in this book works so well for me, because it it was humdrum and daily. The abandoned charms were especially nice, shuttering in the glovebox. 

The ending? Ah, the ending. No spoilers, but it is open and unfinished, in a way, hand in hand, and out into the darkness. It would be more than nice if McKinley revisited this world, though I do not think she will. I’ll just comfort myself by imagining good things, and that’s a kind of completeness in itself. In a book about adolescence’s end, the leap is as important as the landing.

The Twilight of Girlhood

Two things happened in my household, shortly after I started reading it, that seem germane to a discussion of this book. First, I was in the kitchen, dealing with the endless in-and-out of the dishwasher, and I became aware of a small, soft, wet noise coming from the back bathroom. This made my mom-ears perk up, and I went back to find my daughter, who is about 2 ½, tearing off strips of toilet paper, wadding them neatly, throwing them into the toilet, and then flushing. She looked up at me with her deceptively cherubic face and said, “Here Mum, this is for you.” She held out a tp wad. I tossed it in, and flushed, and then we went to find less futile pursuits. Second, in the same back bathroom, my dog was in there diving for tootsie rolls in the cat-box. The litter tray has one of those detachable tops, with an opening in the front so the cat can go in there and do her business without sending litter all over the freaking room, theoretically. The dog, in her lust to eat cat shit, got her head stuck in the opening and the topper thing lodged on her neck. She freaked out, the way only largish dogs in smallish bathrooms with a litter topper on her head can freak out, and there was all manner of howling, skittering and general mayhem, until I went in and rescued her from herself.

I’ve been known to let my metaphors run away from me, but let’s see if I can pull this off. We all have stuff that we do that’s stupid, futile or disgusting, or all of these things at once: eating cat shit, flushing wads of toilet paper down the toilet, smoking cigarettes, polka, embroidery, reading Twilight, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these pursuits, exactly (although I would give consuming feces a miss if you aren’t a border collie) but to the non-enthusiast, they seem inexplicable. But that’s the thing: eating cat shit is a source of pure, whole body pleasure for my dog; that, barking at kids on bikes and sleeping on the couch. While I may grumble at the mess and unintended comedy these activities generate, I really can’t criticize her joie de vivre. So, reading Twilight was like eating cat shit for me, but I mean this in an understanding way. You may not love smoking. The thought of the smoke hitting your lungs and the buzzing sensation you get in your fingertips may turn your stomach, but man if just typing these words doesn’t make me want to go out on the back porch and pound down a heater.

So I get it, I get the whole Twilight thing, on some level. But then there’s the girl thing. I’m not exactly the intended audience for Twilight, because I’m not a teenage girl. But I keep having to account for my not reading Twilight, as I will now have to account for disliking Twilight, because I live in a community of women who were once girls, because I was once a girl. I’m fascinated by how many women I know who love this book, women I love and respect, women who are not laughable, stupid or thoughtless. They may express chagrin or embarrassment, as though they just were busted for smoking on the back porch, but they love it just the same. Hating on Twilight, for guys, is easy, because it doesn’t betray their essential guyness; in fact, probably the opposite. (Yes, yes, girls are gross, now back to the clubhouse!) Hating on Twilight, as a woman, is essentially a betrayal of girlness, an erasure of that awkward adolescence many of us share. One can easily, oh so easily, enumerate the literary failings of this book. One can easily, oh so easily, parse the religious messages and sexual politics into something monstrous and ugly. This is all fine; go for it; I will be on the sidelines with pom-poms. But what I keep coming back to is the true, earnest and deeply felt pleasure this book provokes in so many women. Pleasure that is real and not deserving of scorn.

That community of women thing is what sent to reading Twilight in the first place. My sister was reading Twilight at the urgings of one of her co-workers. She has had an uneasy relationship with this other women, which had recently been patched up into something resembling friendliness. In their water-cooler conversations, the co-worker began extolling the merits of Meyer’s book, and pushed it into my sister’s hands. She knew what she was in for – how could she not given total cultural saturation at this point – but found herself unwilling and unable to actually finish reading the book. How was she going to explain this to the co-worker? We all know (or maybe we don’t) how quickly this sort of thing can get personal. It gets especially personal with books of this nature, that slip into the female hind-brain and coil around our unspoken (unspeakable?) drives and desires.

One of the reasons I hated this book (and I mean that word emotionally, not critically, if you know what I mean) was that Meyer was far far too damn evocative of the strange alienated horror that is adolescence. Bella is never easy; there are very few unqualified pleasures for her; every single action, especially the ones that occur within the bewildering sucking chest wound that is her social scene, is considered for its effect on everyone else, her status, her placement in the group, her precarious self esteem. It gave me vivid and lingering flashbacks, and not in a wheee-I-see-trails kind of way, but in the countless shaming episodes way. The only real source of pleasure for her is her time with Edward. And while it’s probably not original to point this out, Edward is the externalization of her desire, an embodiment of the girl-fic wish fulfillment of both desire and fear, the shaming female libido that goes bump in the night. He can’t read her mind because he’s an extension of her mind. Which brings me to the creamy ironic center of this review. On some levels, this book is a morality tale about female pleasure, and I was unable to take much pleasure in that. Gods, but I love me some irony though, so it the book evoked entirely unintended pleasures.

Never is this more apparent than in the scene in which Bella is menaced by some would-be rapists. She’s been mooning all day about Edward, which in very concrete terms gets her cut off from her female companions and their consumerist escapades. She ends up surrounded by threatening male desire, which she has provoked by her dreaming thoughtlessness. Edward appears, the sort of flip side of this desire, and rescues her. When I was working on my Feminist Merit Badge, there was much talk about the virgin/whore thing, and then also romance novels and other mass-produced fantasies for women. Too much of this kind of talk can make me really really tired, but I’ll try to keep it brief, for all our sakes. Although I don’t think I’ve heard about a boy version of the madonna/slut thing, I think one is at work here, as one is at work in many female wish-fulfillment exercises. Men are conjured, neutered and domesticated, and that process of domestication both justifies and condemns female desire. Bella simply cannot help herself: her mooning attraction to Edward gets externalized into her scent, which makes him unable to help himself, makes him an animal, reminds us she’s an animal, a sort of endless mirroring. That scent also ribbons through the air, cartoon-like, bringing horribly unlikely rapists wafting in by their noses. Desire is a dangerous thing, girls. Here’s a Ken doll for you, his smooth, cold, inhuman man-parts stamped carefully into place.

I’m bringing up Ken deliberately. In her Goodreads review, Elizabeth describes this book as a Barbie doll, which pretty much nails the whole thing for me. Barbie is the embodied consumer. She teaches girls how to accessorize their lives: boys, friends, dresses, houses, all neatly displayed in little consumable packages. Barbie teaches the values of consumerism, of consumption, while simultaneously being completely immune to its effects. Barbie cannot get old, fat, or overdose on heroin. She is the bulimic model of perfection. By many yardsticks, one could say that Edward is an anorexic. A vegetarian vampire is a contradiction in terms. While not personally a sufferer of an eating disorder, I have a number of very close people in my life that I’ve watched go through that mangle. I get it too: I was demographically ripe for this sort of thing: a white, middle-class overachiever. The anorexic, as it has been explained to me by people I love, craves control over the uncontrollable, over her needs and ambitions. That Edward cannot or will not eat is especially troubling when he’s viewed as Bella’s externalized desire. It’s a closed loop: food equals death, desire equals death. Bella can’t see Edward in a mirror (in a dream) because he’s not really there; he’s wasted away. That the book ends with Bella begging Edward to “change” her – this is not a spoiler, everyone in the world could see this one coming – means that she is begging for death, the way any girl who expresses desire is begging for death.

I’d like to finish with a craft project, if you don’t mind. Please, warm up your glue guns. There’s a paper store near my house that hosts classes every month, and I keep thinking about attending the one about altered books. I’m not entirely clear on the idea, but it seems you take old books, and cut-and-paste alternate text and pictures as commentary or whatever. I haven’t done this yet for three reasons: a) lazy b) somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of cutting up books, even in the service of making cool, new books c) don’t want to be caught dead anywhere near something that even remotely has a chance of being associated with scrap-booking, even kinda sorta. I can’t emphasize this last one enough.

This is my idea for the altered book of Twilight. If I weren’t a squeamish girl, I’d march right down to Sex World in the warehouse district, and I’d buy up a bunch of pornography. Not just any pornography, but pornography with people with normal body hair having enthusiastic sex, cheerful happy sex. (Does such a thing exist?) No smoothies allowed, no shaved, pre-adolescent vaginas, but big furry bushes and armpit hair a la the 70s edition of The Joy of Sex. This would get pasted over every description of Edward’s cold and marble-like skin, because Stephenie Meyer’s ossification of the human body bums me out.

I’d toss in photos of Michelangelo’s David and Christ on the Cross, just to show how the nude male body has been depicted over time. (Women can certainly complain about the female nude, but since the rise of Christianity in the West, the most predominate male nude is Jesus’ broken body on the Cross. The primary visual representation of the male body is one of torture.) In would go some stills of the pretty blond-haired girl who has just devoured her bickering parents in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead because zombies freak me the hell out the way vampires never did. Also, because in the ongoing conversation I’ve had about this book with my sister, which ended in the double dog dare that I read it, she expressed bewilderment as to how anyone could love a dead thing. Quote she: “Vampires are just high-functioning zombies.” More than the crap prose, the endless adverbs, the discouragingly accurate portrayal of adolescent discomfort, this may have done the book in for me. Zombies man, brrr.

I’d put in wads of tp, to represent for my daughter, who some day may find this book appealing. But also for another reason: I recently had occasion to be in one of the local high schools, not the one I graduated from. I went into the bathroom, had some good times reading the graffiti: various people are bitches, etc. Then I looked up, and the ceiling was dotted with wads of dried tp, stuck to the ceiling after some industrious young women had spent what I know from personal experience is a very long time getting those suckers to stick. Throw too soft, and they won’t even hit the ceiling. Throw too hard, and they’ll bounce back. You’ve got to get them wet enough to stick, but not so wet they just fall apart. Stupid, futile and possibly disgusting, but emblematic of times spend with other girls doing the useless and possibly damaging things that made adolescence so enjoyable. I think I’ll do without the cat shit. I’d douse the book in the cologne my first boyfriend wore, that, the smell of cigarettes and leather jackets. Mmmm, smell-o-vision. Then, I’d cover it with the brown paper bag covers we all put over our text-books in school to protect the actual covers. I’d draw all manner of doodles, phone numbers, one liners, hearts and bunnies all over the outside. Finally, I would affix a picture of Spider Jerusalem on the title page, and dot it with pink nail-polish blobs in a heart shape around the picture. Then I’d put the book away and try very hard never to think of it again.