15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Debbie Lee Wesselmann
- Published on Amazon.com
Set in the early twentieth century, after "the age of miracles," Dexter Palmer's steampunk novel and the city of Xeroville teem with technology rooted in the knowledge of the day: mechanical men instead of robots; answering machines that record on drums of wax; flying cars that rattle; teaching helmets lowered by cables and operated by hand cranks; and a zeppelin powered by the first (seemingly) perpetual motion machine. Amid this, the narrator of Dexter Palmer's debut novel tells how he grew from a shy, awkward boy to a prisoner aboard the Chrysalis, high above the world he used to know.
Palmer holds this complex novel together with bits of philosophy, sly wit, and a narrative voice that pulls the reader along from start to finish. It's an eloquent and often playful tale about the tenuous boundaries between mechanization and humanity, between love and narcissism, between perfection and fatal flaws. The cast of characters have names right out of Shakespeare: Prospero, the most brilliant inventor of his time and Harold's nemesis; Miranda, Prospero's adopted and sheltered daughter who acts more mechanical than human; and mad genius Caliban, the monster of Prospero's inventiveness. But other allusions abound, with hints of Roald Dahl, Jules Verne, Neal Stephanson, and L. Frank Baum to make this not only a fascinating read but also one that can be read again and again.
This novel is one of the best books I've read in 2010, and it deserves a readership that ranges from steampunk fans to literary fiction readers. The novel offers such a rich array of characters, ideas, and imagery that reading it feels like eating an enormous, magical feast. Expect to be challenged -- and to have people ask why you're smiling as you delve into Palmer's highly inventive world.
-- Debbie Lee Wesselmann
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Erika (Jawas Read, Too)
- Published on Amazon.com
I am reviewing a copy provided by the publisher.
Harold Winslow is prisoner aboard Prospero Taligent's Perpetual Motion Machine. In this luxuriantly mechanical 20th Century, Prospero is an inventor; his tin men and machines have taken over the world just as computers have done today. Harold's life is inundated with the noise of the city, the grinding and buzzing of a steady stream of mechanicals churning the city's economy, displacing the need for human labor like a universe evolved tangentially from the Industrial Revolution. Plagued with his lack of voice (in a world filled with them) he writes greeting cards to be the voice of others. But his is a story bombarded by distractions in which he discovers the many failures of communication and why sometimes what he thinks he wants, isn't what he wants at all.
I probably picked the wrong time to read The Dream of Perpetual Motion. It's definitely not the kind of book you can pick up and constantly put down expecting the read to go smoothly. Dexter Palmer's prose is dense and in many instances, poetic. There were a few times I worried that I hadn't been paying close enough attention and had missed some important narrative musing. Or that something crucial had just happened, but I'd lost the narrative thread by setting the book down. While I do blame my poor timing, I also think what Palmer was attempting with his narrative had something to do with it as well.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion is either one of the most intelligent and innovative books of this year, or it suffers from the weight of its own cleverness. Palmer clearly wanted the reader to walk away with an overwhelming sense of how many distractions Harold faced in his daily life, let alone in his adventure, to the point that it interfered with his ability to communicate effectively. More often than not the book is nothing but a collection of miscommunications, distractions piling on top of distractions--the Shrinkcabbie fiddling with the radio as Harold tries to relate his problems (the nature of the Shrinkcab--a brief interlude between locations--is conducive to Palmer's argument as well); Astrid having a one-sided conversation with Harold's Demon; Miranda's official Portraitmaker and Prospero teasing out long, frustrated and vague, half explanations for the next commission. The narrative itself is a complication of dream sequences and jumps in time and setting. There is no singular narrative thread that isn't interrupted in one way or another by each of the others. They all vie for attention, struggling as each attempts to be heard through the sometimes confusing narrative of perspective as we jump through time between different characters and mediums (letters, traditional prose, or diary entries).
There is a lot going on in this book, to say the least. If Palmer doesn't make his point about how technology is interfering with daily living (causing huge distractions that discourage simple communication between two individuals), then there is a commentary on souls and miracles, or the certainty that we immerse ourselves in illusions and fantasy that will inevitably fade when reality hits. An example of this is the greeting card offices where Harold works. The hallways and cubicles are decorated for Christmas in June as the employees develop the phrases for that year's holiday cards. Another would be the more consequential dilemma of the perfect moment: the one right before we get what we think we want because it is filled with possibilities. It is filled with our dreams.
To be fair, Harold does give us a warning within the first few pages of the book as he tells us this will be a "story of fragments" (p. 4). Thus, it will be given as an approximate imitation of the way technology relays information to us: in bits and pieces. If we think of this in terms of the internet, there is almost no escaping ads or the nature of the beast itself: the ability to switch between webpages or applications with a few clicks. True, eventually one article or whatever has taken a person's interest will be read and finished, but think of how often you have interrupted an e-mail or instant message by multi-tasking with another instant message, a comic strip, a YouTube video? Palmer's book is therefore relevant to what I believe was one of his ultimate intentions, even if difficult to navigate.
There is so much beautiful prose here, so much talent in the writing that I do feel best recommending this purely for an admiration of the craft. I also recommend it for the ideas Palmer presents on an academic level, but with the warning that those ideas tend to get overwhelmed by the presentation. It does not have an entirely linear narrative; readers expecting or wanting that would do best trying something else. Though, there are multiple layers that can be enjoyed in this book for readers willing to navigate his prose. His re-imagining of Shakespeare's The Tempest through Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban is there to be explored by fans of the play (Prospero is the penultimate wizard of creation; Miranda is objectified; Caliban is monstrously misled) as the characters exude a unique signature mixing Palmer's imagination and interpretation with the originals.
That being said, I don't think this is a book to be read solely for the characters. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is driven by ideas, not characters. It's a statement more than anything else, a deliberate contemplation of concepts disguised in the shroud of a steampunk adventure. Words are powerful, but only when they are heard. Only when we have the courage and temerity to disregard all distractions (and ironically, the technologies that are supposed to make communication easier), open our mouths, and speak to each other. And besides, who wouldn't want to read a book where Prospero is portrayed as a demented and tech-savvy Willy Wonka?
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer, has a great opening. Past a poetic and ominous first few lines, we get the narrator telling us "If my reckoning of time is still accurate . . .the one year anniversary of my incarceration aboard . . . a high altitude zeppelin designed by that most prodigious and talented of twentieth-century inventors, Prospero Taligent. It has also been a year since I last opened my mouth to speak. To anyone. Especially my captor . . . because it is the one thing that she desires, and my silence is the only form of protest that remains to me."
Great image--that zeppelin flying up there. Great hook--why's he imprisoned up there, why's he not speaking, who is "she"? Great voice--formal, solemn. In short, great opening. Does the rest of the book live up to the start? Well, not frequently enough, to be honest, but still, it was often enough that I'd recommend Dream.
Our captive narrator is Harold Winslow, writer of greeting cards, lover of Miranda Taligent, cat's-paw of Prospero Taligent. The book veers between first and third-person narration, though all by Harold, who informs us of when the "he" becomes "I" along the way of his explaining how he first met Miranda and Prospero and how that led to his current predicament. The novel covers Harold's childhood (about 20 yrs. pre-present time), the jumps ahead a decade to his college years, where his sister becomes more of a focal point, then another jump in time closer to the present. The movement is all straightforward and easy to follow. Mixed into Harold's narration are a few other elements: newspaper excerpts, diary entries, a host of dreams, and the like. These, I thought, varied greatly in their effectiveness, and I wouldn't have been sorry to see a large number of them, especially the dreams, dropped in favor of a more streamlined book.
he characters varied as well, with most of them a bit distant; I can't say I cared much for any of them, actually, though I found several interesting enough to carry me through. Luckily, one of those was Henry. Prospero was probably the most compelling, though several of his hired hands (two at the start and three at the very end) give him a run for his money in that department. Harold, as mentioned, was interesting enough, Miranda less so unfortunately. Harold's sister was interesting in her role and premise; she could have been on stage a bit more; though without her critic friend, who seemed the most forced and clichéd character of the book.
The setting wasn't particularly sharp or fully there, but it had moments of brilliance, such as the "shrink-cab", whose drivers are trained psychiatrists so one can get therapy while on the way to or form work; and the mechanical men invented by Prospero (they, like Harold's sister, could have seen more book-time).
If the plot was solid enough and the character decent, though, where the book shined, and the main reason for recommending it, is its prose and narrative voice, which was consistently strong throughout the novel. Here, for instance, is the description of Harold's greeting card workplace at night:
And nightfall has come to the greeting card works.
The building is nearly silent. Most of the machines are resting, with only an occasional isolated whir or hum in the darkened corridors, Christmas tinsel rustles in the dark from stray drafts of ice-cold air-conditioned wind. The building's struts and columns contract with quiet creaks and pops in the coldness of night.
And now the mechanical men concealed in hatches and secret doorways come out by the hundreds, creeping on cat feet like burglars or mischievous sprites, carrying huge burlap sacks on their backs. Quietly, they remove the red and green and silver and gold decorations from the walls and ceilings, stuffing them into their bags, replacing them with red cardboard hearts with arrows drawn on them, and long twisting billowing strands of pink crepe.
And in a stuffy room in the basement . . . a dwarf . . . removes his elf costume, squeezes into a bright red pair of tights, and straps a pair of cardboard cherub's wings around his naked hairless chest with a belt. A quiver full of arrows completes the outfit. Christmas is over. Tomorrow is Valentine's Day.
That is an author in control of his voice and while that's a standout section, there are several equally as good and others that come close. There's also a wonderful theme of silence that runs through the story, as well as some thought-provoking conversations and monologues.
The passages makes up for a so-so plot that could have used some cutting, especially of some of the interludes and more-forced-feeling passages, as well as for the less-than-empathetic characters. Because of the sometimes problems with narrative and character, Dream of Perpetual Motion was not a fluidly enjoyable read, and once or twice I had to kick myself a bit to pick it back up, but it's worth a read on its own and certainly piques my interest as far as what the author will do for his second book with a bit more seasoning.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Vine Customer Review of Free Product
WEll I have givin this book 3 tries and have barely made it to page 50..
Much like the plot that involved mechanical men and machines I feel the characters are too mechanical and robotic.
I have yet to feel invested into any one and find myself falling asleep or daydreaming while reading this book.
I do think the writer is very gifted and appreciate his gift of lyrical discriptions..
I just can feel no hook keeping me reading sadly, and have felt no desire to even make myself continue reading.
I may give it another go but for now it has suffered 3 strikes and I feel the need to move on.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a difficult book to review. It's so dense with ideas and I enjoyed it so thoroughly that trying to do it justice in a few hundred words is very intimidating.
It's an intensely intellectual, yet trippy, steampunk take on Shakespeare's The Tempest, but it's also a rumination on the uses and abuses of language - the inescapable power of words over perception and, paradoxically, their impotency.
When young protagonist Harold Winslow wins an invitation to the birthday party of Miranda, the sequestered and mysterious daughter of the city's most powerful man, inventor extraordinaire Prospero Taligent, his father tells him to write about the experience, advising the boy, "Write down what you think happened, or what you believe happened or something like what might have happened...all are true, in their own way." And when discussing true miracles versus contemporary inventions, Harold tells his father that his teacher knows nothing; that instead "...the books know everything for her." His sister, Astrid, is a conceptual/performance artist whose goal is, "...liberating language from the patriarchy." And much later, Prospero tells Harold that, "With faith in God comes faith in language," for God is like a great Author who brings a sense of order to the chaos of existence. Even the monstrous Caliban, a failed experiment of Taligent's, clings to superstitions about the power of words. Here he's depicted as a sort of Frankenstein's monster who spends every waking moment typing on a typewriter [surgically attached to his head], attempting to find a 72 letter name that will unlock the secret of humanity. There is even a neighborhood in the city, Picturetown, whose residents have rejected language entirely, opting instead to communicate by scrawling pictograms onto index cards. Dexter Palmer, the author himself, even makes a cameo appearance as a novelist, and a bit of a windbag, at a party attended by Harold and Astrid's artistic set.
Over time, Harold becomes more and more obsessed with Miranda and, as an adult, attempts to rescue her from the monolithic skyscraper where her father holds her prisoner. His harrowing quest ultimately leads him to discover the ghoulish truth about her existence and leaves him forever stranded, floating above the city in a dirigible, writing the memoir we are reading with no one but the frozen body of Prospero and the disembodied voice of his beloved for company.
This is a wonderful, wonderful book. It's filled with arresting imagery, it's kooky, weird, elaborate, thrilling, chilling, disturbing and thought-provoking. If you're looking for a challenging read, this is the one.