Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Drood - by Dan Simmons

I think I finally have validation (a rationale?) for my practice of recording every book I read.

When a list like mine is put on the printed page its easy to trace the thought processes of the reader. In the last month I read Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club. That led, inevitably, to explorations of both The Inferno and mid 19th century American poetry. From there I moved on to a brief survey of Poe (he is very briefly mentioned in The Dante Club) which led me back to Pearl and his The Poe Shadow. Likewise, my reading of Drood led directly to picking up a copy of Wilikie Collins' The Moonstone.

I like being able to look back and deduce what led me to move from one work to another. Knocking them out of order, as I've done this year (my reviews are scheduled to run willy-nilly throughout the year) robs me - and the many future historians who will study me - of the opportunity to see that organic thought process in action.

I'm not going to go back and reschedule many of the reviews I have set to run throughout 2009, but from now on I think I'm going to stick to a general 'print them as I read them' plan. :)

* * * *

I was very gung-ho for Dan Simmons' Drood, even going so far as to seek out, in vain, an advance reader's copy.

Drood tells the story of the last five years of Charles Dickens life, as told by his friend, the best-selling novelist Wilkie Collins. In June of 1865 Dickens was involved in a horrendous railroad accident when his train failed to stop for a bridge that was under construction. Of the passenger cars, only Dicken's failed to crash to the riverbed below, and even his literally balanced on the edge of the precipice.

In many ways he was never the same man. To historians, the shock and trauma of the event are easy sources of blame.

To Dan Simmons, it would have more to do with the sudden appearance of Drood, a ghastly apparition that contacts Dickens at the crash site and forever after drags the author into a seedy and violent battle with the black arts.

Drood - note the name later used in Dickens' unfinished final novel - is allegedly the king of London's crime world. He was once, we are told, the half Egyptian son of an English Lord, abandoned and taught the ways of the Pharaoh's gods. When he was inconveniently carved to pieces and murdered many decades ago he returned (sans eyelids, nose, etc) to lay claim for the murder of more than 300 people in London.

And now he seems to have added Dickens as an ally and with each day Collins grows increasingly surer of one thing: to save himself and London, he must murder the great Charles Dickens.

I found the novel engrossing, the characters well developed and believable, and the attention to historical detail impressive (although I'm the first to admit he could have lied about every date - and perhaps he did - and I wouldn't know the difference).

Unfortunately, all those historical details added up to 704 pages of reading, easily two or three hundred more than the story required. The plot, borrowing something from Dickens himself, seems to plod along without any real urgency. I fear on this point Simmons was trapped by his bookending dates; the railway accident on one hand and the author's death on the other. The action had to be made to fit within that time frame, a fact which seems to have required a fair bit of text in which nothing happens.

Simmons also plays hard and fast with the moral fiber of the characters, in particular the narrator Wilkie Collins. I'm afraid my own religious views might cloud this point, but I am not a fan of taking a historical figure and, simply for the sake of a story, turning him into a wife beater, a pedophile, an arsonist, etc. None of the above apply to the real or imagined Collins, but there are substantial breaks from known behavior that eat away at me . . .

Anyway. On length alone I cannot recommend this book 100%. Coupled with the other flaws I've listed, I'd say give it a go only if you are a fan of Dickens, Collins, or a serious aficionado of historical fiction set in the Victorian era.


Beth said...

I haven't read this book, but I'm a big fan of Simmons.

gryphondear said...

Dickens was famous for his serialized novels in newspapers and magazines of his day. Usually, he was paid by the word with no such thing as residuals. Most of his income in later years came from readings and other personal appearances.

On the subject of writing, he wrote, "Make them laugh, make them weep, make them wait."

;^) Jan the Gryphon

Bridgett said...

Sounds intriguing....