Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian is 675 pages long, and I gave up somewhere around the 575 page mark.
I guess the reason I persevered for so long is because, in theory, many of the themes of the novel interest me: history, mythology, Eastern Europe Vs Western Europe, vampires, religion, postmodernism and, erm... International Bestsellers.
(You have to read one every now and then if you ever want to write one, I imagine.)
So, what was actually good about this novel?
Well, to a point, there is a coherent use of classically-saleable literary tools like delayed-plot progression and the deployment of suspense: although it could be as easily argued that these tools - and the way they contribute to the overall feel of the novel - are merely cynical and clumsily-handled foils whose use serves only to frustrate the reader and draw attention to the format of the story in a way that may be postmodern, technically, but which also smacks of amateurism.
When the narrator's dad spends the first few hundred pages of the novel failing to tell his whole story because he's just a bit too emo and keeps sweating, I don't feel like I'm on the receiving end of cuddly compound adjectives like 'unputdownable', I just feel like my time's being wasted.
So, what's bad about The Historian?
Glad I asked. How's this lot for starters?
"Barley grabbed my shoulders with as little elegance as I had held onto the armoire a moment before, but his kiss was angelically graceful, his youthful experience pressing softly into my utter lack of it."
"'Blast it!' I beat the side of the building with my fist."
"'A curse on this day!" Turgut's face was anguished, and he pressed his friend's hand in his two big ones."
"'Oh, how extremely lucky!' I exclaimed. 'We are -' Just then Helen's foot came down on mine. She wore pumps, like every woman in that era, and the heel was sharp. 'We are very glad to meet you,' I finished. 'What do you teach?'
"The smiling tall woman who came in pleased me at once. Her hair was gray but it gleamed silver, pinned back from a long face. She smiled at me first but didn't bend over to meet me. Her hand was warm, like her husband's, and she kissed my father on each cheek, shaking her head through a gentle stream of Italian."
Is that enough?
From these few choice sentences the first thing that will strike you about the writer Elizabeth Kostova is that she is a bad writer. Reading 600+ pages of a novel by any writer is hard-going; reading 600+ pages of bad writing, by a bad writer, is something nobody should have to do.
So, the writing is bad, (which is bad, for a novel), but also, the plot is bad, which is especially bad for a novel that is glued so rigidly to its plot, which moves at the pace of a train, and judders too, like a train, and stops regularly, just like a train, and feels like an incredibly limited and ultimately outmoded form of transport, just. like. a. train.
Except I've never been on a train that was so shit I got off before my stop.
(Except that one time shortly after I moved to London when the Asian businessman was fondling my crotch, but that's another story.)
In the fourth quote up there the narrator's father is exclaiming how "lucky" it is that he, an historian visiting Turkey to find out more about Dracula, has just happened to bump into the country's foremost authority on Dracula - who is also in a secret organisation set up to protect the nation from the vampire's evil influence: he'll find that out later - in the first fucking café he's sat down in to take tea.
Yes, we might call that 'lucky' in real life. We might even stretch to exclaiming it, and then telling somebody we've exclaimed it, because exclaiming something with our voice (or in written form, with the handy '!' symbol), isn't, apparently, enough, is it Mrs Kostova? (I questioned. Just then. Did you see? I questioned. God this could go on couldn't it? I questioned.)
Yes, we'd call it 'lucky' - in the context of a novel, we call it BAD WRITING. We call it a plot like a paint by numbers chart with a great big massive fucking square with a 1 in the middle, and a big fucking bucket of red paint with a 1 printed on the lid. That's basically what your plot is, Elizabeth Kostova.
And yet there are complications provided by the fact that this whole plot - like, everything up to the point I stopped reading, so most of it - is related to the daughter in these broken, emotionally-stunted story sessions and/or preposterously long, detailed, incredibly well-remembered letters.
At which point the lengthy chapters about communist-era Eastern Europe in which the two unlovable academic leads - the dull-as-trench-mud dad and his cliché-bedraggled hard-nosed Romanian wife-to-be - traipse around cities reciting the entire history of Europe as though it was one bloody endless cricket match ceases to need these hotchpotched literary frames in which to breathe, (gasp), I have no recollection, but it seems that, about halfway through, the novel reaches an agreement with its readers and its writer that from that point onward (about 300-pages?) it'll simply be a chapter about the two academic drones boring each other to tears about the Ottoman Empire while not touching each other's legs under the table, followed by an utterly superfluous mini-chapter in which bore #1's child (in the present day, not in the past - ah, clever!) sits on a train with this lanky public school cunt - who is - presumably - one of Elizabeth Kostova's archetypal ideas of what a MAN should be - and neither one of them will say or do anything remotely entertaining or interesting.
And while all of this is happening, nobody is being hideously butchered to death by fangs and/or talons; nobody has had cause to stake anyone through any of their vital organs, and nobody has even got frisky in the musty surrounds of a ruined chapel - not, you understand, not that the latter would interest me in the slightest.
It's really very difficult, on reflection, for me to deduce what exactly there is in this novel to interest anybody but a bad agent or a one-eyed literary marketing exec. I can only hope/assume that there is a huge bloody massacre in the last few pages and that it is presented in crudely sketched biro. I may never know.
The Historian takes the worst parts of a deservedly-dead tradition, the Victorian novel, and matches them with the worst excesses of anti-art, modern-day supermarket/airport 2-for-1 stacks of shit that just sit there in skyscraper piles with their embossed, focus-grouped covers screaming "ADAPT ME FOR FILM! ADAPT ME FOR FILM!"
As a romance it is flaccid and dusty; as an historical fiction it is lifeless and distinctly unimaginative; as a thriller, it is tepid and does not thrill; as a horror, it is horrific only in the ghostly groans of the many trees whose combined hundreds of years on this planet were spent so that they could be pulped into a sorry canvas for this unilluminated, unrelenting, mind-numbing, soggy, sexless, lifeless American trash.
And you know what? Dracula was shit too.