Monday, July 6, 2009

#15 of 2009: Fangland by John Marks

Anyone who has been following me on Twitter or Facebook is already well aware of my relationship with John Marks' novel Fangland. They already know about how I picked it up and put it back down four or more times, moving on to read something more my style before dutifully returning and slogging through another fifty pages only to put it back down and repeat the entire process.

In the time it took me to read Fangland I also read Liquor, The Gum Thief, In Search of a Distant Voice and I LOVE LORD BUDDHA.

This isn’t to say that Fangland is without merit. It just means that it continuously failed to capture my attention long enough to complete it, and at just under four hundred pages that’s a bit strange.

But first, a run down of the plot. Fangland is a Dracula analog, a modern day retelling of the classic story in which England has been replaced by paranoid, skittish post -9/11 New York City and where the heroes are no longer solicitors and other members of British high society but the cast and crew of The Hour, yet another analog, this time of the news program 60 Minutes. Many of these characters are based in part or wholly off of Stoker’s characters, though their ages, genders and origins are different.

Evangeline Harker (a more heavy-handed nod to the original) is an associate producer for The Hour, and is charged with traveling the world to scout out locations and subjects well-suited for the show. If she decides, while on location, that what she has seen will make a nice segment for the show, her green-lighting brings crews, equipment and newscaster to the scene for filming. If not, the segment is squashed and forgotten.

On one such occasion, Harker is sent to Romania to interview Ion Torgu, an old-world mob boss whose name has been whispered throughout eastern Europe but whose face has never been seen. While there, she runs into a young, blond woman named Clementine Spence, a religious missionary under a cloud of mystery, who, like Harker, was born in Texas. The women build a fragile travelling relationship, higher-rent versions of European backpackers, until Harker has found Torgu.

Something goes very, very wrong during the interview with her subject. Torgu, who appears well-mannered and civil, at least in the face of his reputation, is not what he appears to be. Harker goes missing after this exchange and is not seen from again for months, when she is found hiding amongst nuns in a country monastery, her personality very obviously changed.

In her absence, someone has been writing convincing emails from her accounts and has shipped back several tapes of nothing but an empty chair, the audio track garbled with what sounds like the whisperings of city names, some of which, like Nanking, are immediately recognizable due to the human atrocity they will forever be linked with.

There are several reasons, I believe, that I took so long to finish this novel. First, let me point out that this is, indeed, a vampire novel, though in comparison to many other works of this genre its emphasis is rather subdued. Most horror novels are printed by horror-friendly publishers, like Tor, DAW, Del Rey, etc. This is published by Penguin.

If you are not familiar with Penguin, let me explain briefly. This is a publisher that began in Europe in the 1930s with a vision of bringing quality writing to the masses for a low cost, to actually furnish literature at the price of a pack of cigarettes. It has come a long way in the ensuing decades, and now publishes mostly literary fiction. People whose works are put out by Penguin are generally already well-known and have been the recipients of critical or institutional acclaim.

In short, Penguin is known for being mostly high (read: literary) fiction. I’m sure there are exceptions, but for a work of horror to emerge with their orange and white logo on the spine it has to be something completely different than the glut of vampire-related works of other imprints sitting on bookstore shelves.

Different it is, in spades. Between the pacing and choice of vocabulary the book struck me as quite pretentious, and being the kind of person I am it, honestly, put me off a bit. Often I will use a blank, ruled notecard as a bookmark so I can take notes while I am reading. Some of the notes I jotted for Fangland include “This book screams ‘Not genre fiction - REAL LITERATURE!’ so loudly and so often it ends up becoming rather distracting,” “Lay off the five-dollar words, already,” and “I wish the plot would pick up a bit!”

Perhaps it’s me, but after seeing the word “paternoster” in reference to an old-style elevator (accurate as it may have been) and “gabardines” for trousers (still accurate), I rolled my eyes a bit. It’s not that these words, or any other, were inappropriately used. It just dawned on me, more and more, as I read that most, if not all, of the characters in Fangland live in a world of wealth and privilege and education that I do not share.

I am squarely middle-class, and these people absolutely are not. It’s a bit hard for me to get in their heads and see the world as they do, and if my past book reviews are to be believed (hint: they are), I have a very hard time visualizing as I read to begin with. Throw in a bunch of high-earning New Yorkers and my brain hits the brakes hard enough to leave skids.

Another problem I have with Fangland is its format. It is, like Dracula before it, an epistolary work, my third for the summer. This time, the narrative is woven by Evangeline Harker’s personal notes, Austen Trotta’s (a Mike Wallace/Abraham Van Helsing analog) journal, as pressed upon him to write by his therapist, emails between Stimson Beevers, production assistant (and handy Renfield clone) first to someone he believes to be Harker and later to Torgu, and the very opening and ending of the novel are penned by James O’Malley, senior VP for Business Affairs for Omni News and Entertainment, The Hour’s parent company. All of these are written in separate fonts for easy recognition.

However, there is another narrative in the novel that I do not understand. Julia Barnes, former Weather Underground explosives agent turned video editor and Sally Benchborn, producer and Civil War re-enactor, are the focal point of several chapters that are written in the third-person by author unknown. I suppose we can attribute it to James O’Malley, though how he manages to get into Julia’s head and describe her thoughts is impossible and both confused and irritated me throughout her chapters. Marks makes no effort to explain how James O’Malley, if Julia and Sally’s chapters truly are from his detached point of view, could come to know Julia’s past history or the goings on of her mind.

Fangland is a slow burn of a book, the first third of the work being the setup and initial horror of Harker’s Romanian excursion and transformation. It’s not easy to read if you’re used to the racing-out-of-the-gates feel of most horror genre works. That is the main problem with Fangland. It’s not a horror novel but a piece of literary fiction, aiming to work on multiple levels, that has shrouded itself in a vampire’s high-collared cloak. Vying with the horror of the supernatural are multiple references to September 11, terrorism, the nature of human atrocities and the cut-throat (sometimes literally) business of working in television news.

I found myself picking up this book and marveling at its amazing paperback cover (a New York skyline underneath an enormous full moon, accented with bats in flight and one drop of spattered blood), only to find myself slightly disappointed that the vampire element, when touched upon, was strange and distorted. Somewhere in this narrative of backbiting and paranoia is a most unusual vampire, with a set of bizarre physical circumstances, that fails to bring much fear once on American soil.


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