Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Dream of Perpetual Motion

A world of wonders brought together 
by Dexter Palmer’s quietly astonishing style

Dexter Palmer Meets Dexter Palmer
     While browsing at Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, which is a worthwhile reason to go to Louisville, I found The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer.  Dexter Palmer?!  Dexter’s written a book?  The jacket made it sound pretty good, though “An extravagantly wondrous and admirable first novel” from The Washington Post could describe about half the first novels published.  I hadn’t run
across it before even though it was published in 2010 and it may have been because, as Jeff VanderMeer of The New York Times Book Review wrote, it’s “a singular riff on steampunk.”  I always think of steampunk as a retread of Victorian science fiction so I didn’t have high hopes.

An Industrial 20th Century
     I was completely wrong.  It’s a stunner of a novel that imagines an alternate twentieth century where technology took over, but remained industrial resulting in extraordinary mechanical men, rather than turning to computers.  One hilarious detail is that instead of texting on phones, people write tons of 3 x 5 index cards to each other instead of speaking.  It’s the type of world where the hero, greeting-card writer Harold Winslow, splurges on a shrinkcab to share his troubles with a therapist-taxicab driver near the beginning of the book.  It’s set in Xeroville, which seems a little like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, especially with its flying cars and zeppelins.  I’m overemphasizing details that may turn off potential readers from this book because they’ll think, “oh, it’s fantasy or sci-fi and I’m not into that.”

     It’s actually a romance that begins between ten year old Harold and Miranda, the only daughter of the mad genius Prospero Taligent.   Palmer and his characters are aware of the connections to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and he (and they) play with and against allusions to that classic.  He also incorporates the sense that this is Harold’s bildüngsroman as he emerges from a tenement family with a hoarder father and a bizarrely unhappy older sister, Astrid, who becomes a noted artist and icon feminist.  The first sequence between Harold and Astrid at an amusement park reminded me of the unsettling nascent sexuality of Henry Green’s Call It Sleep.  

     Palmer uses multiple narrators, including an adult Harold, Caliban (sort of like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster), Prospero, and secondary characters to expound on his main theme of whether profound human connection is possible in an industrial era that becomes dystopic because too much power is in the hands of the very few.  As Harold’s character switches between first and third person point of view in his Romantic quest to save Miranda that becomes an allegory for the Echo myth, Palmer refers to the outsider, know/nobody tradition of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (though two of these narrators are overground - in the sky) or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  

     I’m making this sound too complicated and acting as if Palmer can only refer to earlier works to work his magic, but I do this to point out that this is a major piece of fiction that understands its place in the western literary tradition in a way that academic critics would label postmodern.  However, Palmer’s style, simultaneously poignant and satirical, keeps the story grounded in its own concerns, rather than those of earlier writers or movements.  Here’s one scene, about two-thirds in, where Harold tries to pick up a woman in a bar:

‘We performed the act of conversation, rather than conversing – neither of us was meant to be left altered by what we said to each other, since we were merely marking time.  We mostly discussed the recent events of radio serials – like most modern people, we no longer bothered to make the distinction between events in real life and the dramas of fictional worlds, and so the cliff-hanger that inevitably, reliably ended the hour held just as much or more importance to us as the newspaper that usually went from doorstep to garbage bin unread, and we speculated about the future lives of the characters that populated decayed mansions or desert isles as if they weren’t inventions of other human minds.’ 

     For anyone who enjoyed Gregory Maguire’s Wicked or Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or loved J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (much more serious than it initially appeared), The Dream of Perpetual Motion is worth checking out.

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