Thursday, December 20, 2012

(Review) Dexter Palmer's "The Dream of Perpetual Motion"

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."

(23, 912)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

(Review) Salvador Plascencia's "The People of Paper"

Oh metafiction...sometimes you unerringly fail to create something worth reading. Other times, you pop up in books like "The People of Paper" and create a whirlwind of hallucinatory imagery, magical realism-esque elements of the fantastic, and discuss loves lost and won through the battle of man versus the gods. And it is so, so good.

Until I opened this book and looked at the formatting, I couldn't ever remember hearing about it until recently. But I realized that my first workshop professor at USF, Stephen Beachy (author of "boneyard" and who blogs at Living Jelly) presented some excerpts of this book in one of our classes. I remember enjoying what I read, but couldn't really grasp the concept or the formatting at the time. This was well before I began playing with the fracturing of text and format in service of the story.

But I haven't been able to put this book down since it arrived in the mail a few days ago.

On earth, origami surgeons create paper organs for people in need of transplants; a bed-wetting father watches his wife leave him before moving to California with his daughter; that same father gathers support from the local gang and wages war on Saturn, believing him to be the reason his wife left; a whore made completely of paper who leaves scars on the tongues of her lovers; a baby Nostradamus predicts the future and speaks to children in blacked out messages; lovers come and lovers go, all dancing around each other through the haze of war-time.

In the heavens, Saturn's identity is revealed; the book itself, considered "the war," is funded by a rich, older couple; the author writes because of his own lost love while loving another; Saturn's lover is addicted to the sting of bees.

"When in the house of Saturn there are things an EMF member must do, instructions were given to us, drawn up under roofs of lead. Things to be done if one is ever lucky enough to be in proximity of the enemy. The carnation knife must be pulled out of the waistband and then put to the throat of Saturn, dragging the blade across the skin and stubble of his neck, letting his ink drip. Because if that is what he wants, to write, let him write his own blood letter on the cloth and foam of his mattress. A dense, warm prose that stains the floors and always reappears six coats of paint later. Something that will remain longer than any novel will. 

At the very least, if rushed, steal the plot lines and the hundred and five pages that have been written. Leave nothing behind but the title page and table of contents, on which you write, 'You are not so powerful.'"

Plascencia's debut novel (published in 2006), reads like a string of never-ending obituaries. For most of the book, the text is presented in single columns for each character, usually two to a page (but only one column on one page, the left, for Saturn's passages). These are spaced intermittently with longer passages presented in the more standard fashion of formatting with text filling the page in full sentences and paragraphs.

Ultimately, this is a grand soap opera on a massive scale. The movements between the characters on the ground becomes an obvious allegory for the movements between characters in Saturn's world; there is a mirror-imagery that becomes more apparent the deeper one dives into the novel. This in itself becomes a kind of critique of writing (and writers themselves) that I've experienced in the past: how much of ourselves finds itself on the pages of our stories? How do our characters reflect the people of our lives outside of writing?

I worried that this metafictional trope would be used to ill effect by the time I finished the book, but Plascencia does a fantastic job of weaving the two worlds into each other beautifully and with an imagination many would kill to have. Rather than focus on answering the questions of the novel vs. real life, Plascencia digs in and gets into the tiny cracks and rivulets that make up the relationships (no matter how solid or fractured) of the characters introduced throughout these pages. By the time one finishes the book, it's hard to figure if there is a true protagonist or true antagonist relationship between anyone.

While mentioned in small spurts, the use of a whore made of paper who ends up inadvertently leaving cuts on her lovers, becomes the main point of the book: as lovers, we leave scars on those we come in contact with. What those people do with those scars and how they feel about us after is entirely up to them.

Ralph and Elisa Landing
"We came to see the war that we funded. We read the field reports; with our fingers we followed the path of Saturn over maps that illustrated the topography of land and the perilous terrain of love. 
But that was on paper. And if we had learned anything from this story it was to be cautious of paper - to be mindful of its fragile construction and sharp edges, but most mostly to be cautious of what is written on it."


Thursday, December 6, 2012

R.I.P. - Dave Brubeck, Jazz Legend

December 6, 1920 - December 5, 2012

Brubeck Family Statement:
Our much loved and revered father, Dave Brubeck died of cardiac arrest today, December 5, 2012, one day before his 92nd birthday. He died peacefully with family present. The news spread before we even left Norwalk Hospital and our family is deeply appreciative of the phone calls, messages of condolence and continuing tributes in the media and those received personally, certainly a reflection back to us of Dave’s powerful and positive impact on the world. He specialized in long relationships; married to our mother for 70 years, had few changes of personnel in his outstanding quartets or in professional management and many of his fans became personal friends he knew for decades. We thank you all for your appreciation of him and the respect you have shown our family.

Darius, Chris, Dan, Catherine and Matthew Brubeck