Teaching Soulless by Gail Carriger
The first time I read Soulless, I was still getting my sea legs, or airship legs, or whatever one would call still working out just what I was doing with my blog, my research, and my approach to both. I was still engaged in quasi-snark mode, that way that 99.666% of the web approaches evaluating a book, film, or piece of music. I was still in my first year of teaching, and was learning as much about the practice of reading well as my students were. So my original review of Soulless was as lacking in essential spirit as any preternatural.
I hope this time around, I'll do a better job of being a steampunk scholar, and less book reviewer.
C.S. Lewis said that if a book wasn't worth reading a second time, it wasn't likely worth reading the first. By that criterion, I have a stack of steampunk that wasn't worth reading the first time around, but Soulless certainly isn't among them. I've read Soulless four times now, five if you count adaptation as a reading. The first reading was a quick page-turning read to churn out a review; the second was out-loud to my wife; the third was as audiobook, the fourth with my Winter 2011 Introduction to Literature students, and the fifth, as Manga from Yen Plus. Each experience taught me new things about the book, and I can say without reservation that there's a sixth reading in the offing. For now, I want to talk about the experience of teaching the book, since that was easily the most illuminating experience of the book.
|My favorite cover, from the Japanese release.|
|The German Edition|
"Vampirism stands a fair chance of being regarded as essentially an eccentricity in England, provided of course the vampire observes good form, adheres to what is proper, eschews excessive public displays, and doesn't harm birds or animals" - David L. HammerWe also did a hypothetical casting of the major players, discussing who we'd have play each persona as a way of understanding their character better. I've used this exercise with a number of novels, always with good results. Our results weren't glaringly different from Carriger's, and I'm still holding out for Sean Bean as Maccon, since he needs to play at least one major character who doesn't die before the end of the series. I would also recommend comparing and contrasting the characters as described/conveyed in the novel with the design sketches of the Yen Plus Manga edition, as an opportunity to further discuss character, or possibly the process of adaptation.
I made a number of observations about VIXI during our class study, that even as mix of Steampunk terminator and golem, he's still effectively a creature of magic. Gail has said she went with a Latin word rather than Hebrew to avoid magical connotations, but I'm not sure that's entirely avoidable with a golem, Latin or not. If the rules for killing a monster involve nothing more than erasing the text on its forehead, that's magic, end of discussion. It was a good opportunity to explain techno fantasy as an aspect of the Steampunk aesthetic, as well as discuss how much authority we should give an author when critically analyzing their work. I teach students to treat the text as artifact, not an author's intentions. While an author can illuminate the process of creation, once they complete that work and release it into the reader's grasp, we become partners in the making of meaning.
Ultimately, the majority of students thoroughly enjoyed the experience of comparing and contrasting Dracula and Soulless. There was one particularly outspoken naysayer, but he admitted disliking the text because Alexia reminded him of a former flame, which gave us the chance to discuss how a text "reads" us, even as we are reading it. One male student related his embarrassment at reading it on the bus: being an Albertan male with what appears to be fully chick-lit was a challenge, though he was quick to add, not deterrent enough to keep from reading to see what happened next. This allowed us to do a cover comparison, which is also an excellent study. We talked about how the original cover plays off the design of the Marie Antoinette film's marketing; we discussed how covers play into audience expectations, and construct a horizon of expectation, which many remarked Carriger subverts. While they expected "a sappy romance," they were surprised to find adventure, mystery, and comedy.