It is true that in order to expand one’s literary horizon, one must dare to chance the unknown; if not, one would never find new authors. Sadly, more often than not, those choices turn out to be a waste of time and effort. This summer I finished Dan Simmons’ latest novel, Drood. Luckily it didn’t take much effort, just a lot of wasted time.
Normally, I try to read some reviews about what, for me, is an unknown writer before I take the plunge. In Simmon’s case, though, I stood at an airport and realized I had miscalculated the number of books I’d brought with me on the journey, so I bought this one blindly. Well, almost. I knew vaguely that he had written some horror and science fiction, and is regarded as among the better contemporary practitioners of the genre(s). I’d also read a review of his penultimate novel, The Terror, and it had seemed intriguing, except that some complained that it didn’t have to be almost a thousand pages long. At least Drood is only about 800 pages.
(An aside: The director Guillermo del Toro is quoted in the cover blurb: “A dazzling journey through a crooked gaslit labyrinth”. I realized later that I can well believe that he wants the book to sell, seeing as he is slated to direct it it, so it really is the “recommendation” of someone who has invested financially in the book. Not that I am swayed one way or the other by what is stated on the cover, which I’ve heard you shouldn’t judge a book by anyway, I just felt this seemed particularly dishonest).
Drood is a historical novel, in this case meaning that the protagonists are real historical figures. This genre is very difficult to do convincingly, as putting words in existing characters is fraught with difficulties pure fiction avoids. I suspect the reason is almost similar to our perception of CGI in films.
As long as the film makers try to portray some otherworldly monster, say, we can usually accept what we see, because we know it is not real and it is not meant to be; it’s imagination put to the screen and does not try to represent any objective reality. It is there for that film and has no life without, or external to, the frame. As soon as they try to computer generate people, we usually notice there is something wrong there, something is not right with the movements or the eyes or the way gravity works upon the hair.
In the case of using historical characters in novels, to get the speech and thoughts right is equally difficult as in the case of realistically representing CGI characters. Of course, when fictional characters’ speech and thoughts are put to paper by an author, we come to accept these as more or less realistic, but, consciously or not, we know these are imaginings and never completely real. That is part of the contract between author and reader: we are there to be told a story by someone and if the book is artistically successful, we agree to accept that story as true within the book. As soon as we know that the characters are actual persons, once living, once having done and thought and said actual things, our critical faculties come into play in a distinctive manner.
I hope you’ll excuse this sojourn into a territory on the edge of immediate relevance to the matter at hand.
Drood is a fictional account of the relationship between the writers Charles Dickens, who needs no further introduction, and Wilkie Collins, peripherally famous for having written perhaps the first proper detective novel. His The Woman in White and The Moonstone are still being read and often reprinted. Having read no biographies of neither author, I can’t comment on the veracity of Simmons’ treatment of the characters. While the novel is pure speculation in the vulgar meaning of the word, it is also filled with tons of biographical information about the protagonists. We learn which guests attended which birthday party, who was at Dickens’ home which Christmas, the dates of a number of publications and theatre plays; who attended the premiere, how many times were the plays rewritten, who played the leads, and so on and so on. While this may have its place in a biography, in a historical novel it rather bogs down the tempo and adds to the already impressive page count. So often I couldn’t help but think that the information given had no bearing whatsoever upon the plot of the novel; but just served to give Simmons a chance to show us how much research he had done into the time and the characters.
Writing a book like this, I would think it sensible to read all one could about the subject matter: history, biography, architectural plans, for that matter. At a point, however, one must put the material down and keep it in one’s head merely as background aid for the novel one is going to write. In Drood, nothing is too insignificant to get a mention. If only there had been a story worth telling beyond all these details…
“I went to stay at my mother’s home near Tunbridge Wells for most of December of 1866. I decided to remain there with her until I celebrated my forty-third birthday on 8 January. (…) At the time of my extended visit with her beginning in December of 1866, Mother had realized her long ambition of moving to the countryside and was dividing her time among various cottages she leased in Kent: her Bentham Hill Cottage near Tunbridge Wells, Elm Lodge in the town itself, and her most recent cottage at Prospect Hill, Southborough.”
This was just an example from me accidentally opening the book on page 354. Needless to say, the various cottages mentioned has no bearing on the story itself, and pretty much all of this kind of information is repeated countless times, as if the editor has given up all pretence to be actually working. Here it is even repeated on the same page; December 1866. Apart from this, one can’t exactly claim that the prose is singing. In fact, I couldn’t with any conscience even use the word mediocre.
It is not always this bad, though. There are passages that are almost passable and, with a little goodwill, almost serves its purpose. At the times in which the action threatens to become a bit exciting, though, one can always trust Simmons to introduce a horrid resolution or follow it up with more incessant name and detail dropping. His worst narrative tic is to actually bring the action forward only for us to, after some ten pages or more, be introduced to that good old amateurish resort: “it was all just a dream“. I didn’t think that this could happen in a book written by a grown up. Now, if these dreams would bring something new to the table, give us some insight into the character, something we had not already learnt again and again, of course dreams could have their place, albeit never in the way in which Simmons present them.
Wilkie Collins is the one supposedly writing us this story. He is intensely jealous of Charles Dickens’ success with the public. Everyone loves the elderly author, from the Queen of England to the lowliest homeless wrecks. We are introduced to a mysterious character named Drood: an Egyptian criminal overlord of the poorer masses in England… No, never mind. I was going to sum up the plot, but just can’t be bothered, it is too silly and amateurishly presented. I don’t even know if we are meant to believe that it is happening, even within the novel’s universe. Absolutely nothing that happens has any significance, neither for the characters nor for the reader.
I have to admit on cheating a bit when I mention Drood as part of my summer reading. I actually began the book half a year before, but found the book, after 400 pages, to be going nowhere and quite bad all over. The language itself was, as I said, almost passable, even though the characters used words sounding quite American to my untrained ears. As the summer came, though, I began to regret having wasted quite some time getting through these 400 pages, so I decided to finish the novel, in the hope that maybe some meaning would present itself, some real motives might come into play. A proper end can do miracles for a mediocre book.
Needless to say, Drood gives us nothing near a proper end. Numerous plot threads are left dangling and the novel’s plot, or what there is of it, turns out to be even more nonsensical than I feared. A kind interpretation would be that the entire novel, all 800 pages of it, has been the morphine induced ramblings of a hopeless drug abuser. Wilkie Collins, that is, not the actual author. I use the word, perhaps, kindly.
Let me end somewhat more positively with a brief mention of another historical novel much more worthwhile: Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness. (In the US, I think it is called To the Edge of the World, a bit too generic a title for my tastes) This also concerns the relationship between two historical figures, but unlike in Simmons’ treatment of them, with Thompson they are in surer hands.
Robert Fitzroy is the captain of the HMS Beagle, setting out to explore Tierra del Fuego on the Southernmost tip of South America, and connected areas. On board his ship is a young passenger by the name of Charles Darwin. The two men strike up a friendship, but various differences in world view puts them eventually at odds. The story is interesting and well told. The discussions about the kernel of evolutionary theory are well done and seldom comes off as after the fact, which is an easy trap in this kind of literature. It is a good adventure novel and you learn something at the same time. Robert Fitzroy, for example, is the father of weather forecasting as we know it today. I liked it quite much. And my edition is not even 750 pages.