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THE SATURDAY READ

Vampire sequel missing its teeth

The Year of Disappearances A Novel Susan Hubbard Simon & Schuster: 288 pp., $22.95

May 03, 2008|Edward Champion | Special to The Times

Susan HUBBARD'S "The Year of Disappearances" takes us back to the vampire world of last year's "The Society of S," continuing the story of Ariella Montero, a 14-year-old girl -- half-human, half-vampire -- with a taste for a mean drink called Picardo and an intellectual hauteur that sparks such declarations as: "Researchers have found that the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers negative feelings, is calmed when we give our feelings names. That's why we feel better after we confess to animals." (Upon my next emotional crisis, I shall consult a Lipizzaner instead of a shrink.)

The story revolves around bees that inexplicably drop dead. Or maybe it revolves around a friend's disappearance. Or maybe it revolves around underground politics. I suppose this novel is anything the reader wants it to be and will ensure a LiveJournal jihad over what it's truly about.

The plot is set up to get the home-schooled Ariella prematurely into a private college that conveniently doesn't "require applicants to take entrance exams or submit grade transcripts." Ariella lives a life of troubling contradictions. We learn that UVB rays burn vampire skin "more than a thousand times faster than they burn human skin," although casual dollops of over-the-counter sunblock prevent Ariella from accidental conflagration. Father urges her to remember her Sartre, but Mother -- or, rather, Mae -- teaches Ariella how to read maps. Mae is also very handy at drawing out charts of vampire sects to remind forgetful readers of story angles that might be pursued in a future Ariella novel. But not this one.

Wooing Ariella

There's some promise in Walker Pearson, a fellow collegian and hopeless emo hipster fond of writing vile villanelles and playing his battered acoustic -- all earnest efforts to woo Ari. He performs inept tricks at a magic show and sings "a silly song he'd made up in which he rhymed Ari with sorry, tamari, and Ferrari." But Walker is, like many of the book's characters, an archetype who only exists to get Ariella to the next meandering stage of plot.

Hubbard has a troubling habit of foreshadowing without follow-up. In a diner, Ariella watches a friend drag "a French fry through a puddle of ketchup." When hanging out with her family, Ariella dips "a shrimp into a bowl of red sauce" and eats it. And at a party close to the end, guests carry "glasses of red liquid." Unfortunately, Ari never really sinks her teeth into anyone. And what good is buildup without a deviant payoff?

In her previous volume, Hubbard offered some playful references to the 1931 film version of "Dracula." (When offered a six-pack, Ariella responded, "I never drink . . . beer.") But here, Hubbard has replaced these nuances with blatant references to "The Movie." And casual anti-intellectualism is also observed in a professor who is inexplicably made an up-talker, ending nearly all dialogue with question marks.

Hubbard also demonstrates a profound ignorance about our political system. Not only does she place one portion of the novel at the Third-Parties Caucus, where fringe parties carry on preposterous political discussions without a catfight and sign loyalty oaths to "pledge not to vote for Democrats and Republicans," but she even has the temerity to throw in a character named Neil Cameron, "a thirty-year-old U.S. Senator from Georgia who had quit the Democrats to join the Fair Share Party." Even if Cameron had been elected only months earlier to meet the constitution's minimum-age requirement, Hubbard sends her credibility to the dogs when this premature pup is declared the ideal candidate for next year's presidential primaries.

And even if we can pardon Hubbard on this arithmetical snafu, there's still the problem of this political aspirant publicly flirting with Ari. In an age when gubernatorial propositions end careers and sound bites are subjected to the closest scrutiny, it is wildly improbable that the faintest whiff of such a relationship would occur in a public setting.

Missing something

To be kind, Hubbard is not as dreadful as Laurell K. Hamilton. At least Hubbard attempts to be literary. Alas, throwing in random quotes from Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins doesn't make you a literary writer.

And the writing is sometimes sloppy: Vampires suffer from sensory overload syndrome and "they tend to avoid patterned clothing, particularly paisley, herringbone, and polka dots, as a courtesy to others." But this doesn't stop a family friend named Dashay from emerging into a room with a striped shirt.

In striking out so badly, Hubbard has committed an injustice to a genre already considered lesser by literary snobs. By avoiding the gleeful gusto of Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt books or the visceral allegory of Octavia Butler's "Fledgling," Hubbard has given the vampire genre less credibility. It's enough to make any self-respecting enthusiast howl for the proverbial wooden stake.

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Edward Champion hosts a cultural website at www.edrants.com.

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