Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

I guess you can say I doubled down on the HBO series True Blood by picking up the first book of the Sookie Stackhouse series, Dead Until Dark. I suppose by saying that, I'm trying to use the generally acknowledged awesomeness of the TV series to cover for the fact that I just read a trashy romance novel about supernatural beings (and supernatural sex). Next up on my reading queue is Twilight.

No, I'm just kidding. Twilight is absolutely insufferable, in any version, and I will never read it. But Charlaine Harris is actually pretty great—the genius of the television series is not all on Alan Ball's side.

One thing that True Blood does not dig into (that I remember) that the book treats in quite interesting ways is Sookie's attempt to understand her telepathy as a "disability." Her ability to read minds—or to be more precise, her inability to keep the thoughts of others out of her mind—does make her seem "slow," and her fellow denizens of Bon Temps, Louisiana treat her as if she is "simple" or "crazy." There's a dissertation to be written, maybe, comparing her to Benjy Compson. ("Bill smelled like trees…"?)

Additionally, there is an explanation of vampirism that the book provides—and then discards—that I don't remember factoring into True Blood: vampires have supposedly been infected with a virus that causes them to appear to be dead for a couple of days, and then afflicts them with severe allergies to sunlight, silver, and garlic ever after. (And, of course, there's the necessity of consuming blood and the immortality—some side effects!) The fact that Harris toys with using vampires as an allegory for gays ("coming out of the coffin") makes this virus theory more than a little unseemly—it raises the specter of the idea that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus might be in some sense as fundamental to gay identity. I don't think that Harris actually intends this comparison (in fact, her vampires are susceptible to a specific strain of AIDS which can be carried by humans), but it does kind of sit out there more than a little awkwardly.

And I guess that awkwardness—and the awkwardness of having Sookie and others treat her telepathy like a "disability"—is strangely enriching. This awkwardness and these issues defamiliarize the vampire legends in the sense that they refresh the essential strangeness of the idea of a vampire. The routinized imagination of what a vampire is, accreted over many iterations of film and pulp novels, becomes more difficult to access—the Bela Lugosi or Anne Rice images and tropes effectively stop working for you as you read Harris's books.

Oh, and the book's loads of fun.


Adam Roberts Project said...

Some critics are a little more on the fence about the awesomeness of the TV serial. Fun, though. Yes.

Andrew Seal said...

First of all, I completely agree with you on the relative attractiveness of the female leads. I too found Anna Paquin a little on the stereo side: she's either turned on or turned off, and those are her only two expressions. However, I have to say that I enjoyed the relationship built between Sookie (I really like the name, btw) and Bill--although I didn't confuse it with a great love story, I found the particular ways it grew overwrought fascinating, and the little touches by which "courting" was modified to fit their case to be a little charming and occasionally a little clever.

I do think, as that ridiculous commenter who was defending the South, that racism is not intended to be an analogue for the prejudice against racism, just homophobia. And while this analogue doesn't by any means correct your objection--that the "prejudice" against vampires is founded on a danger that is not made up--it does, however, have a closer and more meaningful parallel: the disgust that vampires encounter as "unnatural" sexual beings. (It's a disgust, I fully recognize, which also still attaches itself to race, but other than that line you cite about mixed couples, that isn't dealt with at all, and I am inclined to believe that was the writers being opportunistic and uncareful more than provocative and meaningful. I don't know whether or not the writers *should* have dealt with interraciality more substantively--and I'm kind of glad they didn't because I do think they would have botched it--but I do think they don't intend to place any weight on that particular parallel.)

I do have serious issues, as I began to explain above, with the way that the gays/vampires analogy opens itself up to really awful (in both a conceptual and a moral sesnse) envelope-pushings of this basic parallel, and I question what kind of resistance to homophobia is ever really mounted. The books and the show seems to present a sort of brute-force pragmatism toward the idea of difference which to me is insufficient: "other people are different," it says, "and sometimes even dead. If you can't live with that, you have a big problem." This isn't vibrant multiculturalism by any means. However, I'm not convinced it's actually harming more robust ideas of multiculturalism in the process: it wouldn't, I think, preclude someone from learning that there are better reasons and better ways of living with difference than teeth-gritted tolerance of the other. At least, that's what I'd like to hope.

Adam Roberts said...

I'm curious about this (I'm assuming '...that racism is not intended ...' should read '...that anti-vampire prejudice is not intended ...'). You really think so?

I'd be tempted to argue (without wanting to get all slippery and academic) that the absence of deictic markers to race in the text tends to suggest, as Freud might say, precisely that race is at the heart of things. Certainly watching the series that's what kept occurring to me: the way everything is tied, symbolically, to the American Civil War (not a war fought for the emancipation of homosexuals, after all); the specifics of the harrassment we see vampires sufferings: police pulling over their cars; people firebombing their houses (again: I'm not aware that the police are in the habit of pulling over gay drivers).

I agree the vampires are heavily (although not exclusively) sexualised; but as you not so are people of colour. And some vampires attempt to 'pass' as mortals; but I don't need to rehearse here the complicated history of 'passing' in American history.

At one point, somebody asks Sookie and Bill whether they're thinking of getting married 'when that becomes legal'. But despite the current Californian (and elsewhere) kerfuffles about same sex marriage, this surely resonates more with the older laws against miscegination: Sookie is a mortal, after all, and Bill a vampire. Not even the Californian legislature can forbid a gay man from marrying a woman.

Andrew Seal said...

Yeah, that's what I meant to write--anti-vampire prejudice is not set up as an allegory for racism.

I do think that homosexuality is the analogue the show suggests, from the opening sequence which puns on the slogan of the Westboro Baptist Church ("God hates fangs") to the marriage question that you cite--which I do think must be read first and most relevantly within the context of the gay marriage debate; the Prop 8 battle was simply too pervasive a topic for the writers to have been wanting the general viewer to be thinking of something else, at least immediately.
And there is a lot of other stuff as well, from the association of many if not all the show's gay characters with vampires and vampire culture (contrastingly, no straight black character has yet had a significant interaction with a vampire) to Alan Ball's consistent interest throughout his career in exploring homosexuality within broader American culture, to explicit comments made by Charlaine Harris that the novels are a "metaphor for gays in America," to the other pun which recurs frequently--that vampires are "coming out of the coffin," which I think is a much closer analogue to the "mainstreaming" Bill undertakes than racial passing--he never attempts to "pass," just live among the majority culture as an open vampire.

Given the profusion of links between homosexuality and vampirism in the show, if we still want to say that vampires are coded as "black" and not "gay," then I feel like we'd have to assume that the show is intentionally using all overt connections to homosexuality as a smokescreen or a decoy, which seems to me to be needlessly skeptical.

What I think is going on with the examples you cite (and I want to throw in the fact that, yes, there is quite a history of police brutality and harassment of gays) is that the show is borrowing from a stock of what it considers to be images of general Southern bigotry, not specifically focused on blacks but on any outsider or minority. Some of these images are, however, intimately tied to the specific history of racism, and not to generalized bigotry, and I do question whether re-applying them to a different type of prejudice isn't fundamentally invalidating and a little monstrous. Furthermore, I would--and did--question whether the show handles any of its ideas about prejudice responsibly, but I don't think there's any need to add a hidden agenda of using vampirism-as-a-metaphor-for-homophobia-as-a-stalking-horse-for-racism to a show that is for the most part about excessive superficiality.

Andrew Seal said...

That would be "coming out of the closet" (the pun of "coming out of the coffin") is a closer analogue to "mainstreaming" than "passing" is--Bill is coming out, not passing.

Anonymous said...

I'm cooking up a storm at the moment (by the way, if you ever want to make lime chicken, don't use 5 limes per pound; use 3.5 limes per pound), but I wanted to ask/clarify/?= in the novel, I thought that the "vampire virus" was used as a way of explaining vampires to humans; that is, it's a myth fabricated by them to make their undead condition acceptable to human society / less frightening / more understandable. In otherwords, Hi Humans. We have a virus that is like AIDS...

Also, in the series, Alan Ball, god bless him, changes Harris's vampire AIDS strain to Hepatitis D...because, I'm not going to lie, it'd be a little homophobic otherwise. Just like Harris's text is a little bit racist. Well, maybe not homophobic or racist, but a bit uninformed? insensitive? I don't know. I don't really mind because I love her like butter. I've googled pictures of Harris on the net and I just want to hug her.