I’d had enough of this dang book taking up space on my bookcase. Like most things borrowed from my girlfriend, it would sit apart from my own library so that I’d know to read it quick and return it quick, lest I turn into a true-to-form mooch. But much like what happens with George Costanza upon finding a doll in his girlfriend’s collection that perfectly resembles his mother, I instill the worst aspects of an overbearing Jewish female authority figure into anything I borrow. Thus, an innocent little paperback can loom over me like the shadowy guilt of a mortal sin, sucking all the spontaneity and light out of my life, constantly nagging… “Why aren’t you reading this book? You’ve had it for five months already! WHY DON’T YOU READ THIS BOOK!?” Rather than hissing futiley “Because I like this one!” I throw poor Cherie Priest into the ceiling fan and clutch Elizabeth Kostova’s gargantuan The Historian, thunder crashing down on Grand Rapids as the shredded bits of steampunk and female heroism flutter down from the ceiling and I laugh maniacally like a bug-eating Renfield.
Or maybe it happened a bit more subtly, or y’know, West Michigany. Truth be told, besides being a neurotic borrower, I had to finally figure out what The Historian was all about, since its buzz was so damn cryptic. Basically, every source I came across said that it charted a woman’s plunge into family history and it involved… Dracula! Woo-ooooh! *Picture wriggling ghost fingers* Considering I’d had previous success with supernatural alternate history books and I needed some long-term reading, I took the annoyingly fuzzy plunge into history. Once there I found an occasionally riveting suspense tale with a hit-and-miss ratio naturally stipulated by its overlength. It didn’t skimp on tenderness or repressed emotions, as fits its era and its characters, but it lacked the general spirit of menace and adventure and the extravaganza of esoteric trivia that make other mass marketed thrillers so enjoyable. Seen, as I feel, as the heir to The Da Vinci Code‘s throne, The Historian failed to engage the cross-gender market by missing out on spectacle, aspiring towards being a ready-made literary classic instead of a nail biting thriller. And in regards to its forbear, Dracula, it just falls too short of consummating its love for that epitome of romanticism, maintaining too much solemnity for having been based on one of the most original and passionate novels ever written. But I may be giving Bram Stoker too much credit for inspiring The Historian, as Kostova is intent on painting as authentic a picture as possible, covering much of the real history that fed Stoker’s imagination.
First, to spare you my agony/suspense/whatever, here’s a short synopsis of The Historian:
Told in three parts, it begins with the eponymous but otherwise unnamed narrator becoming obsessed with an ancient book in her professor father Paul’s possession. After being pressed for more information, he reluctantly recounts how the book, which contains only the woodcut of a malevolent looking dragon and the word ‘Dracul’ in its middle, mysteriously came to him. From here the novel becomes primarily Paul’s story, beginning with his revelation that the woodcut refers to none other than Vlad Tepes, the infamously cruel despot whose memory inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When Paul’s mentor – also the recipient of an empty volume with the same woodcut – disappears, he seeks him out on a mission that reveals more and more about Dracula’s true history.
It will be best to sum up the strengths and shortcomings bluntly lest you spend as much time reviewing it as you do reading it. The two largest problems with The Historian are its weak framing device and a lack of dramatic transpiration. Put simply, it’s overlong and spread way too thin. Still, make no mistake that Kostova goes to great lengths to fully realize her character’s environs, and her research is highly commended, as is her authorly stamina. Despite being overlong, she never actually loses control of the story. In fact, she may retain too much of it.
Ordinarily I enjoy a story within a story much more than a traditional linear, omniscient narrative. Authors who successfully transfer the burden of narration upon a character can lessen the the distraction of their own prejudices and opinions, transcend the confines of a novel by suggesting the story’s delivery via another means, and heighten a story’s authenticity. From Paul’s perspective the story does very well. Kostova’s prose errs on the side of dry and her dialogue is overly formal when it needs more personality, but then again, we’re traipsing about Cold War Turkey with a closed-collar university professor. Dialogue is primarily a plot propellant, so our characters remain distant as functional talking-heads. Instead of endowing them with a little more color, Kostova chooses instead to shoot off more rounds through straight narration (even if it is secondhand) to compensate for the blanks fired by their interactions. In this she succumbs to the frame story’s biggest pitfall, turning the narrator’s voice into the author’s. When I would reenter the story after being taken out of it, the mental picture I had was of a character with no clue what his priorities were. For someone being chased by Dracula’s undead servants, the likes of Paul or his dear Professor Rossi often spend a foolish amount of time admiring (in very shallow detail) the Byzantine architecture and food they’re given. No wonder they couldn’t solve the mystery in a few less chapters.
But it’s not the central story that is The Historian‘s biggest weakness. Instead it’s the frame, where the unnamed Historian (daughter to Paul) goes on her own little search in a subplot that is so underdeveloped that it threatens the story’s credibility and sustaining narrative drive. Considering how much I hate it, it’s easy to believe that Kostova purposefully keeps these sections short, so that we can skim through the cliche-laden storyline before returning to her father’s darker story. Then again, maybe that’s the point; Kostova includes the daughter as a breath of fresh (or should I say polluted?) air for the wider reading public. If that’s the case, then it’s no more than a cheap marketing ploy. Either way, the The Historian suffers whenever its title character enters the mix, particularly with her one-dimensional male chaperone, whom Kostova can’t decide is dainty or dashing. They do nothing but cover the same ground as their predecessors until they are called upon once and for all to make a final revelation. Just imagine how the Mona Lisa would look encapsulated by a Target-brand, spray-coated metal frame with Century Gothic words “Mystery LOVE Trust Danger” jutting out of all four sides. That’s what the Historian’s frame story does to the far more subtle interior story.
When the Historian isn’t being an annoyance, we’re hard pressed to stay interested in the central mystery. It’s worrying that Kostova won a “novel-in-progress” award at University of Michigan for The Historian, and I fear that the experience may have rubbed off too much on her. When we crave more suspense, more history, further dives into the mysteries of the Balkans, she serves up garden-variety family drama tropes, describing, in minute detail, meal after meal after freaking meal that our heroes enjoy. Then we may get a little cursory psychoanalytic characterization. Where’s the peril? Where’s the excitement?? It makes me worry about the MFA programs that I’ve been researching so closely; when some of the greatest books ever written are extreme genre pieces, why do these programs hew so closely to the chokingly derivative, schoolbook literariness that the general public has abhorred for time immemorial? Not that proper modern literature can’t be gratifying – Ian McEwan is a personal favorite here – but why should something as promisingly sinister as The Historian turn into a neutered soap opera? Kostova’ emphasis on such tedium threatens the story’s scope, as the wide-reaching danger she establishes at the story’s onset dwindles until it becomes more of a personal demon. With her irresolute direction, the threat of Dracula becomes more symbolic of a drug addiction than it does a civilization threatening, soul-crushing force. Whether the Historian, Paul, his partner Helen, or Professor Rossi ever confront and defeat Dracula or not, we hardly feel that the outcome will make much difference beyond their own lives. Each new discovery is more understatedly spooky than the last. The climax beggars real shock, feeling like a cheap man-behind-the-curtain reveal. Most likely all these things are because the premise is spread way too thin over its 900 pages to make us care how it turns out. Many supporting characters are oblivious to our heroes’ plight. Clues are too redundant, to both the characters’ and our aggravation, so it feels like very little ever happens. And seriously, if I had to read another token description of a meal or some crumbling Byzantine city, I promised myself I was going to stake The Historian with a glass shard. That’s kind of how I felt reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror, one of those supernatural alternative histories I really did enjoy, and his continually fascinating descriptions of ice. Yes, ice. And more ice. That’s all his source material really gave him to work with. Thankfully, in Simmons’ followup Drood, his Wilkie Collins mocks writerkind for this kind of obsessive reinvention.
Attach what significance you want to the action taking place in the restrictive, paranoid era of the Cold War, on the plain of battle between warring cultures for thousands of years. It doesn’t change the fact that The Historian doesn’t attempt to engage us as a full bore thriller, nor as a simmering Gothic mystery either. Kostova’s novel promised to be a creepy respite from the pulp heap of interchangeable, bland political thrillers that gobble up table, rack, and shelf space in the many mall and airport bookstores that I presume have all gone bankrupt. But while it’s a step in the right direction, The Historian can’t decide what it wants to be, so instead of wowing the world like The Da Vinci Code before it, or dazzling more critics like Dracula before it, we’re given something much more slow burning and a lot less silly and controversial. Maybe that’s why the many reviewers before me couldn’t quite figure out what to make of it.