MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 384-386
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Joseph Valente. Dracula's Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001. 192 pp.
Long recognized as a key text for the Victorian fin de siècle, Bram Stoker's Dracula was rarely placed in a distinctively Irish literary and cultural context until the 1990s. So it comes as something of a surprise to find that Joseph Valente's inventive new book on Stoker begins by announcing that "the decade of the Irish Dracula" is at an end. Postmillennial flourishes aside, however, Dracula's Crypt is in practice more concerned with radicalizing the insights that this "Hibernian school of criticism" has to offer than it is with burying them. Prior interpretations are closely interrogated, amended, and ultimately supplanted in favor of a reading that gives due weight to the semicolonial or, to use Valente's preferred term, "metrocolonial conditions of production" under which Stoker's most significant writing was produced, conditions that are simultaneously psychic and sociopolitical.
Valente is convinced that Dracula is Stoker's "masterpiece" and, in a controversial move, he compares what he sees as its intricate narrative design and subtle crosscutting ironies to the work of early modernists such as Ford, Conrad, and the early Joyce, rather than locating the novel within the domain of popular fiction. Far from representing a simplistic struggle-to-the-death against a polymorphously monstrous Other, Valente's Dracula problematizes or undercuts its protagonists' testimonies, accentuating the fallibility or incompleteness of the self and the limitations or provisionality of knowledge, before finally working through to a more reflective, more chastened moment of closure. In this view textual inconsistencies are absorbed into a "coherent indeterminacy" in which the structures of fantasy double back upon themselves to reveal "the multiple layers of contradiction" stemming from "the split and mixed nature of Irishness." Thus, if the Count's parasitic grip upon the local Catholic peasantry suggests a bitter parody of British colonialism in Ireland, his keen mimicry of the persona of an English gentleman also bespeaks a [End Page 384] desire to merge with and yet control the metropolitan heartland, indicating a process of degeneration that cuts both ways, brutalizing English and Irish alike and blurring the distinction between modern and traditional forms of power. Indeed, the fatal loosening of binary oppositions becomes a central feature of the novel. Not only are the Count's imperial ambitions multiply inscribed, but the individual male members of Dracula's heroic confraternity also mirror and are marked by the same obsession with blood and race that motivates their sinister adversary. Emerging as the half-glimpsed sign of their inner weakness, the Count plainly is the deadly truth of their own ideologies and subject-positions and the object of their increasingly violent denials. In the face of this spiral of aggressivity it takes the selfless maternal sacrifice of Mina Harker to effect a breakthrough to a safer and more generous Symbolic order in an ostensibly Lacanian resolution that is said to gesture toward the (arguably rather un-Lacanian) liberal tolerance of "a multinational state."
Underpinning this elaborate novelistic structure is a "psychobiographical" portrait of the artist as a parvenu that provides lespoints de capiton required to stabilize Valente's interpretation. Crucial here is the claim that behind the solid front of Protestant family respectability lay the skeleton of Stoker's grandmother's "native Irish" origins, leading to a kind of primal scene populated with childhood stories divided along "ethnic" lines—a scene based on the sketchiest evidence. In any case, the "often unconscious resistance to his own sociocultural determination" attributed to Stoker is somewhat at odds with the high degree of deliberation that Valente must necessarily assume in order to account for the complex fashioning he finds in the actual texts—or at least those he chooses to consider. For in delineating a protomodernist Stoker worthy of critical attention, Valente disregards most of the other works in the corpus, notably the author's only explicitly Irish novel The Snake...