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.