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Well Chop Off My Head and Shove Garlic Down My Throat

October 16, 2009

Kul‘s Aaron asks if I’m finding the novel as ridiculous as he does. Not ‘ridiculous,’ per se. But I’m finding that good ol’ Van Helsing has sucked a lot of the life out of the story with his putatively Dutch tortured syntax. A couple lines of this stuff is cute, but now Stoker’s treating us to paragraph after paragraph of exposition in this style and it makes me want to drive a sharp wooden stake into my own heart. I was in the Netherlands recently and can say with 100% certainty that Dutch people do not, in fact, talk this way. Even when they’re speaking English.

Plus I’m finding all the tragic deaths and subsequent outpourings of love and goodwill and declarations of eternal love, trust and friendship between the surviving characters to be a bit much. My feelings on this are best summed up by a quote from our own dear departed David Foster Wallace:

Let’s not all sit around and give each other handjobs.

I think half the problem is that Stoker drags out the Big Reveal About Lucy for about a million chapters, with Van Helsing hand-feeding Seward from his little Dutch Pez-dispenser of clues every step of the goddamn way. This is particularly irksome because I know the story, and usually when you know the story you can try to find interest in the style or whatever, but since we’re getting most of this section in Van Helsing’s words as recorded by Seward, and Van Helsing and Seward aren’t exactly the Johnson and Boswell of the Victorian era, the going is a bit rough.

But let’s keep our chins up — Van Helsing keeps abruptly asking people for permission to chop Lucy’s head off and stuff her mouth with garlic, and that’s gotta lead to something interesting, right?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. ecorwin permalink
    October 16, 2009 5:07 pm

    At least when Wallace mimicked speech patterns he was accurate (to the best of his ability). Van Helsing’s fractured English has been enough for me to want to chop off his head and shove garlic down his throat. No Dutch person I have heard or know speak English does it this horribly. Perhaps in Stoker’s day, and from his theater background, this made sense, but I’ve wanted to fling this slim little book across the room more than once.

  2. October 16, 2009 7:05 pm

    Yeah, and as I wrote about in my most recent “bite-sized” blog, this pez-like dispensing of information–not by Helsing, but by Stoker–isn’t going anywhere. When Wallace wrote about Erdedy on page 21, I trusted that it was going to go somewhere, and it did. While the payoff didn’t necessarily satisfy everyone, there was at least a feeling that his characters were living off the page. Here, even when they’ve recorded themselves ON the page, and done so THEMSELVES, it still feels as lifeless as Count Dracula is.

    • October 16, 2009 8:24 pm

      See, for me it feels like almost the inverse of what you’ve described — the problem for me is that it is going somewhere, but somewhere that became totally obvious about 50 pages prior to arrival. But Stoker is treating it as if he’s doing some kind of virtuoso gradual reveal of a great mystery, and we’re just like “Let’s get to the goddamn point and kill some vampires already.”

      This is probably 50% Stoker’s fault for being such a ham about it, and 50% our fault for bringing our historical perspective to bear on the work. But I absolutely agree that the net result is starchy, lifeless plotting.

  3. ecorwin permalink
    October 16, 2009 8:58 pm

    In other words too much theater, not enough substance? If the book had more substance to it, I think I could tolerate some of its shortcomings a lot better. I’m concerned that theater aspect may be all there really is when I get to the end.

  4. October 16, 2009 9:31 pm

    Sorry, I meant going anywhere for the *characters.* It’s not the plot I’m concerned with. But unless Quincey P. Morris shows up again as something more than a “moral Viking,” I’m going to feel cheated. Unless we learn something of Renfield’s past and current obsession with the Master, I’m going to be disappointed. It’s like playing chess without understanding the function of any of the pieces: sure, you can move them about and say that you’re actually getting somewhere, and someone watching who actually understands the game might actually see a picture forming, but there’s little that’s really going on. (Which was part of my reluctance to read this book in the first place, especially after Infinite Jest.)

    • October 17, 2009 12:47 am

      Good point re: the characters. Unfortunately I don’t think Stoker’s going to give us a lot to work with there, as he doesn’t seem terribly interested in developing his characters. I mean shit, this is like the DaVinci Code of the late 1800s, right? People probably weren’t reading it for the characters.

      The extent of Stoker’s characterization is that these are all Really Great People, and that seems to be enough for him. Van Helsing is the best doctor, and Seward his best student, and J-Hark the most talented young lawyer, and Lucy the prettiest girl, and Mina the nicest person. They’re “characters” crafted almost entirely out of superlatives, in other words. And they’re constantly congratulating themselves on their superiority, which I alluded to with the handjobs bit above.

      I think this is along the same lines of what Claire Zulkey was getting at with her post on Lucy the other day. Why is everyone in love with Lucy? Because Lucy’s the one everyone’s in love with. There’s a similar circular one-dimensionality behind all of Stoker’s characters. Renfield, in fact, may be the most developed character — at least he’s the only one at this point who shows evidence of mysterious depth worth plumbing.

      One of the things that always pissed me off about Grey’s Anatomy, the TV show, is the conceit that all of the doctors in the ensemble cast were The Best in Their Field. You’ve got the best neurosurgeon, the best plastic surgeon, the best students, and the best so-and-so anywhere, and they all happen to be in the same hospital and having sex with each other. Dracula is just like this, but with vampires.

      • October 17, 2009 1:11 am

        I mean shit, this is like the DaVinci Code of the late 1800s, right?


        I do think it’s a little better than that, but van Helsing pretty much kills the fucking book for me almost every time. The one person I hate more than him is Seward (because of Renfield).

    • October 17, 2009 1:12 am

      Unless we learn something of Renfield’s past and current obsession with the Master, I’m going to be disappointed.

      Haaaaaa um.

  5. October 17, 2009 10:16 am

    Now that’s funny. I’m reading the book in the latest German translation ( by one Karl Bruno Leder) and Van Helsing has no speech deficits whatsoever!

    But I know the problem you mean. Everything Is Illuminated features lots of letters by some Eastern European bloke early on and his command of English is less than perfect. That’s a nice joke for one letter, but it just goes on and on like that.

    That’s probably the main reason I put the book down.

    • Infinitedetox permalink
      October 17, 2009 7:41 pm

      Wow, interesting about the German translation. I bet it’s because when AVH is overcome with emotion and blurts out something in his ‘native tongue,’ Stoker has him speaking German instead of Dutch:)

      • October 18, 2009 3:11 am

        I thought you were joking, but indeed Wikipedia has this: “The typically Dutch prefix “van” gives the name a Dutch appearance. The character however uses German words instead of Dutch, such as “mein Gott” and “toll”, which translate in English to “my God” and “mad” respectively. At the time, German was a lingua franca throughout most of northern and central continental Europe, including the Nordic countries and Transylvania, a fact Stoker uses in the story when Van Helsing’s friend Jonathan Harker and the locals of Transylvania talk to each other using German.”


  1. Mein Gott!! Is he faking it? « Infinite Zombies

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