11 January, 2012

'Bloodsucking Fiends' by Christopher Moore

Happy New Year, everyone!

So I said I was going to review "Treasure Island!!!" by Sara Levine, but I changed my mind. It was a fast and funny read, but the more I write these reviews the more I feel compelled to focus this blog on sci-fi and fantasy books, of which Levine's was not one. It was funny, but painfully so, a bit like if Kimmy Gibler had a cameo on an episode of Arrested Development : awkward and ridiculous, each interchange leaving me unsure if I was supposed to laugh or cringe, or both. I liked it, but it didn't wow me. (Sidebar-- the fact that most, if not all, kids who are graduating from high school this year have no idea who Kimmy Gibler is, is a tragedy of epic proportions. Discuss in comments.)

Moving on: I picked up Bloodsucking Fiends at last, after it sat on my shelf for almost a year, staring me down. I was expecting a quick read with a lot of laughs, and I wasn't disappointed. But I wasn't expecting the commentary, the intelligence in the humor, or how the book turned the romanticizing of vampires on its ear.

Most vampire stories are at least in part a parable of loneliness and isolation. The human turned vampire, cut out from "normal" society not because of an action but because of his identity, has to make his way in a world of which he is no longer quite a part, biting some throats along the way. It's one part horror mixed with two parts pathos, sprinkled liberally with sex appeal and Gothic romanticism. Urban fantasy has updated the vampire story in a few different ways, and whether your poison of choice is Buffy, Twilight or Sookie Stackhouse, you've got a variety of vamps to choose from. Jody, the undead protagonist of Bloodsucking Fiends, is unlike most of the others I've read or seen, because she's real. She is, if you'll pardon the irony, alive in a way a lot of her counterparts aren't.

Jody was very relatable for me because for most of the book she has no idea what the hell she's doing with her life or even what she wants from it. I bet Christopher Moore wishes the phrase "hot mess" had been around in 1995, because there aren't many better terms to describe someone who's broken up with her boyfriend, gotten kicked out of her apartment, lost her job, and had her car impounded, all within the span of a day or two. That she then wakes up to discover she's become a vampire is just another bit of bad luck, albeit the crown of the heap. But although she's now super strong and super fast, with heightened senses and $100,000 more in her pocket than she had before, her problems don't disappear. In fact, they multiply. She can't get her car back because the impound lot is only open in daylight. She can't get a new apartment because what retailer comes out after dark? She quickly realizes that what she needs is a minion-- a live person who can do her business for her during the day so she can figure out what she wants to do with herself at night.

Enter Tommy. A lovable, affable, boy-next-door type, he becomes Jody's boyfriend and minion in one fell swoop. And while I didn't connect with Tommy the way I did with Jody, once the two of them meet, the funny meter goes through the roof. They are quite literally made for each other-- Tommy has no more idea of what he's doing with his life than Jody does, and is similarly searching desperately for something important to do with himself. When Jody reveals her secret, he's not repulsed. He's fascinated. His life has just opened up in a way he never expected-- and the same is true for Jody. Faced with the possibility of a clumsy and luckless eternity, she now has a partner and helper, someone who will buy an industrial freezer to store a dead body in without blinking an eyelash. Two lonely people whose separate searches for meaning in life (or unlife) have a mutual end in their meeting; is there anything more worth the name "love story"?

I loved the scenes that dealt with Jody's hapless attempts to function in her newly undead state. Like Ms. Rosannadanna says, it's always something-- if she's not discovering some new weird thing about being a vampire (like, for example, that once dawn hits she falls instantly asleep no matter where she is, even the shower) she's getting hit on by men thinking she's a hooker for walking around alone at night. When she successfully intimidates one of these thugs into leaving her alone, he comes back later with three friends to finish the job, forcing Jody to finish them off instead. Tommy brings his frat boy coworkers to the apartment for a midday kegger, leaving her to clean up after them once she wakes up. And the vampire that made her keeps killing people and leaving clues so the police will think Tommy is involved. Even in the afterlife, a girl just can't catch a break.

The fact that this is a story about a vampire is what keeps it funny and entertaining-- there are a million romcoms about the dorky pretty girl who keeps falling down in front of her boss or dumping coffee on her office crush. But a vampire whose uptight mother comes to visit unexpectedly, whose boyfriend brings her two enormous snapping turtles as combination pets and afternoon snacks, who has to explain to people why she cleans house in the middle of the night-- that's comedy you can't find just anywhere.

I really liked Jody as a heroine. I was excited to read a vampire book that had a woman at its center (and NOT in a Twilight way) and I really liked that she didn't fall into any of the stereotypes that women in fantasy   (especially vampire stories) can sometimes be subjected to. She isn't an ugly duckling, a disillusioned emo girl or a femme fatale. She's just a regular girl with regular problems-- some of which happen to deal closely with the fact that she's not alive anymore. She grows into her powers in a real and believable way, too; her struggles with how and when to use them, the ethics of killing to feed herself, how she protects Tommy and herself, and the dilemma of whether or not to change someone when they ask her to, kept me turning pages as fast as I could. It's like watching Peter Parker learn how to be Spiderman-- I was rooting for her as she became increasingly badass, yet still felt I could relate to her and enjoy her as a person because who she was, the core of her, was still someone I could identify with. Bloodsucking Fiends is a love story, but not just of Jody and Tommy falling in love. It's also the story of Jody learning to love herself, and learning to own her badassery and use it in a just and righteous way.

As a final note, I found it funny and almost ironic that a fair few of the reviews I read on Goodreads for this book called it graphic and violent. Those people missed the point of the book, or at least what was the point of it for me. The world is graphic and violent and shitty, and that doesn't change ever, whether you're a vampire or a cop or a guy who works overnights at the Safeway. All you can do is find a few people who make it bearable, and stick with them no matter what.

In retrospect, I'm actually a little surprised Moore didn't call his book "Reality Bites". Janeane Garofolo would've been a great Jody.

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