J. A. Lindqvist: Let the Right One In
One of several writes up I've done recently.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
I’ve read John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire novel Let the Right One In several times now. This latest reading, a year after the second one, (which I embarked on right before rewatching the Swedish film and then, the American version, Let Me In, which is terrible for reasons I have documented elsewhere), was a bit more critical. I am still wont to praise the book as a whole, but not as completely as before, and have a more rounded opinion to give.
One thing remains unchanged, Elba Segerberg’s translation is superb, she renders the book in clean, natural English and manages to keep certain nuanced areas (particularly with regard to gender), nuanced in a language where it is difficult to include such direct, linguistic quirks sometimes. Of course, the fact that Lindqvist’s book is undoubtedly a popular novel helps her, as popular works of fiction are written in a more direct about style and depend less on the unique power and voice of the writing, and more so on the story—which isn’t a bad thing by a long-shot, (indeed it is something that I have admired and tried to emulate in my own forms with my own quirks).
The main problem that emerged for me in this time, that didn’t in past readings, was that Lindqvist came across as trite in quite a few characterizations that had originally seemed very well-rounded and intriguing (indeed I even praised him in a short, past review for having such a big cast of well-explored characters). Indeed, not only was he trite at times, but at other times, it felt like he was being crudely manipulative, shallowly trying to fan up drama and sympathy for certain side characters, often before killing them off in abrupt and dramatic fashion.
Certain problems abound in Lindqvist’s style that deserve partial criticism, even in the venue of a work of popular fiction. He tends to pile long streams of one-line dialogue exchanges together with no indication of who is speaking, leaving the reader with a full page of dialogue and forcing them to sometimes have to go back once and even twice in order to keep the sequence straight. And in general, while efficient and realistic in effect, nothing is ever said in his dialogue that is in any way very striking or powerful, and he tends to keep his dialogue short, leaving little room for the organic expressions of character that happen when fictional characters have time and space and cause to speak at somewhat greater length.
Let the Right One In’s American book jacket says, in its authorial blurb on the back, “Having written what is clearly a classic in the making, John Ajvide Lindqvist has burst upon the scene an instant star.” While the author hardly has absolute say over the design parameters of every international edition released, the shallow arrogance of that blurb is partially what made me pick at the novel more than I had in my original readings. But, as annoying as such pompousness may be, I have to agree with caveats; Let the Right One In is a classic. However, it is a classic within the confines of vampire genre fiction, and that is an important distinction to make.
And I throw the word classic in like this because, for a genre that has been so popular and seen so many takes in popular culture and fiction, vampire fiction has essentially broken into two groups: the villainous fiend with human undertones—the pioneering theme that works such as Carmella and Dracula explored—and then there is what could be termed the modern mythos, which traces directly back to Ann Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, published in the early 1970s and which popularized an entirely new type of vampire novel: one with vampires as the protagonist.
These novels tended to challenge bourgeoisie morality with things like homoeroticism and drug use, (particularly in transgender, New Orleans writer Poppy Brite’s works, which have also been bestsellers and received considerable critical attention in the United States). At the same time they are preoccupied, obsessed almost, with the ethics of living off other human beings and the nature of what makes a monster. It is this powerful and basic interplay, a distinctly modern one at that, that allows for some of the most interesting ideas and stories told by the genre, an ironically postmodern form of the vampire novel, one that feeds off certain preexisting pop culture backgrounds and tries to bend the gothic back into the modern setting, sometimes very sarcastically.
However, these two camps, if you will, dominate the genre. Even the Twilight series and the Vampire Diaries series (neither of which I have read, but I have watched the movies and some of the TV series, respectively), are inherently playing off Anne Rice, even if, in the case of Twilight, the moral-questioning is stripped out in favor of an angst-filled teenage love affair that remains remarkably in line with mainstream Christian morality.
Here is the reason why I tepidly say Lindqvist’s novel is a sort of classic for the genre: because it is a very different approach. In some ways, what Lindvist does is, through the use of different characters and different plot lines, to mix the classic Stoker novel, with a main storyline that isn’t Ricean, but is certainly derived from the ground she broke in her sympathetic portrayals of vampires.
Oscar and Eli don’t question the morality of their situation, if anything they passively nod in agreement with it, adding a level to the psychological drama of murder and eternal life that offers such an interesting backdrop to tell stories to. And it is Lindqvist’s recognition of this that makes the book special; Let the Right One In is essentially a vampire novel driven by vampiric folk lore and literary traditions, and yet still, somehow, not about vampires. It’s a stunning balancing act, and Lindqvist, whatever his flaws, deserves applause for this, at least.
Oscar is a powerful lead character, the young, bullied boy without a father and a mother who works all the time and is overly protective and mollycoddling when she is around. And, most importantly, Oscar is a budding sociopath, tragically isolated from society, introverted, and, at the novel’s beginning, so psychologically repressed by merciless bullies who take their amusement from others suffering, that he is incontinent.
Into this walks Eli. The vampire who forever stays stuck at twelve years old, and yet, despite his intelligence, cannot escape the mental state of a twelve year old. Eli, a sexually abused youth in his time, shies from close contact and is still afraid to die, making use of pedophiles in order to have the servants and adult help he needs to stay alive. Eli fears physically intimacy because of his traumas, and because of that he and Oscar meld so well—Oscar is perhaps the first person he’s ever been close to who doesn’t isolate him as an object of sexual desire. Oscar and Eli form a genuine and overwhelming romantic connection, but one that is totally platonic, even in metaphor—Eli doesn’t want to turn Oscar into a vampire and Oscar turns down the unwilling offer when it is made. For them, kissing alone is an overwhelming degree of closeness and intimacy that suffices and expresses their feelings—which is all that matters to them.
Even where I, on one level, knew the author was being manipulative, it still worked in one case—the most important one—the tragic figures of Virginia and Lacke. Despite their starkly different backgrounds from Oscar and Eli, and different stories, Lacke and Virginia’s portion of the novel contains something similar, something that runs through the book and which, more than vampires, is what the book is getting at, is questioning and attacking: an inexplicable alienation in the carefully constructed modernity of the world, physically realized in the exact, pre-fabricated suburb of Blackeberg in the western suburbs of Stockholm, where the story takes place. A connection to the environment, a connection to history, a connection to even other people is gone—a good spirit is gone, to phrase Virginia, or as Lacke puts it in one of the novel’s finest literary moments, “[…]like they had some idea about the angles, or fucking whatever, the angles of the buildings, in their relation to each other, you know. So it would be harmonious or something. And then they made a mistake in their measurements, their triangulation, whatever the hell they call it, so that it was all a little off from the start, and it went downhill from there. So you walk here with all these buildings and just feel that…no. No, no, no. You shouldn’t be here” (pg. 333).
It’s a place where some people try to work a little and get by, others don’t, where a person drinks to pass the time or add excitement to their lives—a place of ordered, functional human life that crushes the spirit, that leaves Lacke unable to quite leave the place, even at the end, that traps Virginia, that keeps all of these people from finding happiness. Except for Eli and through her, Oscar. The two them are able to escape it—perhaps violently, but they escape it nonetheless, because they never really existed within its confines to begin with. And the novel makes no excuses, nor does it try to lessen her, and by implication Oscar’s future, crimes, creating a complex and engaging story where the reader ends up rooting so strongly for people who they shouldn’t by their own morals, root for.
So yes, at times Lindqvist’s rhetoric falls apart, his dialogue is excellent and to the point, but frequently fails to deliver something more, and he can come off as shallow due to his crude directness with some characters and some feelings, and yes, he takes the silly beside-the-point Richard Matheson attempt at scientificizing vampirism, but Let the Right One In is still a powerful and in many ways beautiful book that is both gripping and entertaining, while giving a deeper and more sober impression that leaves a strong and lingering aftertaste. It’s a book that meshes with its namesake, Morrissey’s song “Let the Right One Slip In” from his 1987 album Viva Hate, and indeed the tone of the entire album matches the book well.
As an ending statement, I have a brief note about the title. I found myself forking over an extra six dollars to find an edition of the book with the original title, as all current English editions are titled after the Americanized movie, “Let Me In”. And this is a case without anything to do with artistic translation decisions—the book takes its title from an English song by a famous English pop musician, a song that is quoted in the last chapter’s start and by the author’s own admission, was one of the major inspirations for the book. The American producers simply decided, on their own, that people were less likely to go see a movie with a longer title. It’s a small, but asinine matter that tramples over artistic dignity, and so I also recommend that anyone else buying it, attempt to buy the older printing with the original title.
"I am not young enough to know everything" -Oscar Wilde
"The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all." -From Ikiru