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Monday, February 22, 2010

“The Dream of Perpetual Motion” by Dexter Palmer (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Dexter Palmer holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University, where he completed his dissertation on the work of James Joyce, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon. “The Dream of Perpetual Motion” is his first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: Imprisoned aboard a zeppelin floating high above a steampunk metropolis, greeting-card writer Harold Winslow is composing his memoir. 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, the devilish genius and industrial magnate, Prospero Taligent.

Amidst a place where deserted islands exist within skyscrapers, where the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, and where other visionary inventions of Prospero Taligent have changed the world from an age of miracles to one of machines and noise, Harold Winslow heads towards a final, desperate confrontation with the mad inventor in order to save Miranda’s life. But all the while, Harold is an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all—the perpetual motion machine...

FORMAT/INFO:The Dream of Perpetual Motion” is 352 pages long divided over five Parts, with each part divided into numbered segments. Also includes a Prologue, an Epilogue, and four Interludes. Narration alternates between the first-person and the third-person via the narrator of the book, Harold “Harry” Winslow. “The Dream of Perpetual Motion” is self-contained.

March 2, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “The Dream of Perpetual Motion” via St. Martin’s Press.

ANALYSIS: At the start to Dexter Palmer’s debut novel, “The Dream of Perpetual Motion”, readers are introduced to the hero of the story—and our narrator—Harold “Harry” Winslow, and his remarkable situation: trapped aboard the ‘good ship Chrysalis’ (accompanied only by the corpse of Prospero Taligent and the voice of his adopted daughter Miranda), which was created to travel the skies for all eternity.

Over the bulk of the novel, Harold explains how and why he, Miranda and Prospero ended up in their current predicament aboard the Chrysalis, and it all begins twenty years earlier with a party celebrating Miranda’s tenth birthday. A party where one hundred lucky boys and girls were invited to attend in a scenario reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is at this party where Harold’s life becomes inextricably intertwined with Miranda’s and Prospero’s, including Prospero’s promise to fulfill every child present with his or her’s ‘heart’s desire’. From here, the narrative skips ten years ahead. Harold is a creative writing student at Xeroville University, his older sister Astrid is an artist on the brink of fame, and Miranda is about to leave the Taligent Tower for the very first time. Another ten years and it’s Christmas Eve, the night when Harold, Miranda and Prospero board the Chrysalis, leading back to the start—and end—of Harold’s astounding memoir...

Plot-wise, “The Dream of Perpetual Motion” is fairly straightforward once you’ve finished reading the book, but the actual journey from point A to point B is anything but. A framing device where Harold is constantly speaking directly to the reader; the ten-year gaps; excerpts from Caliban Taligent’s notebooks, Prospero’s diary and the Xeroville Free Press; monologues, rants and philosophical debates on a wide range of topics (miracles vs. Inventions, moral forces, speech, the written word, noise, silence, art, growing old, the loss of innocence, heroism, etc.); recurring dreams about the virgin queen; and much more threaten to overwhelm the reader with too much information, a lot of which seems to have no connection with one another. Fortunately, there is a logic to Dexter Palmer’s madness, and it’s quite rewarding to see how everything fits together by the end of the novel, although I did feel there were parts that could have been edited out without any great loss. That said, “The Dream of Perpetual Motion” is definitely not for casual readers, and will be appreciated more by those who enjoy fiction of a more challenging, literary bent.

Personally, I tend to find these kinds of novels boring and long-winded, but in the case of “The Dream of Perpetual Motion”, I was kept enthralled by two main reasons. One was because of Dexter Palmer’s writing. Whether it’s the fleshed out, eccentric characters (Harold, Prospero, Miranda, Astrid, Allan Winslow, Caliban, Ophelia Flavin, Charmaine Saint Claire, the portraitmaker); wonderfully descriptive prose; thoughtful examinations on meaningful subjects such as love, change and growing old; quirky humor; the versatility to narrate in different voices and point-of-views (besides Harold, the master of the boiler room, the portraitmaker and the beast all have their own stories to tell); or the ability to skillfully orchestrate a convoluted narrative without losing control; Dexter Palmer’s writing is of a caliber that few writers ever achieve, let alone a debut novelist:

Every story needs a voice to tell it though, or it goes unheard. So I have to try. I still have enough faith left in language to believe that if I place enough words next to each other on the page, they will start to speak with sounds of their own.”

Storytelling—that’s not the future. The future, I’m afraid, is flashes and impulses. It’s made up of moments and fragments, and stories won’t survive.”

If you want Miranda for yourself. Shaking finger. Then you’ll—oh, wait, I’ve stuffed it up.” He pointed his finger in my face and started to shake it vigorously. “If you want Miranda for yourself then you’ll have to kill me first!” —Prospero reading from a set of index cards while being confronted by Harold

Secondly, “The Dream of Perpetual Motion” is incredibly imaginative. Shrinkcabs (taxi cabs driven by professionally licensed shrinks), Nickel Empire, a camera obscura, teaching machines, flying cars, mechanical men configured as angels and demons, Miranda’s playroom which can emulate any place in the world like a desert island, Picturetown whose inhabitants refuse to speak aloud “under all but the direst of cirumstances”, the Critic-O-Matic which grades papers without ‘subjective judgment’, a vitrioleur (a person trained in slinging acid), a Frankenstein-like creature that speaks through a typewriter plugged into its head—“The Dream of Perpetual Motion” is just full of crazy ideas and much of my enjoyment of the book stemmed from discovering what the author would come up with next.

Negatively, besides a narrative that can be difficult to follow and pacing that occasionally stalled due to tangential ramblings, I found it hard to really sympathize with any of the book’s characters despite their interesting personalities/traits, and I felt the novel was sometimes too ambitious for its own good. Also, on a personal note, I was disappointed by the use of steampunk in “The Dream of Perpetual Motion”. When I think of steampunk I think of action, adventure and excitement. I think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Metropolis. I don’t think of a literary drama that takes place in a steampunk-influenced 20th century setting (the city Xeroville), which is how I would describe “The Dream of Perpetual Motion”. In other words, while there are hints of Jules Verne and Katsuhiro Otomo (Steamboy, Metropolis, Akira) to be found in Dexter Palmer’s debut, the novel is more like something cooked up by Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep), Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Tim Burton (Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands), garnished with elements of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Frankenstein, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and fairy tales...

CONCLUSION: Despite issues I had with the narrative’s complexity and ambitiousness, characters I wasn’t able to connect with, and my disillusionment regarding the nature of the book, I came away vastly impressed with Dexter Palmer’sThe Dream of Perpetual Motion”, in particular the accomplished writing and the author’s wild and vivid imagination. And even though I believe the book’s success will be hindered by its inaccessibility and strangeness, “The Dream of Perpetual Motion” is a special novel that marks the debut of a talented new author with a very bright future...


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