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“Troubling Otherness in Fevre Dream” by George R.R. Martin. A Talk by Dara Downey. Vampires go boating

March 23, 2017


Sometimes it’s nice to invite guest speakers – sometimes it’s nicer to introduce one of our own.   Our own Dr Dara Downey gave a talk yesterday afternoon about this lesser known work by George R. R Martin.   Martin, of course, gave us the world of Game of Thrones.  He’s about 6000 pages into the extended saga of Westeros so far and shows no sign of getting to the end any time soon.

Fevre Dream, which I read at high speed in the space of 24 hours… is a far more self contained novel.  It is something like a viable contribution to the world of Southern Gothic, and a book that is as fascinating in its failures as in its successes.

It’s the 1850s, and Abner Marsh, a steamboat captain who’s down on his luck, makes a deal with the pale and refined Joshua York to build the biggest and swankiest Mississippi steamboat you’ve ever seen – the “Fevre Dream”.  As they sail south towards New Orleans, it is observed that Joshua only really comes out at night, as do his close friends and associates.  And he’s pale – really really pale.  The book exhibits the truth that you can only remythologise vampires by demythologising them first.  By exploding all the stuff about silver and mirrors (Joshua ensures that the steamboat Fevre Dream contains as many mirrors and as much silver as possible), the book attempts to prove the central proposition that mortals share the earth with immortal blood-suckers – more plausible.  Of course, Marsh, as the main “point of view” character “doesn’t hold with slavery” as a crude means of ensuring that we have some sort of moral compass on board this vessel.

Part of what’s strangely enjoyable about the book, is the attempt to find a “politically” correct language to describe “people” who, let’s face it, just aren’t like us.  There are vampires and vampires we learn.  Julian the Vampire, who has a southern planter’s sense of innate aristocratic entitlement and the rationalising vocabulary of a Sparknotes Nietzschean, has no time for sensitive turns of phrase at all.  Humans are “cattle” – and there’s an end of it.  Nice guy Joshua on the other hand has a variety of circumlocutions to play with.  You sort of know that Joshua is OK because he like poetry, quotes Byron and Shelley, and is perhaps named after Joshua Chamberlain, the liberal arts Bowdoin professor who commanded the 20th Maine at Little Round Top on the crucial second day of Gettysburg.  Like Chamberlain, Joshua York lived a strangely elongated death in life, carrying a war wound from the Siege of Petersburg for some fifty years after the war’s end, becoming perhaps the war’s last military casualty.  Joshua is also an experimental chemist and has concocted a fluid that can wean his “people” away from their habitual bloodlusts.

Dara Downey discussed Fevre Dream in a larger context of Southern Gothic, contemporary vampire literature, and literary representations of racialised slavery.    In her talk we learned much about Martin’s preoccupations with extreme whiteness, and about how this whiteness frames very uneasy conversations about how humans as well as the diurnally-challenged, are variously “othered”.  Her talk further discussed how the book stages encounters that test the limits of sympathy and interrogate racialised hopes and fears without really demonstrating the kind of narrative economy of political consciousness required to bring such explosive issues into any kind of optimal equipoise.  The subsequent discussion revealed much about what the late twentieth century wanted from vampires, and the diversity of ways in which vampirism has been mapped upon the flaky porticos of old Southern plantation houses.  As Dara Downey demonstrates – vampirism attempts to find a way of talking about the objectification of human flesh and the othering of bodies, but always risks making the Civil War seems safe in its historicised distance.  Perhaps, the very immortality of vampires (who are still, in Fevre Dream‘s epilogue, showing up at Abner Marsh’s grave with floral tributes) might offer a way of denying that history is ever safely dead, safely buried – even at the crossroads with a stake through its cold black heart.

At times it feels that metaphoric and metonymic axes of interpretation are tying each other in knots in this book.  To impose a parable of the Civil War on the actual landscape of the Civil War is a bit like setting Animal Farm in 1917 Russia.

Perhaps every generation gets the monsters it deserves.

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