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The Dream of Perpetual Motion Paperback – February 1, 2011
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“An extravagantly wondrous and admirable first novel.” ―The Washington Post Book World
“A singular riff on steampunk--sophisticated, subversive entertainment that never settles for escapism.” ―Jeff VanderMeer, The New York Times Book Review
“A gorgeously surreal first novel.” ―Matthew Shaer, Bookforum
“The breadth and depth of Dexter Palmer's storytelling is exhilarating. He's written a smart, funny, sad, and beautiful novel, full of magic, mystery, mechanical men, and a delightful amount of mayhem.” ―Scott Smith, New York Times bestselling author of The Ruins
“Dexter Palmer has written a strange, passionate, enthralling first novel, a novel that is itself a kind of perpetual motion machine--constantly turning, giving off more energy than it receives, its movement at once beautiful and counterintuitive.” ―Kevin Brockmeier, New York Times bestselling author of The Brief History of the Dead
About the Author
DEXTER PALMER lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University, where he completed his dissertation on the work of James Joyce, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon (and where he also staged the first academic conference ever held at an Ivy League university on the subject of video games).
From the #1 Amazon Charts bestselling author of Daughters of the Lake comes an enthralling spellbinder of love, death, and a woman on the edge. | Learn more
- Publisher : Picador; Reprint edition (February 1, 2011)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 356 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0312680538
- ISBN-13 : 978-0312680534
- Item Weight : 11.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.47 x 0.96 x 8.29 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,882,949 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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This novel takes place in an alternate history in which the technology of the early 20th century was significantly more advanced than in the history we're familiar with. Some have placed this novel in the "steampunk" genre but the book does not rely heavily on anachronistic technology except for one element: robots (or in this case what the characters all refer to as "mechanical men"). The presence of robots apparently exists only to heighten the magic-like abilities of the main antagonist, Prospero Taligent...who has a daughter named Miranda...and a son named Caliban. Yes, all figures from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Hence, the need for some kind of magic.
The basic plot is that Prospero is an extremely wealth techno-entrepreneur (and inventor of the ubiquitous mechanical men) who lives in his high-rise super tower with his adopted daughter Miranda. Miranda's something of an experiment for Prospero. His life's ambition is to raise her in a state of pure perfection, isolated and untainted by any of the messiness of Life. He does, however, introduce her at the young age of 10 to protagonist Harold Winslow. Precisely why he corrupts the experiment by introducing Harold, an unremarkable child from the poorer section of town, isn't really clear...beyond the need to have someone else narrate the story. Oh, and it's revealed right from the get-go that Harold, as an older man, is trapped aboard a zeppelin high above the city with Prospero's corpse and Miranda's disembodied voice piped through an intercom system. The story is narrated as a series of flashbacks explaining in the most roundabout way how he came to be in this odd situation. The story is more or less chronologically linear, running from Harold's youth forward through his adult life with only a few present-time interludes from aboard the zeppelin thrown in.
The premise was initially intriguing and Palmer's prose style is often promising, but the vast majority of the book consists of a series of rambling, dream-like incidents in which not a lot happens...or what does happen seems inconsequential, doing nothing more than offering Palmer an opportunity to opine on the dismal state of humanity. He seems depressed. Narrator Harold isn't really "there". Things happen to him, but he seems remote and indifferent. He never solidifies as an actual person. None of the characters do, really. Much of the dialogue is fantastical, ethereal and meandering.
A major section of the middle of the book has to do with a side character's art performance suicide which seems to do nothing more than provide Palmer with a platform for ridiculing impenetrably meaningless modern academic language, the type found in women's studies journals. Granted, this is an easy target for satire, but it seemed very out of place in this novel. (He also takes the liberty of briefly introducing himself as a character around this point. It drew attention to itself and seemed indulgent.)
The plot slowly advances as it covers the push-pull relationship between Miranda and Harold over the years. He seems intrigued by her. He seems to care, but she's a complete mystery. She goes through the motions of "liking" Harold but it's clear that she's so emotionally damaged by her father that she's incapable of honest emotion. Harold often says that he's bothered by a similar lack of honest emotions in himself. Frequently, these musings sound like author Palmer talking through his character, doing a bit of self-analysis.
The book doesn't get into high gear until the last 50 pages in which the crisis which ultimately leads to Harold's imprisonment aboard the zeppelin takes place. The plot finally moves forward. Substantial things actually happen and there are some great monologues by three characters living in Prospero's towering high-rise which reveal the missing details of Miranda's life to Harold. (Parallels with The Tempest again, I assume.)
In the end, there's just too much time wasted on dialogue that teases without delivering. I'd like to see Palmer's next novel because there's promise here. I just can't heartily recommend his initial offering.
The characters were not terribly likeable. They were entertaining, especially Prospero and his servants Gideon and Martin, but no one else brought out my empathy as a reader (excepting Harold as a boy, but he sheds that quickly in the novel). I have no quibbles with Palmer's writing, which is funny and tragic and at times had me highlighting choice phrases, but the most important thing to me about any book, almost without exception, is the characters. If I do not like any of the characters, it's hard for me to like the book. The plot of the novel is weird, but I could have let that go if I had been able to empathize with Harold.
The book improves slightly toward the end as the action picks up the pace, but over all, I can't say I liked it. The narrative was complex and difficult to follow at times, and the characters did not redeem the story.
Top reviews from other countries
Dexter Palmer's debut novel is excellent and well worth giving a chance.
It's a sort of fantastical alt-history told (it's set sometime around the early 20th Century), with some very obvious literary allusions - mainly The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tempest (Oxford World's Classics) . Not to say that it's un-enjoyable if you aren't familiar with the Shakespeare, though it does help. We see the allusion through the naming of two of the main characters (Prospero and Miranda) and the situation that the narrator, Harold finds himself in.
Prospero, in the novel, is at the start dead, but we learn that he is responsible for the shape of much of the world around him. He creates all manner of technological marvels, including mechanical men and camera obscuras. There are early hints, though, that in doing so, he may have destroyed something more wonderful.
Prospero's death, we learn early on, was brought about by Harold, and he is forced to live aboard the great airship containing Miranda (Prospero's adopted daughter) perpetually orbiting the world and Prospero's cryogenically frozen corpse as a punishment for bringing about Prospero's death.
From the beginning, Harold narrates the story through his journals, in flashback: so we learn of his current predicament, then work from the start to how he got there. Harold's character is the lens which we see all this through: he's not always entirely reliable. He (we learn that his job was composing greetings cards) always has an air of someone that believe he's doing things below his station, even when admitting to his inadequacies. Quite early on in the novel, the perspective then shifts to the third person (this is at around the time that the novel properly starts to recount the tale of how he got to be there. Well, I suppose we already know that, as Harold is pretty clear on that, but if it stopped there, it'd be a pretty short book!) There are little interludes throughout the book where it returns to the first person (Harold) once again to give an insight into Harold's feelings (or lack-of).
Granted these days, this isn't a particularly new literary device, and the world (obviously) despite it's sfnal/fantastical setting is decidedly a retro one. Equally, the meditations on life and love can be found in any number of books. What, I think, separates this from many others, is the skill that Palmer brings to this. The writing is simply very good. Furthermore, I think the deliberate invocation of the Shakespeare lends it a sufficiently knowing air that to complain about it being derivative would be to miss the point. Naturally, if he did it badly, it would be a different matter.
The other thing I'd mention is that the novel isn't in anyway po-faced. It's, in places, quite witty and it's clear that the man writing it has a sense of humour.
It's an enjoyable read and I'd recommend it whole-heartedly: it doesn't particularly break any new ground, but it is an excellent read. I look forward to Dexter Palmer's future novels.