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The House of Doctor Dee Paperback – January 1, 1994
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About the Author
Novelist, biographer and poet Peter Ackroyd was born in London on 5 October 1949. He won the duplex Whitbread Novel prize and Guardian Fiction Prize for his novel Hawksmoor in 1988.
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As the title implies, the action of this work revolves around a house in the Clerkenwell section of London that comes into the possession of one Matthew Palmer, an independent researcher, through his father's will. He shortly learns that the house belonged to John Dee during the reign of Elizabeth I back in the mid-1500s. John Dee was an actual person, a philosopher, mathematician, astrologer and student of ancient lore. He himself narrates about half the chapters in this novel, and Matthew Palmer narrates the other half. That is, their identities remain that separate and distinct until the influence of the house (among other things) confuses matters, and Ackroyd has to intervene.
This is all very well, of course, but what are Palmer and Dee up to in their separate ages that makes them figures of interest? There, as Dee's contemporary Shakespeare said, is the rub. And as it turns out, to no one's surprise, the two of them have some similar issues to deal with. Both lose their fathers, have problematic relationships with men who join them in business, and discover that they have lived without love for far too long. However, while Palmer seems to flail around looking for some sense of purpose, Dee spends his time trying to talk to spirits and create new life in a test tube. Goodness gracious.
Ackroyd has declared that the true subject of all his fiction is the city of London (which makes his directions hard to follow if you don't happen to live there), but even without knowing just where Wapping is or how long it takes to get to the Historical Library, the author's sense of place adds a tremendous amount to the story. For one thing, even with all the shouting vendors and animals and mud, the city is a much more comprehensible place in John Dee's time than in Matthew Palmer's - twentieth-century London is a nighttime city in this novel, full of blinding neon and roads you can't see to the end. So it makes a certain amount of sense that Palmer feels lost while Dee has a plan, however bizarre. On the other hand, Dee might feel himself a little too much in control for his own good; it takes a major domestic catastrophe to humble him and make him realize that his world could be much larger and warmer than he allowed it to be.
The tricky part with this sort of two-level, two-story structure is, of course, joining the stories together at the end - if the author doesn't do that, you've got two novellas rather than a novel with no good reason to have them both between the same covers. Now, because "The House of Doctor Dee" has to do with such metaphysical subjects as talking to spirits and living without love, you can't expect the close of the novel to wrap things up neatly - if Peter Ackroyd could do that he'd be a prophet, not a novelist, and we'd be living in a very different world than we are at the moment. So we don't get a scene where Matthew Palmer and John Dee meet up physically over a beer at the local pub, or even in the Garden of Eden. Nothing that cheap, thankfully. The actual conclusion is very abstract; the fact that I won't say much about it has less to do with my reluctance to give away the ending and more to do with the fact that I don't completely understand it myself. (I won't hide anything from you guys.) Still, this novel concludes with at least a sense that all the characters have learned one lesson - the pursuit of knowledge is a great thing, but not if it costs you love.
My biggest complaint about the novel is a curious sense of imbalance at work. Once the two stories merge in psychic space, Matthew Palmer more or less disappears. John Dee is a much more interesting character, to be sure - far more active, far less at the mercy of his circumstances, far more determined to make choices and cause his life no matter what. Nevertheless, however passive Matthew is, to lose him altogether is rather dissatisfying. Indeed, it's his very passivity that makes him a good candidate for whatever breakthrough the plot points toward - if we saw that breakthrough's operation on him rather than on John Dee, this novel's emotional impact might have been that much greater just because the contrast between the old and new Palmers would be that much greater than that between the old and new Dees. A bit of a miscalculation on Ackroyd's part, I'm afraid.
Regardless, here's a piece of postmodern writing, with all the expected distancing mechanisms, that, remarkably, addresses the human need for love in a way that actually makes you feel something for the characters. As with several other postmodernist works of this kind, "The House of Doctor Dee" shows that the style has apparently moved away from its initial coldness and now has something to say in a humanist fashion to us regular human readers. About time, you ask me.
Benshlomo says, There's more to life than being clever.
However, as the book progresses, it loses direction -- Ackroyd can't make up his mind whether he wants to create a magical psychogeographic text about the streets of London, or whether he wants to give us authentic historical detail about the minutiae surrounding Dee's life and environment, or just a plain old British 1930's style ghost story.
It starts so very well, but gradually falls apart and becomes very unconvincing. I found it tough getting to the end of the book -- I had lost interest, and the narrative, prose and character depictions were just not strong enough to hold my attention.
Ackroyd is a talented, insightful writer, who can transform the reader with his words -- alas, he doesn't do so here.
Read "Albion" instead, or any number of his online interviews/book reviews.