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Book Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion

July 14, 2011

There comes a point in The Dream of Perpetual Motion where the narrator refers to his writing as “strings of obsessive decoration.” This is a very evocative description of the entire narrative voice of this novel. Whether this style is an intentional affectation meant to lend a degree of verisimilitude to the narrator’s madness, or if this statement is just a bluntly frank self-assessment of Palmer’s normal writing style is unclear. Since this is Palmer’s first and currently only novel, it’s a question that will have to remain unanswered for now.

It did not surprise me to discover that Dexter Palmer has a PhD in English. There is a breadth of literary allusion in this novel that one usually only finds in those devotees of literature who have chosen to spend years in critical analysis. The underlying story mirroring Shakespeare’s The Tempest is just the foundation of literary allusion upon which this story is built. Close readers will notice influences ranging from dime pulp novels to that book you hated when you had to read it in high school but learned to love later, with a little bit of your favorite urban fantasy author thrown in for good measure.

At its core, Dream is about a boy, a girl, and her mad genius father. Dream takes you from Harold and Miranda’s childhood meeting, where Prospero has invited one hundred boys and girls from all over their dizzyingly streampunk laden city into his high tower of machines and dreams to celebrate Miranda’s tenth birthday. Miranda here is dressed and dolled up in a costume that is clearly intended to evoke one of Elizabeth I’s more popularly recognized gowns. There is quite a lot of imagery surrounding Miranda intended to frame her as the virgin queen. The idealized image of the perfect Miranda is a subtle thread that culminates in one of the more disturbing plot elements, though by no means the only one.

The narrative skips back and forth across several timelines, weaving childhood with adulthood, and everything in between. Some of the timelines seem somewhat extraneous, other than to show how Harold’s life descends into mediocrity before being dragged sideways by Prospero’s mad plot. Or possibly to keep the reader as off balance as the narrator. However, since even ordinary life in the city of Xeroville is extraordinary, these scenes cannot by any means be considered dull. They are rich in detailed descriptions of steam and hand crank powered machines that are fascinatingly imaginative, but which our own modern sensibilities will recognize easily. Pinning down the what, where, and when of the various timelines… that’s a little harder. I was often frustrated by Palmer’s tendency to skip from timeline to timeline, and occasionally found myself wondering if I’d missed something important somewhere three or four chapters ago.

The women of Palmer’s world are either absent, idealized, tortured, or portrayed so negatively that one has to wonder about Palmer’s view of women. Both Harold and Miranda’s mothers are absent. Miranda and Harold’s sister Astrid are abused and tortured. And the only other major female characters are a coworker of Harold’s and a “friend” of Astrid’s who is instrumental in Astrid’s demise. Whether through sheer perversion or willfully blind fanaticism is left for the reader to decide. Though the list of male characters is equally short and broken, their impact on the women is disproportionately negative. Dream is often disturbing in its artistically glorified violence. Horrible acts of inhumanity are described in tones which alternate from frothingly mad praise to dispassionate breakdowns like an inventory of spare parts. Never is this more evident than in the demise of Astrid, where the “obsessive decoration” became a litany that droned on for several minutes in the audio book. It certainly drove home the setting of the event, and how overwhelming that experience must have been for Harold, but it became excessive very quickly.

Dream is not a book to pick up casually. It is dense, and even I, listening to it on audio book, very nearly gave up on it. I think that upon analysis, this is a book worth digging into. The layers of myth, history, literature, and alternative reality are complex, and occasionally fragile. The narrative voice is too easily distracted, and frequently feels like the reader is being dragged through the mud to get to the rapids. And if ever there was a more unsympathetic batch of protagonists, I have not yet run across them. But it eventually comes together well, and Palmer shows a lot of promise.

As a final note, Palmer does commit my one unforgivable sin by including himself in the novel. The appearance is brief and unimportant to the plot, but it’s still there.

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