The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by debut novelist Dexter Palmer, delivers musings on narrative and modernity, wrapped up in a suspenseful steampunky package and trimmed with fancy Shakespearean allusions.
When we meet narrator Harold Winslow, he's aboard a slowly sinking airship. His only company is the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, daughter of the man who built the zeppelin. Harold's clearly obsessed with her, and he might be completely insane. But he's decided to sit down and write his life story.
Harold's autobiography revolves around a series of encounters with Miranda, the daughter of all-powerful mechanical genius Prospero Taligent. Having already invented the mechanical man and transformed the world with his bizarre, baroque gadgets, Taligent hopes to raise a perfect child, utterly free of sin. He hides her away from the world and its corrupting influence in his massive skyscraper. But even a paragon needs playmates, and so shy little Harold is plucked from obscurity. In true fairy-tale fashion, the boy falls in puppy love, but he's never quite sure how to get that across to Miranda. Over time, his childhood crush morphs into bizarre dreams about a virgin queen dancing on the edge of a precipice. The set-up seems obvious: Harold has to rescue princess Miranda from her dark tower prison.
But The Dream of Perpetual Motion works because it's not that simple. Constant hints suggest Harold isn't really in control of his own life, and his every decision is manipulated by the brilliant Prospero. Having once promised to make Harold a storyteller, he could simply be arranging matters so the boy will have one spectacular tale. It's all very meta, but luckily Palmer doesn't fall back on postmodern sleight-of-hand. Harold's a reliable enough narrator, and we're meant to take his story basically at face value.
The real mystery at the heart of the novel is Miranda. She isn't a character, so much as she is a cipher. The closer Harold gets, the more mysterious she becomes. She's not a mere Rapunzel. She wears men's suits like a steampunk Marlene Dietrich, and screws the master of her father's boiler-room and runs away from home at will. This rebellious girl makes for interesting reading, resisting attempts to flatten her into a fairy-tale heroine. But it also means we never get a good sense of what's going on in her head, which is frustrating. She's supposedly the love of Harold's life, but we never get to know her, and neither does he.
Other than the occasional detour into other characters' writings or stories, we spend all our time with Harold. Unfortunately, he is a very sad man, the type of quietly miserable human being found in Edward Hopper paintings and especially depressing Twilight Zone episodes. His family's dead. He churns out soulless verses for a greeting-card factory. He goes home at night to a lonely apartment and trips out on absinthe. His life is an emotional wasteland, but it's just a reflection of the outer world's barrenness: Machines, we're told, have driven miracles out of the world. Before he was born, things were different, but Harold came of age in a grim, mechanized city. It's a grim alternate vision of the twentieth century, borrowing from elements from steampunk, Metropolis, and film noir. It'll remind you of New York, but this city is spiritually closer to Detroit. In many places, all that atmosphere makes for downright grim reading.
But the novel truly shines with its deft treatment of Big Ideas. Palmer is completely comfortable juggling concepts ranging from modernity to virginity. This is an unabashedly brainy read, full of intriguing ideas. Palmer has backtracked to the early twentieth century, pondering the machine age and its cultural impact. But when Harold writes of how there are no more storytellers, then augments his own tale with newspaper clippings and diaries, it's impossible not to think of all the modern panic over Kindles and Google Books and ADHD. You'd think the weight of all these big subjects would topple the story over, but somehow Palmer manages to keep everything nicely balanced. The result is dense, but it's also fevered and weird and compelling.
Despite enjoying all the philosophizing, I went back and forth on whether I liked this novel as I read it. It's a page-turner - you can't help but wonder how Harold and Miranda end up in that zeppelin -but it's also hard to tell whether the story's going anywhere worthwhile. There's a lot riding on the ending. Fortunately, it delivers magnificently. The novel closes on an unexpected, well-earned note of grace. The last line is beautiful, circling back nicely to an earlier scene and gently pushing readers back out into the world. You turn the last page glad to have spent time with Harold, but perfectly happy to return to your own life.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion is available now from St. Martin's Press.