Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer

What is the perfect moment? Could it be the instant before a momentous decision is made, with all outcomes still possible, before being resolved into something undoubtedly less ideal than imagined? This is one of the concerns of Dexter Palmer's debut novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion.

Prospero Taligent is a wildly successful inventor, who lives with his adopted daughter Miranda and his son Caliban in the 150-story Taligent Tower. Harold Winslow lives with his father and sister in much more modest surroundings. His father crafts dolls for Taligent's business.

One day, while at the amusement park with his sister, 10-year-old Harold has a mysterious encounter with two young men who turn out to be employees of Prospero and who invite him to 10-year-old Miranda's birthday party. Whisked to the party by a flying mechanical man, Harold - one of 50 boys and 50 girls - is shown some of Prospero's wonders, and is chosen to sit next to Miranda at dinner, where the two have an awkward conversation. Prospero tells the children the story of the Virgin Queen: beloved by all the men in the kingdom because she is unattainable; should any one touch her, she would become ordinary and no longer the object of universal, if unrequited, love.

Later, Prospero takes Harold out of his public school to be educated with Miranda in the Tower. Their brief period of happiness ends when Prospero sees Harold kiss Miranda. Even in the awkward way one child kisses another, Prospero sees Harold bringing Miranda into the adult world too soon, and banishes the boy from the Tower.

The story works its way forward in decade-long intervals. Ten years later, Harold is in college trying to decide what he wants to do in a world that has now been transformed by Prospero's tin men. Miranda has rebelled and left the Tower. Harold rescues Miranda - or does he? Another ten years pass and Harold works as a greeting card writer as society collapses around him and he receives a message from Miranda asking for his help again.

The novel is framed by Harold's time in the zeppelin Chrysalis, where he has been imprisoned for the past year, after killing Prospero. Harold has used his time aboard the airship to write the story of his life, and how it has intersected with Miranda's, and how he came to his current situation.

The book is the rare novel that manages to be both entertaining and ambitious. Palmer is a skilled writer, capable of eloquent, moving passages as well as hilariously funny ones. (Harold's one sex scene with Miranda is a succession of awkward moments.) Despite the nods to Steampunk - the mechanical men, the zeppelin, the obsessed inventor - this is by no means a Steampunk novel. It's certainly a science fiction novel, a dystopia set in a somewhat altered version of the 20th century, and it's a novel about a quest, but most of all it's a novel of ideas. Words and dreams have power; sounds can cancel one another out. Technology aims to improve life, but none of Prospero's inventions really improve lives. In addition, it's a novel about the future of storytelling. At one point, Prospero says to Harry: "Storytelling - that's not the future. The future, I'm afraid, is flashes and impulses. It's made mod moments and fragments, and stories won't survive."

(Of course, Harold himself is something of an unreliable narrator. As the young Harold struggles to write down what happened at Miranda's tenth birthday party, his father gives him some advice: "Son, write down what you think happened, or what you believe happened, or something like what might have happened. All of these are better in the end than writing down nothing at all; all are true, in their own way." Ultimately, how much of Harold's story is true?)

One obvious literary device is the comparison with Shakespeare's The Tempest. Prospero takes his name and that of his daughter Miranda from the magician and his daughter in the play. We infer that Prospero is an adopted name: "I have no past…Always an old magician in exile," he says. Unlike Shakespeare's hero, who ultimately renounces his magic as he rejoins the world, our Prospero never loses faith in his ability to transform the world through his technological prowess.

No part of the book is wasted. Harold's sister Astrid plays an important role in the story. Astrid becomes a serious artist - even though her fellow artist friend insists on wrapping Astrid's art in unintentionally humorous feminist jargon - and, in contrast with Harold, who abandoned his art for the career of a greeting card writer, demonstrates the commitment of an artist to her art.

The one thing I thought odd about the pacing of the book was that, in the last section, the action came to a halt on three separate occasions as Harold listens to other people tell lengthy stories. While each provides necessary information, the timing seemed odd.

On the other hand, I found the ending wholly appropriate - really, the only ending that was possible.

For a lengthier discussion of the book, see The Incomparable! podcast, episode 27.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion had been sitting on my pile of books to read for over a year, and I regret leaving it there that long. I won't make the mistake with Palmer's next book.

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