Through Phantom Eyes: A Child's Guidance (2007)
by Theodora Bruns
This book represents the beginning of a journey. It's the first of a projected eight-volume series, of which the first six are already out. Bruns' ambitious mission is to use eight full novels (and she's not kidding, these are 300+ pages each) to explore the entirety of Erik's life from birth to death ("and beyond", she says, provoking shivery Meadows flashbacks), thus being more detailed and interesting than any treatment of his life before.
And, of course, I'm embarking on this journey with her until the end, and I refuse to get off my camel before it's finished.
Through the Author's Eyes
Yes, this is the author's note. In it we learn that Bruns is fond of the theory of Erik having actually historically existed at some point and that she wants her books to grant him some happiness along with the tragedy of his life.
Whenever an author heavily leans on the idea of Erik's utter misery at the loss of Christine, I know they're working off of Lloyd Webber's musical or one of its variants instead of the original story. Lloyd Webber's musical ends with the Phantom moping sadly about in his lair or sitting in profound despair on his throne, whereas in the original novel Erik literally died of love and managed to still be ecstatically happy about Christine's acceptance while he did it. It’s a fundamental difference in interpretation between the Lloyd Webber version, in which a more relatable idea of a man losing his love evokes sorrow, and the Leroux novel, in which a much less comprehensible creature who has never known love or acceptance is too elated by experiencing it once to be upset even when he's dying.
Ah, first thanking Erik himself. A classic that never goes out of style, apparently.
If the author's note hadn't already clued me in, the prologue here would make it very obvious that this book is strongly Lloyd-Webber-inspired. Christine is part of the ballet corps instead of being a singer, Meg parrots lines almost verbatim from the stage show, and so on. But it's also clear that Bruns has at least read Leroux's novel and is attempting to fuse the two versions, attested by small touches like Christine having golden hair.
Unfortunately, while the author tries, Erik's introduction is not exactly spellbinding. His immediate drooling over Christine's physical appearance and careless inner monologue about dumping her if her voice isn't spectacular are not exactly screaming "not a douchebag" to me. This would be fine if that were part of our character growth for him, but Bruns feels the need to make too many excuses for him in the narrative, trying to reassure the reader that it's okay, it'll really be true love later so don't judge him now, please? Authors, you don't need to do that, seriously. If you develop a character's personality, we will be able to make our own decisions about whether or not to root for him.
Bruns' prose is technically very tight, a welcome and refreshing change after the swamps of grammatical sadness that we often have to navigate in self-published novels. There are almost no mechanical mistakes and she even manages some good flow now and then, but unfortunately the overdrama quotient of the writing is off the charts. I'm not even at chapter one yet and already the maudlin wailing is suffocating me.
I'm very confused by the illustration on page xix, which depicts Erik and his father wearing what look like exceptionally modern pants and coats. Oh, well. Can't blame an author for an artist, and anyway, the piece is charming despite the anachronism.
As promised, now that we're out of the prologue, we're diving into Erik's life from the beginning - well, sort of, since Bruns insists on narrating everything from his point of view so we actually have to start a few years in when he gains a coherent toddler-aged consciousness of his own. I think it'd actually be pretty interesting to see a different party's perspective on Erik's birth and first few years, but I don't think anyone should delude themselves into thinking these novels are going to feature anyone's perspective but Erik's.
The family dynamics set up here are interesting. Erik's mother is a fiery-tempered Spanish musician named Anna, his father is a positive, steady architect named Maurice, and later they'll even be joined by a younger sister, Gigi. It's a far cry from the usual portrayals of Erik as a homeless orphan, abused fieldhand, or child sold into slavery that most versions use to explain his bad attitude; he comes from a fairly normal, warmly loving nuclear family unit. As usual, his proclivities for music and building are explained as genetic continuation from parents who were good at those things, with his mother as the source of music and father as the source of building, recalling the same setup in Kay's 1990 novel. It’s also a fairly classic traditional gender-role setup, with the female as the source of emotion and art and the male as the source of generation and stability. (Can’t we see badass architect mom and feelings-filled art dude for once? Is it that Erik is the only one allowed to be a feelings-filled dude? Branch out, authors.)
It's nice to see a positive father figure for once - while other versions like Kay's or the Yeston/Kopit show have included generally nice fathers for the Phantom, most rely on using him as a randomly abusive source of trauma. It's nice to see that laziness avoided here, though Maurice's ridiculous saintliness goes too far in the other direction before too long.
Also, Erik starts narrating all this at two years old, which begins a trend of the kid being way, way too irritatingly precocious to accept. It's not that I don't believe you could have a two-year-old protagonist who is smart enough to talk to and interact with adults - Erik is, after all, supposed to be a genius - but that his maturity is off the charts in a way that does not come across as believable. He isn't just smart, he's some kind of mind-reading super-empath who instantly understands every social nuance and emotion going on around him, is able to internalize them to himself, and can then examine and understand emotional complexities that most adults aren't particularly good at. I can understand genius-level smarts and being able to read, talk, make music, and so on at genius levels in childhood, but he simply doesn’t have the context or the brain development to display this kind of social ability. The effect is of Erik being a weepy teenager from day one, which gets annoying for the reader very quickly.
But anyway, let's talk about his face instead! Bruns' version of the condition is one I haven't seen before; she says that his face is completely normal except that he's missing a nose, which manages to be both skull-like and horrific and also leave the vast majority of his face normal (and handsome) as it needs to be for the apparently inescapable idea that he can’t be too ugly or none of the readers will like it. Even in these first couple of chapters, she's not very consistent about it - and one point she mentions that he has "uneven cheeks" despite having already said that the rest of his face is normal, and at another she says that rather than not having a nose, there's "a miniscule nub" where the nose should be (leading me to suspect arrhinia, but the rest of the book will ignore this mention and treat him as if he just has a hole in his face).
As with many other authors who want to sympathize Erik, Bruns is trapped between needing a condition that other people will find horrible enough to warrant all this social ostracization, but also not wanting to make her protagonist actually be so affected by it that she can't have him interact with others. And, as with most of those other authors, she fudges the line. There’s a lot to be said about how Phantom-based literature really doesn’t want to engage with disability and instead falls back on ableist tropes that insist that any more disabled than <insert arbitrary amount here> would be gross but the protagonist isn’t THAT kind of disabled person, thank goodness, and oops would you look at that, I just said some of it.
They have not addressed it much yet, but it becomes pretty clear even in the first chapter that Anna is mentally ill. The intent is obviously to also give Erik a hereditary source for his famously dangerous temper, but since no one ever discusses what's up with Anna's blackout rages and antagonistic outbursts, it isn't really solving that mystery as much as it's moving it up the genetic chain one link so it can be someone else's fault instead of Erik's. Again, the author wants him to be sympathetic, so obviously he can’t be that kind of mentally ill, whatever that is. It’s his mom’s fault.
As suggested in Leroux's novel, it's Anna who is most freaked out by Erik's face (Maurice doesn't give much of a damn, apparently, because remember, he's a saint), and who first makes him a mask to make interacting with him easier for her. I don't know how she managed to end up with a two-year-old that doesn't immediately pull things off his face and play with them no matter how many times you tell him no, but apparently it works for her. Anna's mental illness is presented as heightening her negative reaction to Erik’s condition, which allows Bruns to have her overreact at whatever intensity she wants. Unfortunately, mental illness is a scapegoat here and is used to suggest that the mentally ill are violent and cruel, in case there wasn’t enough ableism in this whole soupy mess yet.
HILARIOUS. A two-year-old Erik is playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata"? How's his nine-key stretch? Does he have three hands?
It's interesting that Anna is Spanish, which is something I've never seen added to Erik's ancestry before (in the original novel, it was Carlotta who was Spanish; I wonder if later Bruns will try to relate the two in some way, or perhaps suggest that Carlotta reminds him of his mother). It's also odd that his father is French and that he's growing up in Perros-Guirec, since one of the most focal attributes of the original Erik was his frightening “foreignness” and obviously non-French origin, allowing Leroux to extend his comment on society to the way it treats its immigrants and outsiders. Making him natively French removes all that Otherness subtext, which is something of a shame, and makes his name being Erik even weirder than usual, since it's clearly Germanic and there's nothing in his parentage to support it. (Later, we will learn that his name is Erik because that was Maurice's also-French father's name, which... okay.)
Anna's illness is never explicated, but Maurice, who is obviously sad but stoic about the whole thing, makes a point of telling Erik that she has been dealing with it since long before he was born. I'm reminded of Christine's mental illness in the Garza book, which had the same hallmarks of violently erupting once in a while but remaining undetectably buried at other times, not to mention the saintly male caretaker dealing with her crazy woman-fevered brain.
The prevalence of insane female characters in period literature (Bertha from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is another good example) is too big a subject that requires its own essay, but it has a lot to do with the image of women as weaker - both mentally, making them prey to insanity, and physically, making it possible to keep them around even if they've gone mad - and in need of men to control and take care of them. It's telling that you find this not only in literature of the nineteenth century, but also in modern literature based on it; Bruns certainly isn't trying to perpetuate those ideas, but she's doing it automatically because she's absorbed them from those previous works. This book and the Garza one before it use the tragically mentally ill woman as a vehicle, but they would never swap it around to a male figure instead; a male would be too powerful and dangerous in madness, as opposed to the woman who is merely pitiful despite her attempts to be equally hazardous to those around her. It’s especially common for women who aren’t sufficiently maternal to be considered “insane”, and poor Anna gets so little development or insight into who she is as a person that she just becomes an excuse: a reason Erik can behave badly himself later, a place to lay the blame for his angst, and a cautionary tale about how mothers should behave.
Whatever the reason for Anna's random fugue madness, already this early on there is some question of whether her on-again off-again poor treatment of her son might have "made" Erik's personality into something that matches his hideous face. Leroux's novel was heavy on the question of whether Erik's evil soul had made his face ugly or whether his hideous face (through the vehicle of society reacting to it) had forced him to act evilly, and Bruns is introducing a third option in the form of “or did his mother’s neglect/dislike make him evil” to this chicken-and-egg question. It turns out not to work very well, mostly because Erik remains on excellent terms with his mother throughout the book and because Anna would have to be much more fleshed out than she is if Bruns wanted to use her as a microcosmic stand-in for all of society.
Anna, it appears, owns a Stradivarius violin. A Stradivarius, which is not just rare and expensive now but most certainly also was in the nineteenth century, but whatever, Bruns won’t tell us where she got it and we’re going to have to roll with it anyway. It becomes a focal point of contention and harsh feelings that she won't let Erik try to play it. Considering that handing a beloved instrument over to another adult is already an act of serious trust even when it isn’t worth as much as 75 Lamborghinis, I'm not surprised, especially considering that Erik is five years old at this time and already took her piano apart when she wasn't home one day. I'd have an electric fence set up around that instrument if I were her.
Erik's voice is by this point already almost supernaturally beautiful and hypnotic, as evidenced by Anna's tendency to stop whatever she was doing in favor of exclusively listening to him. It presages the later relationship between him and Christine nicely, laying the foundation for the power of his voice even in early childhood. I also found it interesting that Christine is the obvious Christ figure later in the novels, and that Anna is named after the grandmother of Christ.
Alas, Erik's emotional maturity is bizarre and out of place here. From his understanding of his mother's complex feelings to his decision to commit suicide because he "wants peace" to his automatic rejection of being called a monster, these are all issues that are handled much too easily, quickly, and reasonably for the emotional landscape of a five-year-old. The fact that he feels the need to yell a lot of this at his mother, thus making sure to communicate it to the audience as unsubtly as possible, is not helping much, either.
Although, I do have to wonder; since the framing device for this series is theoretically Erik reliving or retelling the story from adulthood, is it possible that some of this weird maturity is the result of unreliable narrator embellishment? If so, I don't know that it's being done well enough to avoid being very dissonant within the text itself, which seldom reads as a narration by an adult and is more often a direct telling by the child who is the main character.
Bruns' biggest problem in her writing is her epic ability to tell the reader things instead of showing us, making it difficult for anything to be interesting or nuanced because it's all boiled down to a basic form and shoved in our faces. We're always outright told Erik's emotions (often in the form of "I felt X! Because X!"), while instances where we can see him acting on those emotions and form our own image of him from them are comparatively rare. This is an issue that dogs the entire novel, which is a shame because there would be some neat concepts in here if they weren’t presented so poorly.
Snort. "How was I to do all he asked of me?" Nice effort to integrate Lloyd Webber lyrics, I guess, but clumsy as all hell.
Oh my godddd, I'm so tired of Maurice. He's very likeable, which he can't help but be because as far as I can tell he has literally no flaws of any kind, but he's been speechifying about being loved for who you are and choosing to be a positive person for way too many pages. They're good sentiments (and ones we seldom see in Phantom lit, really), but I feel like I'm trapped in an after-school special.
Now in something of a weird malicious cold war with his mother, Erik spends most of his time with his father, designing the foundations of the family house (at age six, because genius!). None of it is particularly interesting - we already know Erik's a genius and that he prefers the company of his father, and at any rate it's more of that telling and not showing mess, but it gave me time to ponder how the mother who doesn't love her son is almost always the great evil in these stories. Fathers who don't love their disfigured sons might be abusive or just absent, but they're never blamed for screwing him up, which is inevitably what always happens with the mother figure; the cultural idea that it's a mother's duty to instill love and compassion in her children so that they grow into good people is so strong that the censure against such a character when she doesn't do that is always harsh and heavy. The abandoning or unsympathetic mothers of Phantom literature - in Kay's novel, in the 1998 Argento/Sands film, in the 2006 Liu novel, in Leroux's original book itself - are always to blame for Erik's subsequent existence as a twisted and aggressive person who doesn't understand how to express emotion. Fathers might suck, but mothers ruin the kid forever.
I'd like to see a version of the story some time in which Erik's inability to win his father's love is at least as contributory to his behavior as his mother. Most of the concept of mothers as the ones who cause these sorts of problems is rooted in misogyny, both because women are automatically considered “at fault” somehow when men act badly (often against those very same women, and yes, Kay novel, I’m looking at you) and because they are considered to be naturally in charge of emotions and therefore no one can blame these poor men when they don’t do any of the work of parenting or emotional development. And speaking of ignoring the fathers, why is it that Maurice doesn’t have much impact on Erik? We get to see how Anna is to blame for ruining everything ever by being mentally ill, but Maurice, in spite of putting the reader into a coma every few pages with his long speeches about love and light and positivity, appears to not be making much of an impression on his son. Why is that the man who is doing that work of helping to teach and develop his son’s emotions and values is apparently failing? And why do I have to listen to him keep doing it if it’s not going to do anything useful?
Apparently, this book brings all the feminist literature critics to the yard.
Erik's rail-thin, skeletal physical appearance is here explained as a natural combination of vegetarianism (embarked on after a nauseatingly cutesy episode in which he falls in love with some barn chicks and thereafter refuses to eat any animals) and refusing to eat in his mother's presence for fear of having to unmask, often leading to semi-starvation. It's interesting, but I'm wondering if it will be sustainable over the long run of these many novels.
I giggle-snorted some at the revelation of Erik's full name: Erik Bradley Jourdan. So French! It's okay, he matches the also deeply French-named family horses, Molly and Jake.
Erik, still six years old, teaches himself professional-level ventriloquism, and Bruns also introduces his fascination with mirrors. I understand that she wants to foreshadow and give reasons for all the things he does as an adult, but I wish it were more subtle, or had some more foundation than "he was interested in it as a child so he learned it", which is really not any more in-depth than Leroux's backstory anyway.
Also, why don’t we get to see his interest in anything that isn’t a major motif in his adulthood? People change over time and if a twelve-volume series of the minutiae of a person’s life isn’t the place to delve into that, I don’t know if there is one.
And now, lots of training in horseback riding, because it's a cardinal rule that all Phantoms be manful horsemen with effortless animal empathy. I feel like I'm reading Distilled Phantom Literature; if there's a general cliche about Erik's abilities or personality, it's in this book. (I am, however, grateful for the fact that Bruns obviously knows or researched details about horses and their tack. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for not being Minton.)
Many of Anna's hang-ups are partially explained here when it is revealed that she is strongly Catholic (not surprising for a Spanish woman of this time period) and that her priest has declared Erik to be evil. It's not as much her own revulsion (though of course that is a factor) that she's struggling with as it is the dictates of her religion, which is a thoroughly interesting concept that I wish had been explored further. Sadly, it isn't, and the trite Catholicism = Evil Narrow-Mindedness shorthand destroys all my hopes that this would be the beginning of some interesting examination of Erik's own religious mores later in his story.
Erik is undoubtedly in a tragic situation, and he is definitely being emotionally abused by his mother, but Anna clearly also has serious problems and needs help herself, and at no point in the novel does she get any, which is disheartening. Her mental illness is portrayed as something she'd better just figure out how to control by herself or risk complete social and emotional shut-out by her community and family, which is period-accurate but also pretty heartbreaking. In particular, the only time we see Maurice be anything but saintly is in his interactions with Anna, who he is (justifiably) furious with after she causes Erik some injury; his threat, "I'll replace you," is a sucker punch to the face, especially since it implies that Anna herself is a malfunctioning thing rather than a person. This is especially odd in context of the rest of the novel, in which Anna and Maurice are painted as genuinely in love, and I can't help but feel a lot more sympathy for Erik's suffering and ultimately alone mother than for him. At least he's got a support system in his father and the family caretaker; Anna has nobody but herself.
Which is totally not what I was supposed to get out of that, because the reader is obviously supposed to be busy being upset over poor Erik's traumatic situation, but I think that's a function of the poor communication style of the writing again. Bruns point-blank tells me about Erik's emotional state so much that it's become white noise; you can only hear "I was crushed," "I was filled with sorrow," "I was miserable and heartbroken" so many times before you stop paying attention. Because Anna isn't the focus of the irritating stream of constant emotional updates, she actually comes off as more of a real character, one that the reader gets to know through action and inference. I only know who Anna is through what she does, which ironically makes her much more fascinating.
The family gains a new caretaker around here, both to help take care of Anna during her nervous breakdowns and to provide a more stable mother figure for Erik. Her name is Celeste, which is obviously intended to be a signpost informing us that she is heavenly, sweet, and good.
Anna's plight is even more distressing because it's obvious to the reader (even before it's obvious to Erik) that she genuinely does love her son and care about what happens to him, and that her rage episodes occur in a blackout fugue so that she honestly doesn't remember hurting or screaming at him. Tragically, Bruns seems uninterested in looking at this at all, in spite of how much there is to work with in Anna’s unreliable perceptions and the reality others experience from her behavior.
Erik's cracked ribs and contraction of pneumonia in childhood here are suggested to possibly cause permanent lung damage, an interesting idea that might be giving a foundation for his future health problems and appearance.
However, he has trouble getting better on enforced bed rest, and the family physician suddenly morphs into The Most Melodramatic Doctor Ever by declaring that "For someone like Erik, silence could be a form of poison!" My god. Get this child some intravenous tonal scales.
Silly as the presentation and execution are, the idea that the Phantom needs noise or music around him - that is, that his genius-level brain starts sort of eating itself when it has nothing to do - is not a bad one. It’s still pretty ludicrous, especially when there are plenty of ways his EXTREMELY MUSICAL FAMILY could not only bring music to his sickbed but allow him to participate safely, too.
And the rest of the story comes out (finally, sheesh). It turns out that Anna's mother, equally violently Catholic, convinced her that Erik was a demon with a cursed face, a punishment from God for the fact that he was sinfully conceived out of wedlock. (And in a nice touch, the child is also left-handed, which as we all know is the sign of the Devil.) It's another good stab at a childhood setup for Erik's eternal struggle between wondering if he was damned from birth or becomes damned by his own actions, though again the blame is on a third party - his parents, having out-of-wedlock snugglebunnies - instead of on him. I don't suspect much blame, if any, is going to legitimately land on Erik in this series; Bruns seems determined to paint him as the eternal victim. But there are a lot of books to go, so we'll have to wait and see.
It’s nice that Bruns seems to really be putting in effort here to try not to have any of the characters be villains without redeeming qualities; she works hard to try to show us that Anna and even her mother both have positive qualities and are trying to do their best, even when they fuck things up. The main issue is that the narrative blames them subconsciously, through setup and language and use of tropes and stereotypes - again, it’s all the womens’ fault.
Speaking of how all evil apparently comes through Woman, I could seriously deal with Maurice having any kind of flaws whatsoever. Has this man been canonized yet? I think he might actually be Christ.
Erik is still tiresomely adult here, but the real boredom factor is coming from Bruns continuing to spell out every little piece of subtext in case her readers might miss it. On page 159:
"For as long as I could remember I was driven to outwit and outmaneuver my mother. That was the challenge that excited me, and finding and playing her violin was the ultimate victory in my power struggle against her. Yet even as I sat in her room with her violin in my hands, I somehow knew she would always hold the upper hand, considering what I really wanted the most was her motherly love."
No freaking shit, kid. We already know that, not only because you've told us about nine zillion times, but also because in the moments when you aren't navel-gazing, Bruns' writing is decent enough that we can understand that from the action! Stop telling us!
Erik's first real composition is undertaken here as a gift to his mother, presaging again his relationship with Christine and his later habit in life of writing music based on his own life, exemplified by Don Juan Triumphant.
One of the most irritating parts of the novel also happens here, unfortunately: Erik's bizarre, unexplained hatred of religion and everyone who espouses it. I can totally get behind him being angry at his grandmother, who poisoned his life before he was ever born, and at the religion that led her to do so, but the leap to publically attacking and screaming epithets at a priest who is attempting to comfort mourners at a funeral is a leap that doesn't make very much sense. It's especially annoying that he insists on constantly calling the priest a liar for saying anything with religious content, but that he obviously hasn't heard a word he's said - or at least, Bruns doesn't bother to relay them to us because Erik is the only person getting dialogue in this scene.
It's not just the character reducing the priest to a faceless representative of an uncaring conglomerate but the author as well, which robs the scene of any interesting complexity or possibility for interchange. The priest is just an empty sounding board against which Erik can hurl his violent hatred of religion, with nothing useful, interesting or complicated to contribute to the conversation at all. It's like watching him yell at a cardboard cutout of a priest with devil horns. What is the priest saying that Erik believes isn’t true? How is his behavior perceived as negative by Erik? What could we, the readers, agree or disagree with? There’s no way to know, because Bruns is just telling us about Erik’s emotions and letting those be the arbiter. Erik is upset, so our job is to feel sympathetic toward him for it and dislike the vague priest-shaped object causing it.
And similarly, Erik and by extension Bruns (still not finished with his first decade yet) also spend a lot of time tarring the townsfolk around where he lives as "narrow-minded" assholes, which is equally irritating because we know for a fact that he's never talked to any of them. He has no experience with them at all, and people like his parents and Celeste are among their number so he clearly knows that they're not an indistinguishable mass of evil, but that doesn't stop him from deciding they're all monsters who hate him based on a single flash of surprise on their faces when he first runs into their midst.
Again, this would be fine from the character - in fact, I would love it, because it would be more like what a kid his age would probably feel than all this annoying forty-year-old reflection he keeps doing! - but it's not really the character but Bruns herself who is pushing this interpretation. Pushing it straight down our throats, in fact, and cementing it there with the soon-to-come addition of some pointless and randomly antagonistic throwaway foes.
Sigh. Okay, I have been praising Bruns' writing style (sort of... is it still praise if I just repeat, "Hey! It's not bad!" over and over again?), but it certainly has its moments of madness. On page 171, after being told that his father would one day die:
"No. That was unacceptable to me. I wouldn't, and I couldn't ever accept what he considered to be fact. I couldn't fathom the thought that I would ever see the day when he wouldn't be in my life. I just couldn't, and furthermore, I wouldn't."
Christ almighty. Now is it that you wouldn't, or that you couldn't, Erik? Please, tell us more.
However, a mere page later, there's also a very nicely poignant line, which happens when Erik is confronted with a watch that has been passed down three generations of his family and is still in working order. "It's not right that this little arrangement of different metals should still be working, when the man who made it, and the men who carried it, are no longer working," he says, a moment of brilliant childlike clarity about the difference between the ongoing endurance of created things but the fragile impermanence of human life. Erik himself, who will dedicate his life to creating things (music, buildings, inventions) that endure beyond himself, is for a second making a very noticeable conscious connection between choosing to be and choosing to create (which is the central function of the Phantom character).
It's introduced here that Erik has an exceptionally heightened sense of hearing, almost supernatural in acuity. My question is why; having a disfigured/missing nose does not appear to prevent him from having a normal sense of smell or any of the breathing problems it probably should, so why would one of his other senses compensate? I see that she wants to include the idea from Leroux's novel of the Phantom hearing everything around him, but that was mainly the result of his ingenious system of tunnels and tubes, and making it an innate quality both undercuts his genius and makes him more of a gratuitously special snowflake of a character, something he definitely doesn't need.
It is pretty awesome, however, that the doctor gives him a stern lecture here about how his lack of a nose makes him more prone to airborne illness, clogging, and allergies than others. The mask actually becomes a health precaution almost as much as a device for hiding the deformity, and it's nice to see a concrete extra reason for him to be wearing it.
Sigh. I understand that we're supposed to feel for poor, persecuted Erik, but I just can't. And the reason I can't is that Bruns never gives me any reason to - she keeps saying that people are hurtful to him, but she never lets us see it happen, never gives us any dialogue, never provides any emotional reaction or description from anyone except for Erik himself. And, unfortunately, that makes his supposed persecution almost completely invisible.
And that trend continues. Now Erik is fond of telling us how easy it is to manipulate the minds of the townsfolk - but that's all it is, telling. We don't get to see him do it, have no idea how or why he does it, and we have no concept of what it involves. It's boring to read through because nothing is happening, and the story suffers because we don't get a good idea of what this supposed genius manipulator is actually capable of.
Also, I'm already tired of hearing him whine about "the price I had to pay for my face", so I hope it lets up some in the next seven novels.
Erik's continual bizarre adultness in the arena of emotion keeps grating, but it's bringing with it other concerns now. For one thing, he comes off as much more unsympathetic when he does things befitting a child his age - taking revenge on others who are afraid of him, for example - because his adult level of maturity makes the reader expect better of him and forget about his actual age. It's very, very difficult not to read this book as if it were being told by an adult (again, is this a consequence of the narration frame? If so, could the author have fixed that so that it works?), which often led to me having bizarre images of a tiny three-foot-tall version of the adult Phantom being bossed around by other adults.
More importantly, when a child is already this adult, where is Bruns going to take him in the future? He has almost nowhere to grow when he came out of the box understanding complex emotions and social interactions, so how is he possibly going to develop in the future in a way that makes for a compelling growth through childhood and adolescence? Is he just going to sound exactly the same all the way through adulthood? Hoo boy.
Erik gets the snot beaten out of him here by local bullying children, who are flat, uncharacterized antagonists who have no motivations or purpose except to provide random adversity. The beating is standard fare - awful, but not described particularly inventively or meaningfully. The whole episode is boring, which is unfortunate for something obviously intended to provoke a strong emotional response. I guess it answers my complaint that we never actually see any of Erik's persecution on the page, but there's so little connection to anything that it reads more like any childhood bullying interlude in any book than part of a narrative about ableism and social alienation.
Also, I've said this before, but I'll say it as many times as necessary: authors, it is possible to write someone as a genius without him constantly pausing in his internal monologue to sneer at how much smarter he is than everyone else. If he keeps being this much of a supercilious snot through the next seven books, I'm probably going to throw a party when he dies.
Alas, things continue to be poorly sketched out and therefore uninteresting, now when Maurice presents a very psychologically precise assessment of seven-year-old Erik's commanding air and its effect on him. We never saw it in him as a reader, it's not drawn well enough to be believable, and consequently I'm not buying it. Bored again.
It is cool, however, that Erik's primary mode of learning secrets is eavesdropping from nearby without the adults suspecting that he's there. It foreshadows the scene on Apollo's Lyre very nicely, and further rumination here on his possibly demonic status also helps suggest his backlash against it when he will much later declare himself an angel.
Sigh. Strap in for this journey aboard the Boring Prose Telling Express, now departing from page 211:
"Each traumatic event in my life changed me as it remade and shaped me from within. I became stronger and yet weaker. My once happy and joyful spirit, that found wonder and excitement with all the simple amazing pleasures in life, became darkened and I could look on both happy and sad scenes without the remotest of feelings. My joy was being buried beneath layer after layer of emotional pain and its resulting hate. I could see it happening right before me; nevertheless, I was powerless to stop its relentless march across my trampled heart. Only when music caressed my soul did I receive any respite from hatred's stabbing onslaughts."
Oh, my god. It's like reading a memoir written by a rambly, deeply self-indulgent old man - which I suppose it might be from the frame device, but that isn't making it any more fun. That's a giant paragraph of all the things not to do when describing what's up with your character. What traumatic events? How is he "stronger and yet weaker" (what the fuck does that even mean)? Why is he emotionally buried, and, most importantly, how did any of this happen? We need to see it happen as readers! We can't identify with Erik's struggles if they all happen offstage and you don't even tell us what they were!
Also, please use "hatred" instead of "hate" if you mean a noun instead of a verb, and forgive me for laughing out loud in the middle of the next sentence, because all I was visualizing was a cartoon heart being repeatedly run over by galloping horses while Benny Hill played in the background.
And Maurice, I know you're trying to be The Saintliest Dad That Ever Sainted, but seriously, grow a fucking backbone and tell your son that he can't play piano until doing so stops breaking his stitches and making him bleed all over it. I promise he will survive. You are literally making it more likely that he’ll lose piano-playing ability.
It's interesting that it's Erik's younger sister Gigi who looks exactly like Christine later will - blonde, blue-eyed, cherubic and so forth. Is that on purpose? Are we going to get some kind of weird incest subtext that isn't about his mom for once? I don't think so because as far as I can tell Gigi is entirely incidental to the plot so far, but we can always wait and see what happens. (Also, did Gigi get dropped out of the sky by a confused stork or something? Anna's a black-haired Spanish beauty and that’s a lot of recessive traits!)
Okay, I was kidding before, but I'm not kidding anymore. Maurice is Jesus. He is actually Jesus. Fuck Christine as a Christ figure, because Christ walks among us and his name is Maurice. He never does anything wrong, only provides love and happiness to everyone around him, and constantly preaches love, acceptance, and tolerance to Erik and anyone else who will sit still for five minutes. He tells parables, for Maurice's sake - full-on constant parables whenever Erik asks him for the answer to something. He calls them parables. I can't believe that this is an accident. It's so overt that the parts of me not snoring in my lunch from Maurice's endless sermonizing are blinded.
Which I guess is good for symbolic value. As Christ, Maurice is one of the only living people who accepts Erik for who he is with no reservations or problems, who loves him unconditionally and who is always there for him in times of need. He will also be dying for Erik's sins shortly (which is not really a spoiler because if you've read this far you've already lived through the Great Death Foreshadowing of Chapter Twelve and you know what's up).
It's not good for character value, though, unfortunately. It's an intrepid reader indeed who can find any way to be invested in Maurice as a person. It's like trying to be invested in an infomercial; there's just nothing there beneath the layers of saintly purity.
I do really love that Bruns recognizes and plays with the concept that Erik is all about control. He needs control over everyone and everything in his environment, from emotional control of his family to physical control of the boys who bully him, and his response to any authority figure other than his father (i.e. the priest, God, other adults) is immediate and violent rejection. As usual, she feels the need to stop and tell us about it instead of just letting him do it, but at least we also get to see it in action.
Erik's been having nightmares pretty consistently throughout the novel, by the way. They're metaphors for his fears - of becoming a monster, of losing his family and so on - but they generally have all the subtlety of a brick to the face. But, considering that they're a step up from the narrator just saying, "I was afraid of becoming a monster!", I'll take them as the better of the two available options.
This entire chapter is comedy gold, because when Erik and the two boys he's been having tiffs with get dragged up in front of the local police chief, this interchange occurs:
"'That's not fair!'
'You want a fair sentencing?' the unruffled magistrate asked calmly. 'Very well, Franco. Then for that outburst, I'll give you one month with a scrub brush in your hands.'
Pointing at the magistrate, Franco shouted, 'You're an idiot, you know that? An idiot!'
I was shocked and pushed my chair back with my eyes wide, but not the magistrate.
He calmly moved forward and planted his elbows on his desk while looking coldly up at Franco. 'Let's make that two months. Now sit down... or do you want to try for three?'"
Later, Franco will assert his independence from the magistrate's preconceived notions and then make out with Claire in the closet. Or so I have to assume.
Man, I am very tired of Maurice having all these deeply meaningful conversations using only his eyes. He does this a lot with Erik, and it's trite, boring, and completely confusing for readers who aren't psychic, since no actual dialogue ever occurs. Stop just telling us how everyone feels and then pretending they can tell because of the soulful glances they throw at one another! Have them actually do something!
A quick side trip to discuss Gigi before she disappears forever: is she unique in Phantom adaptations? While the Phantom occasionally has a twin brother (usually in terrible movies from the seventies), I don't think I've ever seen a version where he has a sister. The closest versions are the original 1937 Weibang/Shan movie, which does a lot of very weird things that the western adaptations don't and which includes a sister who has no lines and only appears in one scene, and the awful 2005 Rhodes book, in which the Phantom character had a sister at one point but she was dead before the novel began. Gigi (and her happy, uncomplicated toddler love of her brother) removes quite a bit of the singular aloneness of the Phantom just by existing, and I can't help but wonder if she's going to have any representational or plot value down the road. Certainly she doesn't in this book, and it looks like she won't be around anymore after this point, but stranger things have happened. It'd be a shame if she was just a throwaway character.
In the same vein, it's interesting that Bruns makes such a point of Anna's musical talent, which is also amazing. It makes Erik's musical inclinations much less singular to himself, but rather circles them back to his mother again (and really, don't most things in the Phantom story eventually circle back to his mother?).
Erik goes to his first opera here, and it is Verdi's Nabucco. It's chosen to give Erik some more time to whine about how much he randomly hates religion, but it's Verdi, so I went off and listened to it and then I felt better about everything. If you've never heard it, you should; it's one of Verdi's most celebrated.
I don't know what opera house this is supposed to be happening in - I would assume La Fenice, considering the time period and the fact that they're in Venice hearing Verdi - but it's pretty clear that Bruns is describing it from the image of the Opera Populaire in the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film, complete with naked gold Roman statues randomly placed about the audience. There aren't many clear shout-outs to the 2004 film in this book, but this is definitely one of them.
Oddly enough, Erik makes a big deal about Nabucco's religious theme before he gets there, but then there's no mention whatsoever of it at or after the actual performance. In fact, there's unfortunately very little about the performance described at all, and that entire part of the chapter is devoted to Erik's vague retelling and over-the-top raptures. Sadly, the intended effect - of getting across Erik's strong emotional response to the opera - is almost entirely lost in the poor communication and confusion.
I appreciate the historical effort of explicitly naming the Messiah Stradivarius as the violin Signore Lauria offers to Erik to play here, but unfortunately that also exposes its lack of underpinnings; there's only one Messiah Strad, so this can't be "a Messiah", and it was owned at this time by Luigi Tarisio, a violin collector who was famously unwilling to part with his instruments. Also, Lauria is offering the Messiah Strad to a kid he's never met before today to demonstrate his level of skill? No, he’s super not. Does no one in this book respect the mighty Strad?
In describing Erik's musical mastery, Bruns says in the narration, "you would have to hear to appreciate in full." Yeah, no shit, but I can't because this is a book, so you want to maybe give it a shot at describing it to me?
One of my favorite choices for this entire novel occurs here; on the same trip that Erik is offered the possibility of becoming a music student at the premier institutions in Venice, he is also brought to a medical specialist who discusses the possibility of nasal reconstruction to make him healthier and more physically acceptable. However, a very deliberate move is made to emphasize the fact that the nose, as part of the body's breathing apparatus, always has an important effect on the singing voice, and that choosing to have his nose reconstructed might damage his celestial voice. It makes his physical condition’s downsidesa direct tradeoff for his voice's beauty, and therefore a direct decision he must make, considerably changing the dynamics of the entire situation. From this point onward, Erik's condition is something he chose to keep rather than lose something else, which makes a very large difference when it comes to handling it in the future. I'm very interested to see if anything interesting happens with Erik taking ownership of his appearance that way, because it could lead to a lot of neat places.
It also becomes apparent here that Anna, still unstable although happier recently, is violently opposed to moving to Venice. Again making adult choices, Erik offers to simply go by himself, leaving his only support system behind rather than force her to leave, because he's afraid she won't love his father anymore if he forces her hand. This is one of the few places where he makes a genuinely child-like assumption, and it’s poignant as a result.
Of course, it's moot because it's time for Maurice to die for our sins, which he does by being hit over the head with a lantern by the parents of Erik's arch-nemesis in a fairly stock episode of Random Drunken Antagonist Theatre. It's very directly "for Erik's sins", in fact, as he dies defending his son from the adults wanting to poke at him, and in a further dimension that deformity being there to be poked at at all is now a conscious choice on Erik's part.
It's worth noting that Maurice also dies facially disfigured, terribly burned by the blazing lamp oil. The parallel to Erik's situation is obvious and again gives us a direct image of Erik's "sin" - i.e., his deformity - being transferred straight to Maurice.
Alas, the end of the chapter, in which Erik freaks out and runs away forever, is so depressingly overdramatic and incoherent that I not only couldn't feel any real emotion, I also couldn't quite understand what was going on, and had to reread it in order to be exactly sure what was happening. It's clearly a moment that is the height of horror and sorrow for our main character, but unfortunately Bruns was unable to bring that across to the reader in a clear and effective manner.
I can't lie to y’all: I am not a fan of this epilogue. It goes back to 1881 so Erik can wallow in his father's death some more as an adult, goes on way too long, and doesn't add anything to the story. It's especially annoying because I know we're going to be reading about Erik's adult years later, so I don't know why we have to do it now as well.
Erik consciously builds a metaphor of himself as a spider here, which again strongly suggests to me that there's some influence from Kay's novel involved.
Confusingly, despite the fact that this is set after letting Christine leave with Raoul, we now jump back - in a flashback within an epilogue, Maurice have mercy - so he can also think about his early days when he was first spying on Christine. The choice being made here is to relate Erik to Christine as a fellow orphan who has lost his father as well, and to give you some background for his random religious rage (there it is again! are we ever going to see this clown actually explore his feelings on religion, or is it going to be one-note like this forever?) motivating him to "right" her father's wrong in telling her about angels by promising to be one.
I know the author never means it that way, but... when Erik is spying on Christine getting undressed, and then he gets all hot and bothered, and then he runs away to his lair, why does he always immediately run to "his organ" as soon as he gets there? I'M JUST SAYING. "Once I reached the organ, I was in a frenzy." OH, REALLY.
Hey, on page 322, there's the Opera Populaire directly referenced, larger than life.
Oh, god, Erik, I'm so bored. I don't care about you moaning over how much you miss Christine. Say something relevant or sign off now, please. The only useful part of this is the knowledge that she only kissed him on the forehead, so this is again a hybrid with Leroux's version. I'm not sure that it entirely works in this context; Erik's only physical problem is his lack of nose, so his forehead is not exactly the skullish forbidden territory it was in Leroux's novel, and certainly I don't know of any reason he'd have the original Erik's panic that she might die if she touched him. But hey, there are a lot of books still to come. Maybe things'll happen.
But not before Bruns signs off by emphasizing the title of the next book in the text, because why not? If y’all were not previously aware, Erik has been FORSAKEN.
I think there's actually a lot of decent stuff in here, but it's swimming around in a mess of cliché and Bruns obviously hasn't quite found her feet as a writer yet. It's well-intentioned but not yet good. I'm interested to see what the future installments will look like and whether they'll be more of the same or show some progress - on either Erik's part as a character or Bruns' as a writer - to make them more exciting.