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