Book Quote:

“How far back did he envision all this—the zeppelin that serves as his tomb, the shining tin boy speaking with his voice, and someone imprisoned here to listen to him? When he started drawing up the plans for the mechanical boy, he must have foreseen his own death. He was already thinking, back then, that I would find him and kill him, and that later I would sit at this desk to hear his tales.”

Book Review:

Review by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (APR 4, 2010)

Every so often, a novel is published that is so inventive, so rich that it transports its readers deep into its fictional world and won’t let go until the end. Dexter Palmer’s steampunk The Dream of Perpetual Motion is that kind of book. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, after “the age of miracles,” this eloquent and often playful tale, stuffed full of allusions and sly commentary, is narrated by Harold, a man imprisoned aboard the zeppelin Chrysalis, a failing “perpetual motion machine.” He is alone except for the voice of his beloved Miranda and a crew of mechanical men. As he tells of his evolution from a shy, awkward boy who wants nothing more than to ride the Tornado at the carnival to the murderer of Prospero Taligent, the father of Miranda and one of the most celebrated inventors of his day, Harold spins a mesmerizing story of how he attained his “heart’s desire,” even though that was not what he wanted.

In true steampunk fashion, the city of Xeroville teems with technology rooted in the knowledge of the day: mechanical men instead of robots; answering machines that record on drums of wax; flying cars that rattle; teaching helmets lowered by cables and operated by hand cranks; and, of course, a zeppelin powered by the first (seemingly) perpetual motion machine. The atmosphere is a combination of noir, nostalgia, and the outrageous. What is most remarkable is how Palmer holds this all together with a confident narrative voice that shifts easily from the philosophical to the satirical. His prose is astonishing at times with its rhythms and precision.

At the heart of this novel lies the archetypical Industrial Revolution theme of dehumanization. Before his imprisonment, Harold cranks out greeting card copy in a cubicle the way a factory machine spits out parts. As his co-worker Ophelia says, “This is a special thing that we do, that everyone takes for granted: people need us to say the things for them that they wish they could say themselves . . . “ Harold’s sister Astrid changes forever after she kisses a mechanical demon (a metaphor for her earlier selling her dignity for a few dollars) and starts becoming more metal than human, both figuratively and literally. And Miranda, Prospero’s adopted daughter, is so isolated from society that she cannot hold a conversation with another ten year old. Prospero wants her perfect, the way he perceives his inventions, and he cannot accept anything less than an immutable Virgin Queen without emotions and ordinary desires. The flip side to Miranda’s possible perfection is Prospero’s “son” Caliban, a creation akin to Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together by cadaver parts and impressing Harold as being possibly more brilliant than Prospero himself but still deeply flawed.

The novel evokes Jules Verne, Neal Stephenson, the anime Metropolis, and Frankenstein, with allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. It is an alternate world Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where the good boy who gets the Golden Ticket suffers in the end, and the “kid in the class who still carries disfiguring scars across his face, earned during some misadventures in the forbidden culs-de-sac of a local chocolate factory” has more respect. Unicorns are real flesh and blood, but are engineered. Real men dress up as tin men, and tin men look real.

The author flirts with metafiction and tackles the issue of society’s relationship with art and the written word. In Xeroville, art at Taligent University is evaluated by the Critic-O-Matic, a machine filled with fluid and a cash-strapped undergraduate whose physiological responses deliver grades. In a playful send-up of deconstructionism, a writing professor instructs students to cut up their copies of The Tempest and “then, as if they are writing ransom notes, they must rearrange the words into another work that is to ‘reflect the spirit of the twentieth century.’” Harold scatters random words across his desk as he daydreams. When the professor feeds Harold’s unthinking rearrangement of the play into the machine, the Critic-O-Matic declares it “absolutely brilliant.” The question of authorship gets muddled at times. Is it Harold? Or Prospero? Or Dexter Palmer, who makes an appearance in his own novel as an uncomfortable man who drones “on and on for an hour”? Is this a story a dream or a memoir? As Harold writes, “. . . these phrases have lost their meaning through endless repetition, like everything else in this modern, mechanical age . . . Stories? We have no time for them; we have no patience.”

The events that brought Harold to his fate form an eloquent tale of misguided love, dreams, and self-destruction. The novel offers such a rich array of characters, ideas, and imagery that reading it feels like eating an enormous, magical feast. I highly recommend it.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 46 readers
PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Press; 1 edition (March 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
EXTRAS: Excerpt

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April 4, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Literary, Speculative (Beyond Reality)

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