Friday, April 10, 2015

Red Dragon re-read


(goodreads.com)

After watching the excellent first season of Hannibal, I decided it was time to re-visit the Thomas Harris novels that inspired that series. They're also very easy to find at your friendly neighborhood thrift store.

This isn't high literature. As a writer, Harris wavers back and forth between a generic, stripped-down pop novel voice and his own developing, more descriptive style. Its these descriptions that make the book work so well; character can be revealed by the random viewing of the mundane:
"In the pharmacy where he bought the Bufferin, the contraceptives with their illustrated wrappings were in a lucite case on the wall behind the cash register, framed like art."
 That would be Will Graham, the apparent protagonist and insecure stepfather. He's a riff on the magical Sherlock Holmes type, who can intuit and reconstruct motives from the barest of clues. Unlike Holmes, however, Graham is very open about his mental states, always on the brink of an emotional breakdown.
"The reason you caught me is that we're just alike..."
And so it falls to Graham's nemesis to be the cold and calculating one. As Moriarty was presented as the opposite, but equal, shadow to Holmes, Hannibal Lector is the other half of this narrative equation, not giving Will useful information as much as verifying the serial killer's point of view. Using Lector as a foil, Graham can keep his emotional distance from the crimes, even as Hannibal taunts him with the policeman's fear of lost humanity. He that gazes into the abyss and all that.

This isn't the main conflict of the novel, however. It isn't even a conflict between Graham and the Red Dragon serial killer. The story is really about Francis Dolarhyde, the abused child who grows up to murder entire families. After inadvertently falling into a normal sexual relationship with a blind co-worker (yes, yes, letting the obvious symbology slide) he is presented with the opportunity to give up the Red Dragon motivation and be reborn into a new life.

It's a neat twist in the plot, and plays well until the first ending of the novel. Unfortunately, the story doesn't end with this resolution, giving us a second "shock" ending. The explanation for the surprise comes from something Hannibal does back in the beginning of the book, but it takes so long to explain all the in-between events that all momentum is lost. It also feels like a cop-out, leaving Will Graham without an actual stopping point in the story, just giving us one more event that happens on the way out. As a character seeking closure or change, Graham, and the readers, deserve better.


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