Friday, January 08, 2010

A Novel of Excess

Drood, by Dan Simmons, Little, Brown and Company, 2009


I sincerely wanted to like this novel more than I did. The Wife and I were at a bookstore perusing the new releases when I picked up this thick volume with its delightfully evocative cover and read the jacket copy. Get a gander at the kind of teasing this copy gave me:

Drood . . ..


. . . is the name and nightmare that obsesses Charles Dickens for the last five years of his life.

On June 9, 1865, Dickens and his mistress are secretly returning to London when their express train hurtles over a gap in a trestle. All of the first-class carriages except for the one carrying Dickens are smashed to bits in the valley below. When Dickens descends into that valley to confront the dead and dying, his life will be changed forever. And at the core of that ensuing five-year nightmare is . . .

Drood . . . the name that Dickens whispers to his friend Wilkie Collins. A laudanum addict and lesser novelist, Wilkie flouts Victorian sensibilities by living with one mistress while having a child with another, but he may be the only man on Earth with whom Dickens can share the secret of . . .

Drood. Increasingly obsessed with crypts, cemeteries, and the precise length of time it would take for a corpse to dissolve in a lime pit, Dickens ceases writing for four years and wanders the worst slums and catacombs of London at night while staging public readings during the day, gruesome readings that leave his audiences horrified. Finally he begins writing what would have been the world's first great mystery masterpiece, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, only to be interrupted forever by . . .

Drood.


Starting with a nugget of real life tragedy, Dickens' near-death in the Staplehurst train accident, Dan Simmons weaves through this semi-historical thriller the spectral form of London's most notorious serial murderer, Edwin Drood. There at the day of the accident, Drood moves among the bodies of unlucky passengers, doing something to them. He disappears from the scene, only to haunt Dickens for the remainder of his life.

I didn't buy the book that day, though I did get Simmon's previous semi-historical thriller, The Terror, on sale that day. And I devoured that book which tells the story of the doomed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage and what horrors they experienced out there on the ice.

And it must have been in the researching of that book that Simmons discovered that Charles Dickens and his friend, the novelist Wilkie Collins, wrote a play based on the doomed expedition. Simmons' various researches into Victorian England and America at the time must have led him to Dickens and Collins on more than one occasion, and in this novel, Simmons found a second outlet for the remainder of all his Victoriana trivia.

And that's part of why The Terror is so successful. Simmons is one of those writers who has a tendency toward over-explaining obscure things. In The Terror, while discussing the British Royal Navy and sailors and their vessels of the time, this sort of detail occasionally comes in handy as most of us are unfamiliar with the layout of such a craft. Knowing the size of the captain's quarters relative to the general crew's, understanding the various differing kinds of ice one is likely to run into in Arctic conditions, understanding how ships in those days were heated, these sorts of things help us get a grasp on the world we are visiting.

It is somewhat of a different case in this novel. The habitations of London and the general time period are well trod literary streets to many readers and much of Simmons' research material tugs downward on the novel's flow. Narrated by the ridiculously unreliable Collins, a laudanum addict who in the novel's course becomes further addicted to opium and morphine, a serial liar to his mistress and his other mistress, and a man incredibly riven with envy for the successes of his friend and rival, Charles Dickens, we have to weigh carefully the things he says. Thus when he goes on at great length about his novel's successes, we ask ourselves is this Simmons' trivia or Collins' insecurity coming out.

Insecurity is one thing. Instability, however, another entirely. This is brought home to us rather early in the novel when we discover that on top of all the above addictions, Collins also regularly hallucinates a green-skinned, tusked woman who haunts his house attempting to chuck him down a staircase. He is also visited regularly, as he has since he was a child, by his doppelganger, "the Other Wilkie," who occasionally writes when our narrator is unable -- and writes better. (Simmons had a fine chance to give us more of the sting of that, but he apparently hadn't the time.)

Such ingredients make for a fine novel. And there's one hidden somewhere inside this convoluted tour through opium dens and underground criminal headquarters and mock-Egyptian temples and various 19th century British cities, but Simmons overstocks the book with period detail that is more know-it-all travelogue than setting-the-scene and red herrings that lack the savor of diverting blind alleys. Instead they come off as fanciful ornamenture that don't really do much for the book in terms of plot or atmosphere or necessity. They are, it seems, blind alleys without narrative point.

Also, when I first started the book, I worried. The style of the prose in the opening pages seemed a bit too flip, a bit too modern for a novel of the Dickens era. I let that slide, as accurate mimicry of an earlier style can sometimes become an overly precious (and intrusive) affectation. (And I discovered after finishing the book and reading a novella by Collins that that's his style to a T. For that, Simmons can be applauded, and Collins' more modern style and themes should be revisited by contemporary readers.) And here Collins' narration is puckish and he comes across as a satirical wag in the beginning. But his temper and his sanity soon fray from his exposure to Drood-related horrors and his own rocky domestic scene. By the book's later chapters, his constant, and too obviously sour grapes, griping about Dickens' work has palled. The rivalry between the two men must have been real, but in Simmons' hand, Collins becomes achingly tiresome when he gets on his Dickens bashing hobby horse.

But that's not the novel's greatest crime. No, as a story, there are wonderful moments, truly creepy scenes of real horror, and there is much to admire in its pages. Drood is a shadowy figure, only taking to the stage in rare appearances, most of his treachery and skullduggery behind the scenes, invisible. We get much of it in third- and fourth-hand accounts from those who've dealt with him before. And Collins' hallucinatory scenes (both aided by opium and not) are effective and chilling. At moments like this, reading the book flew in effortless suspension of time and place.

Only...only...only...at 800 pages, it's an overly long book. I say this as someone with an affection for voluminous doorstop-sized novels crammed with whole worlds. And it's clear that Simmons has made great efforts to do just that. Only instead of rich and deep atmosphere and local color, Simmons shoehorns in the facts, driving this reader to distraction, dolloping out little bits of trivia and putting into character's mouths stage-setting bits of leaden dialogue. Imagine a novel with frequent scenes like those that start many a badly written TV show: We open in a room. Mr. A says to Mr. B, "Okay, let's go over the plan again." And then the two characters begin hashing out all the information we, the viewers, need to get up to speed on the plot.

Only, we're getting up to speed on the 19th century. Ostensibly written with a plan "
to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise," Collins' narration feels the need to address we 21st century readers with little asides about London back in the day. We are nudged with trivia like learning that the so-called "ash heaps" you may have frequently read about in books of the time were really just euphemistically named mounds of horse dung. In this same vein, we are treated to an overview of the London sewage system and just how much effluvia gets dumped into the Thames. It's given to us in "just in case such things are different in your day, Dear Reader" asides, but these never come off as Collins' asides. Rather they felt all too much like Simmons addressing those of us who haven't, like him, spent months and months poring over all the historical books that are listed in the acknowledgments at the novel's end. You take copious notes on all this material you read, then you have to work it into the book, only it seems where in The Terror Simmons handled this gracefully, here it all just sits on the page, bagging down the better writing.

Consider when one character confronts Collins with his belief that Dickens will support a new social order not based on class or race. Here is Collins' rebuttal to this:

Again, I was forced to laugh and again my laughter was sincere. Four years earlier, in autumn of 1865, a mob of Jamaican blacks had attacked the Court House in Morant Bay. Our governor there, Eyre, had overseen 439 of those blacks being shot or hanged and another 600 flogged. Some of our more deluded liberals had opposed Governor Eyre’s behaviour, but Dickens had told me that he’d wished the retaliation and punishment could have gone further. “I am totally opposed,” he’d said at the time, “with that platform-sympathy with the black—or the Native or the Devil—and believe it is morally and totally wrong to deal with Hottentots as if they were identical with men in clean shirts at Camberwell.…

During the Mutiny in India long before I had met him, Dickens had cheered on the British general whose answer to the rebellion had been to tie captured mutinous Indians across the muzzles of cannon and to blast them “homeward” in pieces. Dickens’s wrath and contempt, in Bleak House and a dozen other of his novels, had long been aimed more at the idiotic missionaries who were more concerned with the plight of native brown and black people abroad than with the problems of good Englishmen and Englishwomen and white children here at home.



This comes across less a character dishing the goods on someone than as an author who found a salacious tidbit about Dickens' racist attitudes and felt the need to work it into the novel somewhere. It's over the topness isn't necessarily Collins-esque but feels rather more nudge-in-the-ribs-like from an author overstuffed with Victoriana.

Perhaps though that is something of an homage to Collins. A trip through Collins' fiction will find the reader faced with one story of a double after another, and as Collins' drug use grows ever greater throughout the novel and his hallucinations worse and worse, perhaps Simmons meant for the writer's narrative to be a battle between his good writing and his bad. Perhaps the theme of doubles is carried out even unto the very sentences on the page, the wonderful rubbing right next to the plain awful.

Just as no one ever says such sentences as: "I am deeply honoured to have such a famous writer visit me! I so greatly enjoyed your The Woman in White that was serialised in All the Year Round immediately after Mr. Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities ended," you also can not beat such passages as those that make up the novel's first chapter where the train accident's aftermath is described. Dickens helps the wounded here, such as a man with half his head ripped off, "the grey-and-pink pulp glistening within the concave bowl of splintered skull," the woman who smothers her baby under her rather than let Drood get him, and the lady whose arm dangles from a crushed carriage while Dickens comforts her until help arrives. All of these scenes and more shine out so wonderfully in the book that it's a shame the more turgid passages are so distracting.

A novel of great ambition, Drood not only finds a wonderful conceit in Dickens' last years and in his relationship with such a flake as Collins, but also manages to seduce us a long ways under the direction of a narrator who is clearly quite raving mad. This is all fine and good. Now find me an editor who can trim 20% of the novel's excesses and your end result would be an ambitiously great novel.

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