Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Books: The Dickens, you say?

After the critical and popular success of his epic length historical monster tale, The Terror, you could look at Dan Simmons's newest novel, Drood, and think that he'd learned two lessons from his last outing.

First, go historical. The Terror made a supernatural thriller out of the mystery surrounding a famed missing arctic expedition. Drood makes a wild penny-dreadful style mystery tale out of the twilight years of famed literary lion Charles Dickens.

Second, think big. Very big. Even in paperback, The Terror was a brick of a book. Drood is a real doorstop as well. For those unfamiliar with the publishing biz, a galley is an advance copy of a book that is run off pre-publication to get the tome into the hands of reviewers, store buyers, and so on. Generally, the galley is made of lighter, cheaper, inferior materials – it isn't built to last, just to be reviewed quickly. Even if the book's coming out in hardback (or cloth, as they say in the glamorous corridors of the quality lit biz) the galley is most likely paperback. Even in galley from, sans the hardback binding and heavier paper, Drood weighs in at about two pounds.

Aside from these immediately obvious points of reference, there's even a tiny bit of content overlap. The real life Dickens and Wilkie Collins, hereafter designated as RDickens and RCollins (to distinguish them from Simmons's fictional characters, hereafter designated FDickens and FCollins), created a play inspired loosely by the disappearance of The Terror expedition. Simmons has a little fun discussing the maudlin sentiments and purple prose FDickens and FCollins drape over the gaunt skeleton of the mysterious disappearance, giving fans of the previous book a darkly comedic study in contrast.

Given all that, you could be forgiven for thinking that you're going to get The Terror 2: This Time, It's Christmas. But the initial evidence is misleading. Drood is a very different beast. Where The Terror is grim, linear, bleak forced march for a dwindling series of doomed men, Drood is a surreal, tangled, and acid-etched look at the relationship between monumental artists. The Terror was dominated by the crushing narrative logic of overwhelming odds, the sort of mathematics one finds at the heart of body-count films. Drood is a dark funhouse full of sense-warping mirrors, blocked lines of vision, and trap doors.

Drood opens with a direct address to the reader by the book's first person narrator, FCollins. The following tale is presented as a manuscript that FCollins is writing after the death of his long-time friend and collaborator FDickens. The manuscript, we're told, is to be published 125 years after FCollins's own demise. One of the running gags throughout the book is FCollins's increasingly inaccurate suppositions about what the world of Twenty-first Century, the world of his imagined audience, must be like: Perhaps you dress like Hottentots, live in gas-lighted caves, travel around in balloons, and communicate by telegraphed thoughts unhindered by any spoken or written language.

After quickly establishing this framing device, the story starts off with the June 9, 1865 train wreck that nearly sent RDickens to a premature grave and is widely considered to have marked the beginning of a long downward spiral for the great author's physical health. On that day, as RDickens heroically assists rescue works in the search for survivors, he runs across the cadaverous titular Drood: a necrotic man with a skeletal, near-noseless face and a snake's hiss for a voice. FDickens comes to believe that Drood was at the crash site not to help save injured survivors, but to speed them on to the next life.

Using some proto-Holmesian deduction (another running in-joke involves the fact that FDickens and FCollins exist in world that doesn't have Sherlock Holmes yet – consequently they repeatedly struggle to find the now familiar vocabulary of mystery writing that is needed to describe what they're doing), FDickens tracks the mysterious Drood to London's foulest slum and recruits FCollins to assist in the hunt.

The trail leads our two authors to a maze-like subterranean warren-city known, somewhat obviously, as the Underworld. There we learn that Drood rules over the discarded classes, using them as a vast network of thieves, spies, and assassins. FDickens becomes obsessed with the figure of Drood, slowly uncovering his bizarre past: he's the castaway son of an Egyptian woman and a British man, a master of mesmerism, and the leader of an ancient sacrificial cannibal cult that traces its origins back to days of the pharaohs.

FCollins fears that he and FDickens are way out of their league, fears that are compounded when Inspector Field, a former police inspector who acted as a ghetto guide to RDickens and RCollins on various tours of London's worst slums and who was the inspiration for RDickens's Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, contacts him. Field tells FCollins that he has built up a network of freelance investigators, spies, and enforcers with the aim of foiling Drood. Drood, you see, is mad as a hatter. The archfiend wants to bring down the British Empire. Not out of any great love of the oppressed peoples of the world, mind you. He wants to establish a new dynasty of pharaohs in the heart of London. And, as if that was not bad enough, Field believes that FDickens is helping Drood in exchange for Drood's secrets to mastering the mesmeric arts (RDickens was a nut for mesmerism, even going so far as to attempt amateur sessions of hypnotic therapy on various folks).

As the novel progresses, FCollins find himself caught in a secret war between the fanatical Field, the nightmarish Drood, and the increasingly guarded FDickens, who appears to be playing off both sides. Surrounded by treachery and deceit, FCollins's own mind begins to betray him as RCollins's truly heroic levels of laudanum consumption begin to take their toll.

In tone, Drood reads like Victorian "sensationalist" novel – one of those mostly anonymously penned shockers that wrapped murder and mayhem in a thin layer of social conscience, the slim justification for their fixation on the morbid. The most famous of these fabulously trashy entertainments is A String of Pearls, the blood-soaked source of the famous Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's plot is so far-fetched and the character of Drood so fantastic, that I must admit that I was originally a bit turned off. The wealth of historical detail – sometimes an almost exhausting amount of detail, Simmons does not like to waste any piece of his research – leads one to mistakenly assume that Drood is going to play by the standard rules of historical realism, with some minor suspension of disbelief required to make Drood suitably monstrous. But when the story begins to really take off, that assumption proves wrong. Ride those bumps out though, and you'll be rewarded.

This brings us to my only real reservation about the novel.

The use of real public figures in a fictional setting is tricky. In The Terror Simmons pretty much had a free hand to do whatever he wished. Who, outside of a few devoted followers of the history of artic exploration, would know anything substantial about the men of the ill-fated expedition? Plus, the history books are unable to tell us what happened to the men, so Simmons had a blank canvas.

By way of contrast, RDickens is one of the most well known authors in the English-speaking world. Not only is nearly every scrap he ever published still in print, even tangentially connected works have been granted immortality by virtue of their proximity to him. His wife's cookbook, for example, is still available. If you want to eat spotted dick just the way RDickens liked it (stop snickering now!), rest assured that you can eat that very spotted dick. (Hey, seriously, stop snickering!) Then one has to account for the entire industry of RDickens scholarship, academic and popular, that must account for miles of shelf space. (Just yesterday publishers sent my wife a new book looking at Dickens just in terms of his creation of his famous "A Christmas Carol" short story – at 226 pages, this pop history is about 160 pages longer than "A Christmas Charol.") Furthermore, the use of RDickens and RCollins as a Holmes and Watson duo is nothing new. Not only has it been done before, there is even a long-running mystery novel series predicated on the idea. Finally, and perhaps most dauntingly, for the author thinking of using RDickens of RCollins as the basis of their own FDickens and FCollins, we're talking about two master stylists of the English language. Both of them somehow managed the impossible: they're mimics that can't be mimicked, creating writing that sounds, at once, like the voices of real people while, at the same time, never sounding like anything less than high artifice. How do you recreate that? If you're a writer who reads RDickens and RCollins and believes that you can recreate their success, then I assure you that you are neither a good reader nor much of a writer.

Simmons compensates for the familiarity of his scheme by delivering meticulously researched, but satirically drawn portraits of the two famous men. FDickens is brilliant and prodigiously talented, but he is also one of the biggest jerks to ever play the hero in a novel. He is overbearing, tyrannical, mercenary, and destructive. FCollins is a strange sort of parasite: poisonously envious of FDickens's but unable to live without his approval. Simmons's Wilkie is cowardly and selfish, proud but helpless. At times, Simmons almost seems savage in his take on them. So much so, in fact, that I sometimes found myself wondering just how British readers will take Simmons's novel. As for mimicking their style, Simmons doesn't really try. This is a wise choice, as there's no way to really succeed at evoking RDickens and RCollins's distinctive voices. It does, however, mean there's a weird disconnect between the voice of the narrator, FCollins, and the voice we know RCollins really has.

Those reservations aside, I recommend it highly. It isn't as immediately approachable as The Terror, but it is, in almost all other ways, a more ambitious, daring, and engrossing follow up. Chalk up two big wins in a row for Simmons.

Drood comes to you care of the fine folks at Little, Brown and Company. We're looking at a street date of February 9th, and the hardback's gonna set you back $26.99. Add three bucks to that if you're Canadian to cover Canada's national politeness tax.

8 comments:

Sasquatchan said...

Interesting. I'm wondering if you had some Grate Expectations for the book.. Or if a Mr Edmund Wells, the well known Dutch author, makes an appearance..

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

No appear from our mutual friend, Mr. Wells. Though I did mention the appearance of that copper, Field, right?

Not many appearances by non-English guys, really. Despite Dickens' roaming, both as a pubic speaker and as a uncommercial traveller, the book is really a tale of two cities: London and Gad's Hill, outside L-town. When hard times finally befell him, healthwise, he became somewhat reclusive, sticking close to his bleak house in Gad's Hill Place.

Ugh. Enough. Let's never do this again.

spacejack said...

Re: hi-fi - I enjoyed reading Caleb Carr's "The Alienist" quite a few years ago. There weren't any supernatural elements, but he was pretty good at creating something of a horror vibe around a turn-of-the-century New York serial killer.

I also read the followup "Angel of Darkness", but I think it similarly stumbled by including well-known historical figures and putting them into somewhat over-the-top situations. It sort of kills the immersion.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Somehow I completely missed "The Alienist," which is weird because that book is about as textbook a definition as "up CRwM's alley" as one can get. Historical New York, serial killers, etc.

I just got a summons for jury duty - which means spending two days in a waiting room without television or the computron. Perhaps the perfect excuse to pick up "The Alienist."

Sasquatchan said...

Read the alienist, vote guilty, do your civic duty!

And are you sure Rarnaby Budge wasn't part of the story ? :)

CRwM said...

Sas,

It didn't even have Chartin Muzzlewit.

Shon Richards said...

"Given all that, you could be forgiven for thinking that your going to get The Terror 2: This Time, It's Christmas."

I would so read that.

I have to agree with you about the danger of using such a well known real writer for a character. On the other hand, I wonder if it easier to sell to publishers that way.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Shon,

Thanks for stopping by.

Before I respond to your comment, I need to publicly announce that in honor of your consistent awesomeness and in recognition of your enduring efforts to make the Internet a better, sexier place, I award you the honorific of "Screamin'," from now on, on this site, you'll forever be known as Screamin' Shon. They can never take that away from you.

As for the whole real person thing, there are some twists in the novel that I can't reveal without ruining the whole thing that frame the whole "wacky adventures" plot in terms that really change the game. So there's that to consider.

Second, I don't mind people using the real characters, really. Myself, I've spent the past five years writing an epic-to-never-be-published trilogy about Boss Tweed which contains no entirely fictional characters whatsoever. I guess my issue is that Simmons chose to have the story told in the voice of a very familiar author, a man whose voice is well known. But, because that voice is impossible to reproduce, there is a sort of built in fail there.

Honestly, it is a minor thing. I enjoyed the novel. I point it out mainly because it struck me as a doomed choice.