Review

The Dream of Perpetual Motion

by Dexter Palmer

Yes, this is another steampunk novel. And yes, it does involve zeppelins, mechanical men and a perpetual motion machine. But this is isn’t your typical steampunk story. For starters, it’s one big reference and homage to The Tempest. And it isn’t focused on plot or mechanical wonders for their own sake. It regards its own creations with a degree of suspicion. Instead, THE DREAM OF PERPETUAL MOTION is a collection of noise, music and images: it is best read not as a novel, but as a mechanically precise and complex collection of images, fantasies, dreams, music, narratives and ideas.

The story begins with Harold Winslow on the Chrysalis, a zeppelin powered by a perpetual motion machine and staffed by mechanical servants so it need never touch ground. Winslow is imprisoned on the ship with the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, a woman he barely knows but loves as the only thing that matters in his life. Also onboard is the corpse of her father, Prospero, held in suspended animation, the builder of the Chrysalis and the industrialist inventor of the mechanical men and other modern technologies that helped bring an end to the so-called “age of miracles,” a pre-modern era always alluded to but never defined. The perpetual motion machine is failing ever so slowly, and so Winslow decides to tell the story of his life: how he came to be where he is and what the strange world he inhabits --- well-named Xeroville --- is like.

What follows is a curious story told in fragments with mixed sources and a certain sense of mourning about the age of machines: “Any story told in this machine age must be a story of fragments, for fragments are all the world has left: interrupted threads of talk at crowded cocktail parties; snatches of poems heard as a radio dial spins through its arc; incomplete commandments reclaimed from shattered stones.”

The wonders of Xeroville are spoken of without a hint of wonder. And though we get hints that it’s a shimmering metropolis, it hardly seems that way. Prospero’s tower, home to Taligent Industries, soars above the rest of the city, whose inhabitants, fleshly and mechanical, scuttle about their daily affairs in a cloud of polluted noise. The mechanical men are strictly mechanical and incapable of thought --- even the robot therapy cabs that charge a premium to listen to their passengers’ problems and offer advice --- and the humans seem to do little better. It’s obvious this bleak landscape isn’t “the way things are,” but it forms an appropriate backdrop for such an impressionist story.

Winslow is employed at the greeting card works, an office/factory that mills out pithy poetics at Fordian efficiency. Life --- drunken, friendless, colorless --- sucks. And so he brings us to his childhood, back when the age of miracles was only a memory for the old, not a distant myth. His childhood, while not unhappy, seems devoid of a child’s wonder, until he is summoned by a smoldering mechanical demon as one of a hundred children to attend Miranda’s grand 10th birthday party. Winslow and Miranda meet, awkwardly, and are reunited when Prospero decrees Winslow leave his school --- run by embittered teachers and aloof teaching machines --- to receive private lessons in Miranda’s playroom, a pure white space that, thanks to Prospero’s technological magic, can be reshaped to look like anything. Here we see children act with all the appropriate fantasy. Its time is brief.

Winslow and Miranda are forced apart and together two more times in the span of the novel, and the interim draws us into the solipsism and unoriginality of Xeroville’s 20th century artists, intellectuals and culture. As Winslow’s obsession with Miranda strengthens, we delve into his dreams, highly formalistic affairs from which emerge meditations on dreams, fantasies, love, noise and silence. In the interim we get closer to his sister, a self-obsessed artist whose suicide is her magnum opus, and her art critic friend whose use of high-art doggerel and italics is positively strangle-worthy. We then shift to his next encounter with Miranda, in their 20s, where Palmer makes clear she’s not the angel in distress locked away in the tower, but rather petulant and ignorant.

Now in his 30s, Winslow receives a letter from Miranda begging him to rescue her from the tower before her father kidnaps her onto the Chrysalis. Seeing his chance to become the fantasy hero he has dreamed about, Winslow assaults the tower in something of a formalist farce, finding demons and challenges in his way, until he finally reaches Prospero, now his nemesis.

THE DREAM OF PERPETUAL MOTION isn’t about social satire --- though be sure there’s plenty of it, and unfortunately it’s tedious reading. But it does seek to capture and crystallize a romantic’s view of modernity and shine light through all the facets. Taking two steps forward and one step back, the shattered narrative reassembles itself for us, allowing Palmer to paint with broad brushes while employing stark mechanical detail. With intense emotional energy, Palmer builds mechanisms of dreams, fantasies and nightmares, slowly sliding into place within some giant literary machine. And when they do click together for the reader, they act in perfect concert, standing in stark contrast to the cacophony that plagues Xeroville. They make for us what Winslow, Miranda and Prospero so desperately need: magic.

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 21, 2011

The Dream of Perpetual Motion
by Dexter Palmer

  • Publication Date: March 2, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312558155
  • ISBN-13: 9780312558154