I have not left our apartment building in six weeks. More specific, I have only left our apartment once in six weeks, and that was to take the trash down to where the trash lives.
Reading has been… hard during this pandemic. Not impossible, just difficult. My brain is so preoccupied with survival and a sense of impending doom that attempting to retain words is just that–an attempt, one that is often unsuccessful. Fiction reading is easier, as my brain is very familiar with its hallmarks and is drawn along by story. Nonfiction is more of a struggle. I’ve ordered some notebooks so I can take notes as I read, hoping that this extra level of engagement will allow me more retention.
Editing is even harder. I don’t have the emotional space for it. As engaging as I find it, it is an intense process that requires much from me. Recently, I’ve begun attempting short sprints–20 or 30 minutes at a time–rather than the long-distance runs I’m used to–two to four hours. It’s coming along, but much slower. Better than nothing at all, I know. I’ll continue chipping away at it until it’s done, a pile of slivers will eventually be the freeing of a statue, if that makes sense.
I don’t think it quite does.
Enough of personal updates. I’ve decided to take what I’m reading and make notes on whatever suits me in order to help my brain process the good and the bad of these books, much like I was during my travel reading project. We’re kicking off with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.
“The vampire was utterly white and smooth, as if he was sculpted from bleached bone, and his face was as seemingly inanimate as a statue, except for two brilliant green eyes that looked down at the boy intently like flames in a skull. But then the vampire smiled almost wistfully, and the smooth white substance of his face moved with the infinitely flexible but minimal lines of a cartoon. ‘Do you see?’ he asked softly.”
I first read Interview with the Vampire in junior high. I actually ended up reading the first eight or so books in the series, dutifully checking them out from our local library until I hit two books in a row where even twelve-year-old me was like, “Oh, fuck this” and gave up on reading the rest. The plot, the characters, the writing, had lost its charm, as many lengthy series do.
I didn’t return to it until recently. I was down in Alexandria, Virginia, digging through Book Bank’s stacks and spotted a copy. Now, as we all know, a book we read at one point in our life can be an entirely different animal later on. I wanted to know what adult me would think. What the book would be like now.
And how different it was.
Really, how different I was.
At twelve, I was far too young and under-read in the classics to know was Anne Rice was doing with her writing. The emotions the characters expressed in her novel are along the same lines as that in Frankenstein–high emotion that we do not encounter in modern fiction, especially not in male characters. The style is a modern epistolary, a nod to Dracula with its recordings and letters (more on this in a moment).
It was smart. Clever in design. I wonder if she deliberately referenced these horror classics or if it was an unconscious influence, driven through her reading choices.
You can take a quote from Dracula, lay it beside one from Interview and, presuming both are well-enough removed from their source material to not be identified by character names and locations, not be able to tell the difference. At least without some study.
As an example, which of the below is from Interview and which from Dracula?
“It seemed a sadness for something else, something beyond ————- that only included him and was part of the great awful sadness of all the things I’d ever lost of loved or known. It seemed then I was in a different place, a different time. And this different place and time was very real, and it was a room where the insects had hummed as they were humming here and the air had been close and thick with death and with the spring perfume. And I was on the verge of knowing that place and knowing it with a terrible pain, a pain so terrible that my mind veered away from it, said, No, don’t take me back to that place…”
“The tomb in the daytime, and when wreathed with fresh flowers, had looked grim and gruesome enough; but now some days afterwards, when the flowers hung lank and dead, their whites turning to rust and their greens to browns; when the spider and the beetle had resumed their accustomed dominance; when time-discolored stone, and dust-encrusted mortar, and rusty, dank iron, and tarnished brass and clouded silver-plating gave back the feeble glimmer of a candle, the effect was more miserable and sordid than could have been imagined. It conveyed irresistibly the idea that life–animal life–was not the only thing that could pass away.”
It’s difficult to tell. Not impossible, mind you, but difficult. They’re clearly not the same author, but which is which? If you aren’t overly familiar with either, there’s not much to go on.
There is a distance from both, a removal or detachment of the person speaking from the content in both of them, but I’m going to focus solely on Interview, which is the quote in green, if you were curious.
There is a difference in levels of immersion. In a standard first-person novel, the reader is in the head of the character, getting a constant feed of their thoughts, unfettered and seemingly unorganized. In an epistolary, a character is relaying details to another, usually known, party. There is a sense of translation between the character’s experience, what they choose to tell, and how they choose to tell it. You may know the feeling yourself, of writing an email to someone, and suiting your message to the recipient–what you wish them to know, what language you wish to convey that knowledge to them. It’s an extra mental step, and it shows. We, as readers, can easily spot the difference between a letter and an excerpt from a novel, even if we do not have the words to describe the contrast.
That’s what makes Interview so genius in my eyes. Anne Rice used the same epistolary format we found in Dracula and adapted it to a modern format. Instead of a collection of diary entries, letters, and wax recordings, Rice’s vampire finds a report to record his story on tape.
And by adding this journalist/tape factor, Rice accomplishes two major things:
First, the journalist is an advocate for the reader. There are things that Louis, the vampire, knows and assumes that are not relayed without questions from the human reporter. These interactions between the two provide the reader with needed information that would otherwise be provided in awkward and obvious ways that would interrupt the narrative flow and jolt the reader into unhappy awareness of the curtain being pulled back to reveal the yokel wizard at work.
Second, the tape recorder needs its tapes changed frequently–the vampire’s story is a long one. By having these breaks where the reporter must change the tape or, being lost in the vampire’s story, be prompted to change the tape, the reader also gets breaks from the tale. This isn’t exactly necessary, as the story is not one that needs breathers for the reader due to subject matter or intense language, but it does allow a sense of the passage of time. By occasionally pulling back into the “present” (the vampire being recorded/the reporter doing the recording/the modern tape recorder and noises of cars on the street below the apartment in which the interview is taking place), the weight of the years and the change those years have brought show the sheer amount of time and experience the vampire has lived through. This isn’t just a novel of a vampire’s… life… as it progresses day by day, it is a novel of a person looking back on the mistakes, the bad choices, and the loss experienced over centuries, reflected upon with the wisdom and perspective that comes with those many years–wisdom and perspective that no reader will attain.
“It seemed at moments, when I sat alone in the dark stateroom, that the sky had come down to meet the sea and that some great secret was to be revealed in that meeting, some great gulf miraculously closed forever. But who was to make this revelation when the sky and sea became indistinguishable and neither any longer was chaos? God? Or Satan? It struck me suddenly what consolation it would be to know Satan, to look upon his face, no matter how terrible that countenance was, to know that I belonged to him totally, an thus put to rest forever the torment of this ignorance. To step through some veil that would forever separate me from all that I called human nature.”