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Disorientation

Do you remember that opening piece in The Scarlet Letter during junior year of high school about the custom house and how you weren’t (or I wasn’t, at least) sure whether it was part of the book or whether it was an introduction that could be skipped? And then how what little bit of it you may have read was stilted and old and dessicated and more or less did not have a place in your sixteen-year-old head? Although I’ve long since learned to understand and even enjoy that sort of prose, it’s been a while since I’ve read a novel written more than 50 years ago, and reading the brief introductory note about the supposed provenance of the documents that make up Dracula reminded me of that earlier disorientation. While the prose of the opening chapter is hardly opaque, it does (understandably) read like something old, and this observation made one thing very clear: Reading Dracula is going to be a very different experience from reading Infinite Jest.

That difference is going to be driven by two sorts of cultural disorientation, the first grounded in real or immediate familiarity with things and the second grounded in simulated familiarity with things. For example, although the world Wallace wrote about was set in the future at the time of its writing, it depicted a landscape we could mostly identify with. People spoke more or less as we do and engaged with technology and in culture behaviors akin to those we engage with and in. While we may not have known intimately what life at a tennis academy was like, we’ve been to basketball or summer camp or watched others at such camps in plausibly realistic depictions on TV. While we may not have been to any AA meetings, they are enough a part of our recent culture that we have no trouble absorbing Wallace’s presentation of them almost as if we are ourselves sitting in a folding chair shrouded in cigarette smoke and trying really hard to Identify with whoever’s speaking.

But the opening of Dracula is very much unfamiliar territory. The speaker is in a place strange to him and stranger to us, having arrived there by train (and while there are trains today, how many of us take transcontinental rides on them, really? And how different must his late-19th-century train be from the ones we’ve ridden?). There’s strange food, strange people, strange geography, a horse-drawn coach mounted not as a matter of novelty but because it’s a real mode of practical transportation. I suppose we’ve seen enough of these sorts of things on the screen to feel as if they’re familiar, but that familiarity is manufactured and quite possibly mostly wrong.

In the first post about Dracula at the Infinite Summer blog, scholar Elizabeth Miller warns against allowing preconceptions about the novel informed by pop culture to color our reading. This of course is another challenge of reading the book. When I first encountered words spoken (actually written) by Dracula, I couldn’t help but hear them spoken more or less as Sesame Street’s Count speaks. And though I never saw the fairly recent (ie, some time in the last 10 or 15 years) screen adaptation of Stoker’s book, I do have a mental image from the previews of a tall pale guy with a weird butt hairdo, and that image flashes across my mind’s movie screen while I’m reading, whether or not I will it not to. Working around this manufactured familiarity with the book’s namesake to get at what’s actually on the page is going to be one of the big challenges for me for this read, I think.

Wallace wrote, in e pluribus unam, about how inescapably young fiction writers were influenced by television and particulary the irony of its self-reference. This installment of Infinite Summer may prove an exercise in trying to escape the influence of electronic media from the reader’s perspective.

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  1. September 29, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    These are some good opening observations, Daryl. I, too, am finding it challenging to unlearn what I “know” about vampires as I try to appreciate Stoker’s take on them. While he isn’t the originator of all of these ideas, he is the vector through which most all subsequent writers and filmmakers experienced them. So he’s a valuable touchstone.

    As a writer, he’s an entirely different cup of tea compared to DFW. And part of that isn’t just the fact that this is a late nineteenth century work. Part of that, I think, is that Stoker just isn’t much of a stylist. He’s interested in creating a certain mood, with creating suspense, and with moving the story forward more than with a particular choice of word.

  2. October 1, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Actually, I was struck by how much effort Stoker goes through to make sure that Harker’s world is utterly FAMILIAR to us. His complaint about how the trains never run on time is as applicable now as it was then (though now better suited, perhaps, to planes). And his observations about people seem to be pretty universal (at least so far as Harker’s snobby character goes). I’ve posted about this in more detail here:

    http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2009/10/bite-sized-blogging-dracula-chapter-1.html

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts as the blogging continues!

  3. October 1, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Aaron, that’s an interesting point. I guess what I’m getting at is that however much Stoker may strive to bring us in, the facts of the world his characters inhabit are pretty far removed culturally from what I’m used to (and certainly from what we saw in IJ), so it’s a different sort of read, at least for me.

  4. jaycruz
    October 3, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    It’s good to know that I’m not alone on this, because I’m having a really hard time visualizing Dracula with a white long mustache.

  1. October 2, 2009 at 3:03 am

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