Elizabeth Kostova dedicates The Historian
to her father, who, she writes, first told me some of these stories. Dracula stories, she means, and so Kostova and I have something in common. My father and I weren’t traveling around Eastern Europe at the time, as Kostova and her father were, but the woods of Connecticut are still pretty dark. I was enchanted and terrified by the stories, too, and so it was with a great deal of enthusiasm that I sat down to Kostova’s tome. In the first 100 pages she had me slithering up the staircase again, my back to the wall (I was always convinced a vampire would attack from behind). But The Historian
was touted as a book that took 10 years to research, and eventually I began to feel that Kostova wanted her readers to pay. Perhaps it is the perfect book for someone who likes the kind of multi-pronged description favored by writers of flap copypart academic thriller, part guidebook to Cold War Europe, part love story
but I think the book suffers from trying to do too much.
There are three interwoven stories in The Historian
, and, with tiresome precision, each has its mysteries and its love interest. First, is the pursuit of the tomb of Vlad the Impaler, medieval tyrant of Wallachia whose reign formed the basis of the Dracula legend, by scholar Bartholomew Rossi in the 1920s. Then follows the search of his student, Paul, for both Rossi and the tomb in the 1950s after Rossi mysteriously disappears. The third story is the search of Paul’s daughter, our narrator, who is left, in the 1970s, to piece together all of the above after her father also disappears. All this searching leads to a lot of traveling and Kostova leaves no European capital undescribed. After a strong start, the pattern becomes rote: One of the story’s scholars (pick one, any one) discovers a new lead, travels to a new city, marvels at the beauties of said city (and marvels and marvels), then notices a pale stranger with unusually long canines, and we’re off again. Halfway through I’d lost the goose bumps and was skimming the descriptions of buildings like a spider scurrying over the façades.
This is Ignatius J. Reilly if he’d had
a lower opinion of himself, Binx Bolling without
the war service and the wealthy relatives,
Rob Fleming without the record hobby.
If the undead are the concern of the characters in The Historian
, it is the unborn for whom Lewis Miner, the narrator of Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land
, believes he is writing. A 1989 high school graduate (though he might prefer to think of it as survivor
), Miner, 15 years on, is preparing elaborate, excruciatingly truthful updates for his school newsletter, Catamount Notes
, in a vain attempt to deal with the terrible silence under all the jabbering of the world. How can we not love a narrator who on the first page proclaims: Let me
shout naught by the indisputable: I did not pan out. This is Ignatius J. Reilly if he’d had a lower opinion of himself, Binx Bolling without the war service and the wealthy relatives, Rob Fleming without the record hobby.
When the book opens, Lewis is mourning the loss of his girlfriend and generally wasting his time writing bogus FunFacts for the in-house newsletter of a giant soft drink company. He is by no means living well (and this reader could have done with a bit less masturbating), but he has those beloved qualities of the aforementioned narrators: an eye for the truth, a knack for knowing the essence of a person, an intolerance for phoniness. When his best friend Gary suggests that his updates might not be printed by their erstwhile principal, Lewis opines, He has to print it
. An update is an update. The things that happen are the things that happen.
If it’s not yet obvious, comparing The Historian
and Home Land
brought new meaning to the idea of apples and oranges. And yet, the two share a flaw. Both have too many characters who sound alike. In The Historian
, everyone’s a scholar. In Home Land
, we’ve got a handful of disaffected deadbeats. Of the two, I think the greater achievement may be to fill a book with witty people rather than a number of dry academics regurgitating the author’s research. Here’s Miner on American consumerism: No man can tell another man to stay out of the mall. That’s not how America works. On 1970s decor: It was a big room with
a cabinet TV from the days when entertainment lurked in the guise of furniture. On a certain kind of stupid suavity: The things of the world had been named, but not nicknamed. (John Cusack, please make this movie.)
I can’t say either book is destined to stay with me, but The Historian
has made it difficult to look at librarians in quite the same way. I also have a new wish to see the Carpathian Mountains. Home Land
, on the other hand, gave me several new insights into our abysmal contemporary culture that made me laugh out loud. In the end I decided to be guided by the fact that I read both books with a pen in hand, but only used it in one of them.