Let’s begin with a message for the author: Dexter Palmer, you’re a good writer. You created a number of shining moments in “The Dream of Perpetual Motion.” You simply left too many pages of sluggish drifting in between those moments to qualify this as a satisfying novel.
This novel takes place in an alternate history in which the technology of the early 20th century was significantly more advanced than in the history we’re familiar with. Some have placed this novel in the “steampunk” genre but the book does not rely heavily on anachronistic technology except for one element: robots (or in this case what the characters all refer to as “mechanical men”). The presence of robots apparently exists only to heighten the magic-like abilities of the main antagonist, Prospero Taligent…who has a daughter named Miranda…and a son named Caliban. Yes, all figures from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Hence, the need for some kind of magic.
The basic plot is that Prospero is an extremely wealth techno-entrepreneur (and inventor of the ubiquitous mechanical men) who lives in his high-rise super tower with his adopted daughter Miranda. Miranda’s something of an experiment for Prospero. His life’s ambition is to raise her in a state of pure perfection, isolated and untainted by any of the messiness of Life. He does, however, introduce her at the young age of 10 to protagonist Harold Winslow. Precisely why he corrupts the experiment by introducing Harold, an unremarkable child from the poorer section of town, isn’t really clear…beyond the need to have someone else narrate the story. Oh, and it’s revealed right from the get-go that Harold, as an older man, is trapped aboard a zeppelin high above the city with Prospero’s corpse and Miranda’s disembodied voice piped through an intercom system. The story is narrated as a series of flashbacks explaining in the most roundabout way how he came to be in this odd situation. The story is more or less chronologically linear, running from Harold’s youth forward through his adult life with only a few present-time interludes from aboard the zeppelin thrown in.
The premise was initially intriguing and Palmer’s prose style is often promising, but the vast majority of the book consists of a series of rambling, dream-like incidents in which not a lot happens…or what does happen seems inconsequential, doing nothing more than offering Palmer an opportunity to opine on the dismal state of humanity. He seems depressed. Narrator Harold isn’t really “there”. Things happen to him, but he seems remote and indifferent. He never solidifies as an actual person. None of the characters do, really. Much of the dialogue is fantastical, ethereal and meandering.
A major section of the middle of the book has to do with a side character’s art performance suicide which seems to do nothing more than provide Palmer with a platform for ridiculing impenetrably meaningless modern academic language, the type found in women’s studies journals. Granted, this is an easy target for satire, but it seemed very out of place in this novel. (He also takes the liberty of briefly introducing himself as a character around this point. It drew attention to itself and seemed indulgent.)
The plot slowly advances as it covers the push-pull relationship between Miranda and Harold over the years. He seems intrigued by her. He seems to care, but she’s a complete mystery. She goes through the motions of “liking” Harold but it’s clear that she’s so emotionally damaged by her father that she’s incapable of honest emotion. Harold often says that he’s bothered by a similar lack of honest emotions in himself. Frequently, these musings sound like author Palmer talking through his character, doing a bit of self-analysis.
The book doesn’t get into high gear until the last 50 pages in which the crisis which ultimately leads to Harold’s imprisonment aboard the zeppelin takes place. The plot finally moves forward. Substantial things actually happen and there are some great monologues by three characters living in Prospero’s towering high-rise which reveal the missing details of Miranda’s life to Harold. (Parallels with The Tempest again, I assume.)
In the end, there’s just too much time wasted on dialogue that teases without delivering. I’d like to see Palmer’s next novel because there’s promise here. I just can’t heartily recommend his initial offering.