Dexter Palmer, 353pgs
Based on the descriptions I'd heard of this one, I came into it with incredibly high hopes - and I was not disappointed. It became immediately clear to me that this novel was the culmination of some of my favorite things: "Alice in Wonderland" meets Terry Gilliam's "Brazil"...but written by a more adult-minded Roald Dahl. And I realize how grand that all sounds, but Palmer's first (first!) novel lives up to the description.
"This is the time of night just before sunrise, the time that no one owns, and if you have found yourself awake and alone during this time, out in the city, outside the safety of the walls you call your own, then you know me, and you have felt what I have felt. This is the hour of the night it's best to sleep through, for if it catches you awake then it will force you to face what is true. This is when you look into the half-dead eyes of those who are either wishing for sleep or shaking off its final remnants and see you see the signs of the twilight in which your own mind is suspended."
While the skeletal parts of this book are typical of the heroic journey (see: Joseph Campbell), this fantastically surreal bit of fractured storytelling keeps things interesting. Many of the main characters of the novel take their names from Shakespeare's "The Tempest": Prospero Taligent, the father and technological Willy Wonka of this world, Miranda, the daughter locked up in her father's 150-floor tower in the middle of the city, and Caliban, the monster of a son put together Frankenstein-like through the pieces of cadavers and kept in a hanging cage locked deep within the 101st floor of the tower.
But it is our protagonist, Harold Winslow, penning this memoir from a zeppelin flying high above the city, that takes center stage. The novel begins with a young Harold Winslow living with his father and sister in an apartment. While out at the boardwalk carnival nearby, Harold is seduced by an exhibit called The Camera Obscura, which is a telescope pointed directly at Miranda's bedroom deck in the Taligent Tower. But like Jack and his beanstalk, Harold gives all his money to the two men running the exhibit in exchange for a whistle which will supposedly get him invited to Taligent Tower to see the reclusive and mysterious Miranda in person.
Prospero Taligent has flooded the world with androids and robots and other mechanical worker beings, trying to achieve what every other inventor has tried to over the years: giving the inanimate a soul, or at least finding the closest approximation, while easing the strains of life on humans. He is beyond rich and his intellect is far greater than anyone else's within the city. And at the moment, he is trying to plan a birthday party for a ten year old Miranda. The men at The Camera Obscura have sold 100 whistles to curious children: 50 boys and 50 girls, each one invited to the party should they actually blow their whistle. That night, Harold blows the whistle.
Harold is whisked off to the party by one of Taligent's robot creations a few days later and finds himself struggling to talk to Miranda at any part of the day. While most of the other children are fighting amongst themselves or being egregiously impolite, Harold continues to be on his best behavior. This lights something up within Prospero, who later pulls Harold out of his regular studies at school in order to give his daughter Miranda a playmate/school mate. All of Harold's lessons are now taken at Taligent Tower.
Things go well for awhile between the two children as they explore the vast and surreal nature of the 150-floor tower. Then they become so close that they kiss, for which Prospero promptly tosses him out and refuses to let him see Miranda ever again.
Fast-forward ten years; Harold works for a greeting card company. His sister Astrid is a nearly world-famous installation artist. His father no longer works and hoards newspapers in their old apartment. The events that unfold from here on out are thought-provoking and more than a little dark. Our anti-hero, Harold, still unable to really make a decision about his life, finds that his every move is being planned out for him. Each action that he makes is one that he was supposed to make; someone is trying to get him to save Miranda from her father's control.
This is the story of an unlikely hero versus a kind of ambiguously dangerous villain. To be sure, having your life controlled by another is a disconcerting feeling at best, but placing this narrative next to the (unfortunately) anemic depiction of Astrid's life shows a stark contrast between the two siblings. And what becomes of Astrid is absolutely jaw-dropping when it happens, which is why I wanted to see more of her in the last part of the book, or at least like her as a character a little more.
But the main thrust of the novel feels like the dissolution of hope through aging. Prospero has performed numerous experiments to keep his daughter young, going so far as to employ a full-time artist to capture the essence of Miranda in physical form for all time. Harold, the anti-hero, is only a little more bold, but not by much. We see the world through his eyes; an aging father with a cluttered home, a sister who still remains bratty and stuck-up, a world that is moving slowly from human-made products and services to machine-made products and services.
But what about Harold's presence on the zeppelin? you may be asking yourself. Well, once Harold (the knight) sets off to save Miranda (the damsel in distress) from Prospero (the villain), the reluctant hero remains reluctant and never truly becomes a hero. The ending of the book is a miniscule let down compared to all that came before it. While this particular story arc is one we've read (and seen) a thousand times before, Palmer's prose swells on the page. His descriptions of some of the inventions and strange landscapes sometimes wanders around and becomes clunky, but his dialogue and exposition in general are spot on.
This was truly a quick and phenomenal read. I probably spent four days getting through it on the train ride into work and back home again. It's an easy one to get sucked into and I hope Palmer releases another book soon.
"Because a subtle shift in the balance of the hormones that saturated your brain was necessary but not sufficient to change you into an adult. It was the noise that the world shoveled into your head that finally made you into a man, wasn't it? Isn't it the sounds out of people's mouths that make us feel we've aged months in minutes? Her tits look great; you hear that for the first time and it ages you. I think you should sit down for this; you hear that and it ages you. The rattle of the tax collector's clearing throat ages you. The curse of the climaxing woman pinned beneath you ages you. The snap of the chicken's neck as it's prepared for the cooking pot ages you. It is not the bending of your bones but the noises of the world that make you grow old, and turn your heart to a block of granite in your chest, and make everyone's head like mine is. Filled with noise and filth."