Tag Archives: literary fiction

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate who drove her insane.

The tale of Harold’s life is also one of an alternate reality, a lucid waking dream in which the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, where replicas of deserted islands exist within skyscrapers.. As Harold’s childhood infatuation with Miranda changes over twenty years to love and then to obsession, the visionary inventions of her father also change Harold’s entire world, transforming it from a place of music and miracles to one of machines and noise. And as Harold heads toward a last desperate confrontation with Prospero to save Miranda’s life, he finds himself an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all: the perpetual motion machine. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

Shakespeare’s The Tempest re-imagined as a steampunk fairy tale – I had high expectations for this novel when I picked it up, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a beautifully written novel, as humorous as it is tragic and as meaningful as it is compelling. While Palmer gets a slow and somewhat tedious start, relating Harold’s first encounters with Miranda and his mundane work as a writer of greeting cards, he uses these pages to establish an imaginative and elaborate world that provides an excellent backbone for the rest of the story. Palmer’s steampunk London, while safely within the genre’s conventional confines, is unique in that it suffers the psychological and philosophical consequences of its futuristic technology. The Dream is a novel that questions the function of language using language, and it does so by creating a world in which technology has replaced talking. With the amazing technologies created by inventors like Prospero Taligent, real conversations are no longer necessary. People still communicate but they don’t really use language to do it anymore.

Who better to narrate such a world than Harold, whose job is to write soothing, meaningless platitudes that are mass-produced and given to people in lieu of actual letters? Well, for a start, Miranda, daughter of the man responsible for the loss of language. My main qualm with The Dream of Perpetual Motion is that it chooses a rather mundane, everyman narrator over a pair of fascinating and much more complicated characters. This is a narrative choice that offers Palmer a few conveniences in terms of story-telling, but forces him to sacrifice a first-hand investigation of a world that has abandoned language. Fortunately, Harold tells the story of the Taligents effectively enough that this is not much of a distraction. The Taligents are enjoyable characters even when viewed from an outsider’s perspective. Prospero – true to source – is a morally complicated and emotionally damaged man whose self-destructive tendencies make him a “bad guy” only in that he does not have the capability to make the right choices; Miranda is a naive and perpetually childlike woman who fails to recognize her father’s faults because she has no context in which to put them. Neither character is much like Harold or the rest of his society – but strange as they are, they exemplify the direction in which Harold’s world is going.

From this point on, the novel becomes not only a discussion of the role of language in relationships, but in defining what it means to be human. Caliban, a demented creation that Prospero considered a failure, records his experiences in a journal with more eloquence and emotion than that displayed by either Miranda or her father. So are they really more human than the mechanical monster? And in a world where technology can replicate human communication, is language a way to measure humanity anymore? As The Dream of Perpetual Motion builds to a complicated (somewhat muddled, in fact) and twist-packed climax, Palmer reveals that Miranda herself is the perpetual motion machine. Prospero’s greatest scientific accomplishment is his emotionally broken, psychologically disturbed daughter, whose isolation from the outside world has made her the perfect machine but the biggest disaster of a human imaginable.

Despite the few kinks in Palmer’s debut – The Tempest shouldn’t, I think, have been name-dropped within the narrative – The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a wonderfully insightful and entertaining read that I would recommend for fans of steampunk, Shakespeare, or good story-telling.

Recommended

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Little Green by Loretta Stinson

In Little Green, Loretta Stinson’s stunning, redemptive first novel, tragedy leaves Janie Marek orphaned. The action begins in 1976, with Janie a runaway and stranded on the freeway outside a Northwestern town after hitchhiking. Janie ends up working at a strip club called “The Habit” and falls for Paul Jesse, a drug dealer who spirals into addiction and becomes physically abusive. As the violence escalates, Janie finds a job in a bookstore and her independence begins. After a brutal beating she must make the most difficult and dangerous choice she’ll ever make by leaving. This stirring first novel is a testament to the power of books, education, and a community of friends who help those in need. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

It is entirely possible to write about abusive relationships, the dangers of drug culture, and the potential for recovery from both of those things without being obvious or preachy.

But Loretta Stinson did not do that in this novel. Little Green  documents homeless teen Janie Marek’s evolution from helpless child to strong, self-possessed woman, a coming of age formula has been done dozens of times by dozens of authors to varying degrees of success. Accordingly, I didn’t expect much when I picked up this book. It still disappointed me. Janie is less than compelling as a protagonist; she is more intellectual than her circumstances would suggest, which is meant to be surprising and progressive but didn’t strike me as either of those things. At best, she scores sympathy points with her tragic background and with the trauma she suffers at the hands of her abusive, drug-addicted older boyfriend. At worst, she is a tedious and predictable character who would be unable to carry a novel if not for the sheer number of things which happen to her through no real fault of her own, which make up pretty much the entirity of Little Green’s plot. Normally, I’d take issue with that, but in this case I’m thankful. The steady pace of Little Green’s plot is its greatest strength.

But Little Green‘s pacing  is not enough to make it an enjoyable book.  Stinson writes in choppy, stiff sentences, much like a grade schooler reluctantly chipping away at a school assignment. She is a good activist but not a very good novelist. Janie’s relationship with Paul has the well-worn echoes of a hundred after-school specials, a thousand public service announcements, and at least ten other novels. That his addiction and abuse would worsen seemed obvious; that Janie would eventually have to break away from him seemed inevitable. Even the last minute “plot twist” that Stinson flings at readers is a lazy attempt to inject suspense into a novel with an ending I had guessed a good 150 pages earlier.

In Little Green, Stinson endeavors to write an “edgy” coming of age story with a message. Unfortunately, it’s heavy on message and light on story. Little Green is a failure of a novel because it so often forgets to be a novel.

Not recommended

Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Letham

At the age of 13, Pella Marsh loses her mother and her home on the scorched husk that is planet Earth. Her sorrowing family emigrates to the Planet of the Archbuilders, whose mysterious inhabitants have names like Lonely Dumptruck and Hiding Kneel—and a civilization that frightens their human visitors.
 On this new world, spikily independent Pella becomes an uneasy envoy between two species. And at the same time is unwillingly drawn to a violent loner who embodies all the paranoid machismo of the frontier ethic. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

Most summaries of this novel will describe it as Lolita in space, but that is both inaccurate and unfair to the harrowing, beautiful masterpiece that is Girl in Landscape. Letham is clever enough to make a well-worn technique work when he uses setting as a metaphor for psyche – Girl is not only an intricate coming-of-age story but an inventive and enjoyable sci-fi novel. As Pella leaves behind the familiar comforts of her home on Earth – including, most notably, her mother – she ventures into a foreign, frightening new realm populated by imposing, alien creatures: outer space. But also adolescence. With her mother gone, Pella is left to navigate her new world and its strange occupants alone, save for the company of her detached father and childish brothers.

Acclimating to the planet of the Archbuilders has unforeseen complications. Namely, the surreal experiences that some describe as “indigenous diseases” and Pella herself describes as her “deer form,” so named for the small, feral animals that run invisibly over the surface of the planet. Pella, who is herself small and prone to feeling invisible, finds herself periodically slipping into a strange trance state in which she describes herself as unable to be detected and therefore privy to the arguments and accusations that are otherwise kept behind her neighbors’ closed doors. Though Pella’s vaguely sexual relationship with enigmatic outsider Efram Nugent forms one of the novel’s most darkly compelling conflicts, Girl in Landscape is primarily the story of a fledgling community on an isolated frontier and not of a couple with an age disparity issue.

That said, Girl is invested enough in its narrator to narrow its focus on her conflicts rather than those of the entire planet, a choice for which I was thankful. Girl in Landscape is one of those rare novels which takes on an organically adolescent voice without actually becoming a YA angst-fest. Pella is a sympathetic, engaging narrator whose characterization is strong, complex, and absorbing. Girl in Landscape is as much an extended work of portraiture (note the title) as it is a story, and by the time Letham brings his work to its thunderous conclusion, he has drawn a figure in whom we can see every dimension of earthly adolescence reflected back at us through the lens of otherworldly experience.

 Recommended

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The City is inhabited by the recently departed, who reside there only as long as they remain in the memories of the living. Among the current residents of this afterlife are Luka Sims, who prints the only newspaper in the City, with news from the other side; Coleman Kinzler, a vagrant who speaks the cautionary words of God; and Marion and Phillip Byrd, who find themselves falling in love again after decades of marriage.

On Earth, Laura Byrd is trapped by extreme weather in an Antarctic research station. She’s alone and unable to contact the outside world: her radio is down and the power is failing. She’s running out of supplies as quickly as she’s running out of time. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

The Brief History of the Recently Dead had the appearance of a soft sci-fi novel with literary inclinations, which caught my interest and urged me to look past its bland premise: a pleasantly mundane, purgatorial afterlife set against a harrowing, painful earthly existence. I was therefore disappointed to find that the most interesting thing about The Brief History turned out to be that rather uninspiring premise. The City is entertaining enough, but when the novelty of Brockmeier’s afterlife concept wears off, it becomes a dull read, in large part because Brockmeier fails to generate empathy for his already dead characters or insert meaning into their existences. There is no reason why the reader should care that any of these people still exist, or are doomed to soon not exist. They are not interesting human beings; they do not have fates, destinies, or concerns which need to be addressed.

Yet The Brief History is at its most boring when it chronicles Laura Byrd’s ill-fated trek towards death. As she slowly comes to the realization that an epidemic has left her alone on Earth, Laura questions her existence, drifts through a series of mundane childhood memories, and plays word association games. She also speculates about the role of the corporation she worked for in the epidemic, which is intended (probably) to create some sort of existential crisis but fails to do so. Laura is no more interesting than the people in The City. Alone, unaffected by the madness, genius, or tragedy that makes the internal journey of an isolated character memorable, Laura is like a performer who stands in the middle of a spotlight and does nothing.

The Brief History of the Dead fails most deeply when it forgets that a novel must give a reader some reason to keep going. In other words, The Brief History required momentum which it did not have. There is no suspense in The Brief History. There is no need for closure. No cliff-hanger. No mystery. And, though it appeared that there might be one near the end, no literary meaning either. It seemed inevitable that Laura would die. That when she did die, the City would probably disappear. I waited for that to mean something within Brockmeier’s grand scheme of existence, but it did not. Not a very satisfying conclusion to a novel that answers few questions and seems to pose even less.

Not recommended 

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

In a quiet suburb of Detroit, the five Lisbon sisters–beautiful, eccentric, and obsessively watched by the neighborhood boys–commit suicide one by one over the course of a single year. As the boys observe them from afar, transfixed, they piece together the mystery of the family’s fatal melancholy, in this hypnotic and unforgettable novel of adolescent love, disquiet, and death. Jeffrey Eugenides evokes the emotions of youth with haunting sensitivity and dark humor and creates a coming-of-age story unlike any of our time. (Synopsis source: www.amazon.com)

The Virgin Suicides may be one of the most unconventional coming of age stories I’ve read, if only because its protagonists end up dead instead of functioning adults at the end of the story. It is in that unconventionality that both the best and the worst parts of this novel lie – Eugenides’ attempt to capture the essence of youth’s fragility and temporality is successful only insofar as it exists completely outside of the real world. In other words, The Virgin Suicides should be read as a fairy tale. Whether or not Eugenides meant for his novel to be read this way, he makes it very easy; like any (good) fantasy writer would, Eugenides spends enough time building a self-contained world that one can become lost inside his novel’s universe without paying attention to the rules and realities that govern our outside world. The dreamy, surreal suburb in which the novel is set is historical, otherworldly, and above all macabre: it is a world in which five pretty girls in white dresses killing themselves violently is an aesthetic spectacle that simultaneously horrifies and enthralls their neighbors.

This is where the problem comes in. Eugenides writes very absorbingly. That makes it easy to forget how deeply, profoundly problematic this novel is, especially given that The Virgin Suicides is stylistically voyeuristic, narrated by neighborhood boys who have a decidedly sexual fascination with the Lisbon sisters and see their deaths as increased fuel for that fascination. If Eugenides wishes to comment on the fleeting nature of adolescence – and how that nature makes it beautiful – he has done so in the most sexist, morbid way possible. At the end of The Virgin Suicides, I was disappointed with my reading experience because the entire story felt like an elaborate gag to drag the reader into the faulted, narrow mindset of the neighborhood boys, who grow older but seem frozen in perpetual adolescence along with the objects of their fascination. Yet Eugenides writes his novel so that the Lisbon sisters become inhuman idols, held above the reach of ordinary people like the boys who narrate the story. They are not characters so much as they are things; they are not subjects so much as they are objects.

The Virgin Suicides could have been a brilliant novel if it were written with an ironic spirit, but I find no indication that it was. A story whose narrators are vague shadows that speak in plural first person and whose main protagonists are attractively doomed to never even being characters (a fate much worse than death in a novel) is not a story that can hold the reader’s attention without resorting to sentimentalist tripe. Which is what Eugenides did. The Virgin Suicides is an absorbing and beautiful read, but you may feel cheated when you reach its end.

Not recommended

The Inverted Forest by John Dalton

Summer, 1996, at Kindermann Forest Camp in rural Missouri. The elderly camp director finds his counselors swimming naked two days before camp is to open and fires all of them. As a result, new counselors must be hired and brought to camp. One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. All his life, large, gentle, diligent Wyatt has been misjudged because of his physical appearance. Along with the other new counselors he arrives ready to care for children. To their astonishment, they learn that for the first two weeks of the camping season they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state.

In this world away from the world, the new counselors and disabled campers begin to reveal themselves. Most are well-intentioned, others unprepared. Some harbor dangerous inclinations. Soon Wyatt is called upon to prevent a terrible tragedy. In doing so, he commits an act whose repercussions will alter his own life and the lives of the other Kindermann Forest staff members for years to come. (Synopsis source: www.daltonnovel.com)

The Inverted Forest takes place mostly in Kindermann Forest Camp, an enchantingly isolated, almost eerie world unto itself, a microcosm with as much baggage as each of the counselors who become last minute replacements for more carefully selected candidates in the beginning of this novel. As one might expect, some of the counselors have been less than honest about their backgrounds – in fact, The Inverted Forest depends heavily on deceiving appearances and mistakes in perception to tell its story. But for the first two thirds of the novel, Dalton chooses to keep the nature of those deceptions vague without ever becoming “mysterious” in a heavy-handed way, as authors less gifted with subtlety are wont to do. Instead, he drags the reader into the world of the camp not as a spectator, but as a silent participant, giving them the same information that is given to everyone else but building intricate layers of foreshadowing around his hidden truths that feel obvious only in retrospect.

Most prone to the double-edged knife that these hidden truths present is the novel’s main character, Wyatt, whose facial features resemble those of a retarded person due to a genetic disorder – one which, unbeknownst to most strangers, has no effect on his intelligence. On first glance, many people assume Wyatt to be retarded, an impression that has had a profound effect on Wyatt’s perception of himself and his true intelligence. Throughout Forest, Wyatt questions the relationship between his intelligence and his appearance again and again, a question that he suddenly cannot ignore when a troupe of mentally retarded adult campers are under his care. After so many years being treated as if he is mentally retarded, Wyatt has deluded himself into thinking that he is retarded simply because other people have always thought so. When he is suddenly thrust into the role of a person of able intelligence, his identity is fractured. Or, perhaps, one might say, inverted.

If we are to accept the somewhat cliche but eternally valuable “appearances are deceiving” motif as one that is principal to The Inverted Forest, then Wyatt’s personal narrative becomes one that is emblematic of the problems that strike Kindermann Forest Camp when appearances, in lieu of real information, are used to make judgments. Dalton executes this motif as beautifully as anyone reasonably can after it’s been done so many times without drawing the reader away from his plot in the process.

However, there are the last 100 pages. When I reached page 212, which completes Part I of the novel in my copy, I was entranced and very much impressed by what I assumed to be Forest’s conclusion. Then I kept reading. And it dragged on. And on. For approximately 120 more pages, which is 120 more than I needed or wanted from this novel. It appears that Dalton wished to give his main character some sense of redemption and closure, which would have been okay except for that he also dragged readers through choppy, epilogue-ish forays into the lives of the other counselors fifteen years later in a dull, self-indulgent epilogue to what would have otherwise been a very well-written novel.

Recommended 

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiakwan

Of Bees and Mist is an engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality.

Meridia grows up in a lonely home until she falls in love with Daniel at age sixteen. Soon, they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her charming husband’s family—unaware that they harbor dark mysteries of their own. As Meridia struggles to embrace her life as a young bride, she discovers long-kept secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink. (Synopsis source: http://www.ericksetiawan.com/)

Though Of Bees and Mist is certainly not a fantasy novel, it might well be described as a fairy tale. After all, the familiar elements are all there: a wicked matriarchal figure (not a stepmother, but close enough), an unhappy childhood, a surreal, atemporal world where fortune-tellers and ghosts serve as plot devices, and a charming prince. But Of Bees‘ Daniel is a lackluster substitute for the proverbial knight in shining armor, a problem which lays at the heart of Of Bees and Mist. At its core, this novel is an interrogation of the fairy tale formula that is so much a part of women’s fiction.

Meridia herself is a perfect character for such an exploration. At the beginning of the novel, she is naive and desperately optimistic. She expects Daniel to save her and when he appears to do so, she takes his actions and their consequences at face value. Throughout Of Bees and Mist, Meridia suffers the consequences of her naivety and so does every other character who tries to live by the rules of their society. If Of Bees is, as its synopsis says, a “fable,” then its moral would certainly be that breaking the genre conventions of your own life is sometimes the only way to survive to the end of the story. As Meridia comes into her own and becomes an increasingly self-assured character, she learns to take actions that are dangerously unconventional. To the surprise of her husband, in-laws, and society, Meridia’s strength and courage is often rewarded.

My only major qualm with Of Bees and Mist is its ending, which is an ambiguous and possibly contradictory way to end Setiawan’s otherwise beautifully expressed fable. In beating Eva at her own game, Setiawan hints that Meridia has possibly “become” Eva. If Eva embodies the same strength that Meridia does, Of Bees is portraying self-reliance and inner strength as problematic character traits that guide the actions of antagonists. The rest of the novel suggests that this is not true. The clear moral lines drawn between characters like Eva and Meridia never blur earlier in the story; Meridia’s actions are portrayed as attempts to survive, while Eva’s are expressions of tyranny. If Setiawan truly does mean to imply that the only way to survive a fairy tale is to become its villian, Of Bees and Mist is a hopelessly bleak novel. For this reader, that creates a weird and unsettling contrast when held up against the rest of the book.

Recommended