Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Book Review: The Historian

With her 676-page opus, The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova has written what, in science fiction fan terms, would be called a literary horror novel. What this means in practical terms is that the author has gone to a great deal of trouble to write something "literary" (meaning it is heavy on lofty, beautiful, or bewildering prose) that is at the same time not much different from any other book in the horror genre--in this case, the subgenre of vampire fiction. Kostova has done what several other SF writers have done before, including Harlan Ellison and Michael Crichton: write genre fiction but get it placed on the regular "fiction and literature" shelves at the book store. They have broken out of what some call the "science fiction ghetto."

Of course Larry Niven has a different perspective on this:

Okay, gang. What kind of a place is it that won't let outsiders join unless they meet certain standards; is expensive to belong to; that a member can leave at any time, to make a little money, then return to at whim; that people join for the company of their peers, the recreation facilities, the ego boost, and the security; that places a barrier between itself and the outside world?

I know that place. My Dad was a member.

Ghetto? That's the Los Angeles Country Club!

However, there is a literary snob movement out there that says, "If I just label my book as fantasy or horror, only those goofy looking kids with bad acne and weight problems will read it. However, if I label it as literary, some sharp, professional lady who belongs to the Oprah Book Club might read it, and I'll make a million dollars!"

And really, who could blame an author for thinking that way? Michael Chabon, another "literary" writer, has written two excellent books that, in another world, would be on the genre fiction shelves: The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a semi-fantasy story about struggling comic book writers in the '30s through the '50s, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, an alternate history story set in Alaska. By all rights, Chabon should be on the science fiction/fantasy shelves. However, his agent tapped him on the shoulder, took him aside, and said, "Look, SF is so common now, it's almost mainstream. The only people still reading books from the SF shelves now are serious geeks and throwbacks from the pulp era. Your story is written in such a way that normal people will get a taste for SF without realize they're reading it. The SF fans will pick it up anyway, but in the meantime, you'll wow the critics by not going too heavy on the technobabble, and you'll pick up more mainstream readers along the way." Again, I can't blame Ms. Kostova for this choice--it might not even have been hers--but it helps to call a spade a spade, and understand exactly what is going on here. This is a vampire novel in "Great American Novel" clothing.

And having said all that, in some ways, it's still hard to know how to judge this book. It took me a couple of months to read it, as I would pick it up, read a few dozen pages, put it down again, and pick up something else. What that tells me, as a reader, is:

  • The story wasn't enough to make me want to finish it in one gulp. And like I said, it is nearly 700 pages. Ye flippin' gods.
  • The writing style and characters were still enough to keep me coming back to see what happens.
  • The editor, whoever s/he is, could have taken a big meat cleaver, cut 300 pages from this book, and made it even more engaging than it otherwise would be.

The best way I can describe the writing style of this book is "gentle." Part of the whole "literary" thing is that the reader is supposed to be (and often is) sucked in by the smooth flowing of the prose. Great, swell, she's got a nice writing style--could we move the story along a little faster, please? Another literary quirk of the author's is that this book is really a combination of vampire novel, history, and Eastern European travelogue. In fact, there are passages here that, when describing scenery, architecture, or local customs, might have come out of a Rick Steves sales pitch.

And having gotten past the literary/English major snob stuff, I suppose I can finally talk about the plot. Here, I must confess, I found the author strangely and, at one point late in my reading, amusingly lacking. Let's just ask this basic question: if you were an immortal vampire, what would you do with your life? As a possible means of answering the question, sit down, read or watch Interview with the Vampire, or read The Boat of a Million Years or Methuselah's Children (books on immortality, but not vampirism) and then try to slog through The Historian, and ask yourself if Elizabeth Kostova's answer matches yours.

So after all was said and done, would I read this book again? No. I cannot say the author wasted my time, but I can think of books that would have used it better--and did--in the time it took to read this one.

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