Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer

The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer. St. Martin's Press, 2010. 340 pp. 978-0-312-55815-4.

... in which Harold Winslow gets his heart's desire.

If you were to get a giant literary blender, combine equal parts from Shakespeare's The Tempest with the steampunk genre, add in a little Jules Verne, a little Franz Kafka, and the tiniest dash of Ovid, you'd get something that roughly approximates this novel. Probably one of the more unusual books I have ever read, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is probably also one of the most lyrically elegiac novels I have ever read.

The story primarily focuses on three characters. Harold Winslow is the son of a hard-working, underpaid man. He is semi-arbitrarily chosen to be the companion to the reclusive Miranda Taligent, the daughter of billionaire genius inventor Prospero Taligent. Set in an alternate 20th century, this is a world of mechanical marvels, including mechanical men, zeppelins, and more. Prospero Taligent is the inventor of many of these marvels, and he and his company ushered in "the age of Machines", following after "the age of Miracles". The story follows a series of events that each take place a decade apart. First, at the age of 10, Harold is invited to a birthday party for Miranda's 10th birthday. At the party, Prospero tells each of the 100 children in attendance that at some point in their lives, he will grant them their heart's desire. At age 10, Harold's greatest wish is to be a storyteller. Harold becomes Miranda's only childhood companion, playing with her in the fake tropical island that Prospero has built on a floor of his 150-story tower. Later, we see a set of events that take place when Harold and Miranda are roughly 20 years old, when Harold has ceased to be a child and Miranda has finally escaped from her gilded prison in her father's tower. Finally, we reach the events that take place when Harold and Miranda are roughly 30, when Prospero's madness has finally reached a peak and Harold feels compelled to rescue Miranda from the terrible fate that Prospero has in mind for her. Underlying the whole story is Prospero's obsession with making Miranda into the perfect woman, and finally achieving his dream of creating the perpetual motion machine. (For those of you unfamiliar with the perpetual motion machine, it's a theoretical machine that pops up a lot in sci-fi and old science writing from the 1600s through the early 1900s. It's a machine that never stops working; in short, energy ouput > energy input. Nice idea, but technically impossible.)

This is an astonishingly poor summary of the plot of this book, as this is a story told in many small fragments, with a wide cast of supporting characters. Palmer borrowed liberally from many other literary works. Besides Prospero and Miranda, other characters from The Tempest make an appearance, including Ferdinand and Caliban. Gods and goddesses from Greek mythology make their appearances, as do characters that are reminiscent of characters you might find in Jules Verne's work, or in other works by Shakespeare. The plot and side-plots all take place against an astonishingly complex cultural background.

Dexter Palmer, who holds a PhD in English literature, is clearly an author who believes that the flow and texture of the story as a whole deserves to be a character unto itself. Probably he has a background in poetry himself; a great deal of the prose in this novel reads like poetry. Flowing, eloquent, and rife with meanings-within-meanings, he clearly put a great deal of thought into the composition of every single sentence. None of the characters are easily quantifiable as particular "types"; there is no obvious hero, no obvious villain. Harold tries to be a hero, but he's really quite cowardly most of the time. Miranda vacillates between being the unattainable virgin queen and being a fallen angel who manipulates to get what she wants. Prospero is both the mad genius who does unspeakably terrible things to his daughter, but only because he utterly, truly loves her, to the point of insanity. Quite a welcome departure from the normal mass-market paperbacks you typically find today, and definitely a refreshing change of pace from standard speculative fiction, where you have the same archetypes and the same plots recycled over and over and over.

One particular thing that must be noted is that this is not a book to read because you just love its characters. I did not find any of the characters to be especially likable; I actually kind of disliked most of them. However, they were complex characters, with complex feelings and motivations, so they certainly felt three-dimensional and their story arcs were all compelling. At the risk of sounding like a high school English teacher, this is a book to be read for its themes and motifs. Some of the major recurring themes:
  • Love, in all its incarnations. Parental love, obsessive love, romantic love, childhood love, familial sibling love, Arthurian love.
  • Age of Miracles vs Age of Machines. Wonder and beauty and music against science and automation and noise. Human connection in an age of technology.
  • The nature of art; what makes something "art", and where does art fit in in a world of mechanics and machines?
I think that the whole book can be summed up nicely in this passage:
Two moral forces shaped how we think and live in this shining twentieth century: the Virgin, and the Dynamo. The Dynamo represents the desire to know; the Virgin represents the freedom not to know.

What's the Virgin made of? Things that we think are silly, mostly. The peculiar logic of dreams, or the inexplicable stirring we feel when we look on someone that's beautiful not in a way that we all agree is beautiful, but the unique way in which a single person is. The Virgin is faith and mysticism; miracle and instinct; art and randomness.

On the other hand, you have the Dynamo: the unstoppable engine. It finds the logic behind a seeming miracle and explains that miracle away; it finds the order in randomness to which we're blind; it takes a caliper to a young woman's head and quantifies her beauty in terms of pleasing mathematical ratios; it accounts for the secret stirring you felt by discoursing at length on the nervous systems of animals.

These forces aren't diametrically opposed, and it's not correct tos ay that one's good and the other's evil, despite the prejudices we might have toward one or the other. When we're at our best, both the Virgin and the Dynamo govern what we think and what we do. But the fear that we felt standing in the Hall of Dynamos stemmed from the certainty that the Virgin was in trouble, and that we needed her, just as much as we needed and even wanted the Dynamo. p 186.

In hindsight, this book is very similar to the last book I reviewed, Super Sad True Love Story, despite the fact that in most ways, these books have nothing in common. I promise that this was purely by chance.

In the end, despite this being a beautiful and unusual book, I would hesitate to recommend it to everyone. It is probably too unusual for a lot of readers, and if you require a book that is character or action driven, then this is not the book for you, as this is definitely 100% a concept-driven book.

5/5 stars.


  1. Andrea: I think you would like this book very much. Emma: I don't think you would.

  2. I just got this in the mail today... and I'm actually currently reading Super Sad. Random! Glad to hear such good things about this though, I thought it looked really interesting.

  3. haha yeah, I am with you on that, Emily!

  4. Zoe: Are you my secret magical book twin???

  5. Ooo, I also think I would like it. Awesome review!

  6. Happy to come across a fellow liker of this book. Also nice to see you talk a little about the literary influences in it, instead of just getting caught in the steampunk machinery.
    I'm actually writing about this as a Shakespearean adapation - with my narrow thesis it's going to be hard to leave out all the other fun stuff you talked about!


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