Monday, 31 May 2010

Drood: Dan Simmons

I've read a lot of Dan Simmons' books so I can make some educated guesses as to how Drood came to be.

Simmons has been working his way through the classics recently. He's subjected us to two books riffing on the Iliad and the Odyssey, and he's written a book about Hemingway doing a bit of amateur spying in Cuba in World War II. The Greek retreads pretty much put me off Simmons for a while - they're not awfully well written and I didn't share Simmons' obvious self satisfaction with the idea of rolling out a protagonist who was a college literature professor and unaccountably indispensable to all and sundry. Generally speaking, when college literature professors write a book in which the main character is a college literature professor, I don't demand that they have their fingers broken and their typewriters taken off them, but I don't read the book. The Hemingway book was a potboiler, although not Simmons' worst potboiler, since that prize has to be reserved for Darwin's Blade, a perfectly ridiculous lashing together of all the daftest accidental deaths in all those Darwin's Revenge books you can find on illiterate people's toilet cisterns and the least plausible protagonist I've ever seen (genius insurance investigator, sports car racer and glider pilot? Why not make him the world's greatest lover and the drummer in a rock band while you're at it?)

The thing is that Simmons has serious form as a pretty decent horror and Science Fiction writer. The four Hyperion books are genuinely good stuff; tons of imagination, a reasonably consistent universe, some stuff you really need to think about and some characters you can root for. I was quite surprised that he followed up the Fall of Hyperion with two more books, but I was on tenterhooks for the fourth one. In Endymion he managed to go back to a universe he'd changed out of all recognition at the end of Fall of Hyperion and remake it into something equally interesting. A good job; overall the ending's a bit flat, but till you get there it's a bloody good time (really bloody; this was written at a time when Simmons would drop a body just to make a point about the weather).

About three or four years ago, Simmons had what was generally hailed as a return to his 90s prime with a book called The Terror, which was all about the Franklin Expedition. This was a book I felt I could give a miss to, because there was no possible way that it could be cheery; the Franklin Expedition went up to Baffin Island looking for the fabled Northwest Passage, a shortcut to the wealth of the orient through the icepacks between Canada and the North Pole. We now know that a) this was a doomed plan and b) it might be completely viable shortly what with global warming, but in the 1850s, it was more or less a long drawn out way to kill two hundred men from cold and privation. To this day, we can only guess what happened to the luckless crews of the two ships, but the best guess is that they got stuck in the ice and were a long time dying in horrible circumstances. Simmons thought it would be more fun with a monster picking them off as well, so The Terror is more or less Scott of the Antarctic crossed with the less idyllic bits of Mutiny on the Bounty and with the Thing on top. Whee, I thought, and read something else.

The real fate of the Expedition was a big deal at the time, and Charles Dickens, no less, wrote a play about it, in partnership with Wilkie Collins, and I speculate that when Simmons was working up the research for The Terror he tripped over the play and it got him to thinking about the unequal partnership between Dickens and Collins.

And from that meditation, came Drood. Anyone who's read a book in English has to be at least somewhat aware of Dickens, who is to English prose fiction what Shakespeare is to drama. I was surprised to discover how few novels Dickens actually wrote; considering that he was a colossus in his time and remains a colossus to this day, it gave me pause for thought to see that he wrote less than a dozen actual novels. He wrote any amount of lesser fiction, but the great works on which his reputation rests are surprisingly few in number. Very shortly now, Matthew Reilly, in many ways perhaps the most astonishingly bad novelist to get a major book deal in the 1990s, will actually have published more novels, and very nearly as many pages, as Dickens. Anyhow, our boy Dickens needs no introduction. He was a rockstar in his day and he's pretty much the only writer in English of his own era who's still read by a significant number of modern readers.

Collins; well, very much in the second string in his own time and practically obscure these days. Every now and then someone adapts one of his key novels for the screen and there's a brief upsurge in articles talking about how the Moonstone invented the detective story, or the Woman in White revitalised the gothic melodrama and so on and so forth. It's a fair bet that you could detonate a nuclear weapon in the downtown of any major city in Europe and not kill anyone who'd read all of Wilkie Collins. It would be surprising enough if you ganked someone who'd read any of it.

Dickens died before he could finish his last book, the Mystery of Edwin Drood. He got half way, then popped his clogs leaving not much in the way of notes as to where the hell he thought he was going with the thing. He may have been writing a mystery story or he may have been trying to write some sort of proto-Jim Thompson book in which the bulk of the text is given over to exploring the mind of a killer. Or a sequel to the Christmas Carol; we're probably never going to know, and them's the breaks.

Simmons takes as his starting point the railway accident Dickens narrowly survived, five years before his death from an apparent stroke, and fills those five years with the growing animosity between Collins and Dickens and the apparent obsession Dickens has formed over the ghoulish Drood, who seems to have been preying on the casualties of the train accident. The whole book is narrated by Collins, who sets out to portray himself as a cheerily unconventional soul whose talent is potentially far greater than Dickens', despite the way in which Dickens has overshadowed him. In Drood, Simmons has turned Collins into the unreliable narrator who over the course of the book becomes thoroughly unlikeable as well.

You don't at first mind too much the way in which Collins as narrator keeps finding ways to portray Dickens in the least flattering light, because it's easy to relate to the niggling annoyance that a second rate talent can feel about the good fortune accorded to a first rate talent, but over time it really starts to grate. The thing which annoyed me almost from the outset is that Collins is shown as treating women quite shabbily. I still can't make up my mind whether Simmons was simply trying to capture the mental outlook of a self-absorbed man of the time, or whether it's an overall part of Simmons' strategy to make the reader come to dislike Collins heartily by the end of the book. My gut instinct is that it's all entirely deliberate because the book is very self-aware; it's a book written by a writer pretending to be another writer who's pretending to be the loyal and supportive friend of someone who fills him with jealous resentment as much as with affection. There's a wonderful - for the long time Simmons reader at least - piece of sniping between Dickens and Collins near the book's emotional climax which revolves around both writers criticising each other for reusing plots and characters. Simmons himself has produced some of his best work by recycling shorter fiction and reusing it with greater depth and better writing; his best horror novel, Carrion Comfort, is a rebuild of an earlier short story, and Hyperion is essentially a bridging narrative to contain a reworking of several earlier short stories. (Critics try to make this sound less economical by claiming that the book follows the structure of Decameron or the Canterbury Tales, but this it tosh; Simmons was doing what Chandler did before him; taking his existing shorter work and trying to use it as a springboard to jump to the harder form of the full length novel; the proof of this lies in the three follow on books which have much more conventional novelistic structure).

Drood is heavy going, though I found myself wondering whether it would be a more interesting read for someone who had read all of Dickens and at least a modicum of Collins. Would the incidental characters have jumped out at me as the prototypes of central characters in other novels? Mostly my weary answer was that I wasn't having enough fun reading Drood to want to put six months into reading all of Dickens on the off chance that in retrospect it would all seem like a work of genius. Collins isn't much fun to be with, and he doesn't like the people around him enough to make them fun to be with at one remove either. So even though it's well written and you want to know what's happening, at the end of it, you're not going to be filled with the burning need to read it again.

At the risk of spoiling what fun that's in it, the thread running through it all is deception; Collins is deceiving everyone around him in small ways to suit himself, deceiving his reader by putting himself in the best light, deceiving himself in thinking that his self-serving explanations aren't giving away the myriad flaws in his character, and ultimately deceiving himself about the meaning of almost everything he's experienced in the course of the novel. Just in case any reader is missing out on the idea that you oughtn't to trust what narrators tell you, the text is littered with references to the creation of unreliable narrators by both of the protagonist authors.

Somehow, it doesn't quite gel. Simmons doesn't have a great track record with endings, and there's something rushed, flat and inconclusive about the wrap up in Drood. It's logical, realistic, congruent with actual history of the real life people involved, and yet curiously unsatisfactory. As I type this, I find myself wondering if Simmons, who was at such pains to try to capture the prose style of the 19th century might have been better off adopting one of the other stylistic tropes on which Wilkie Collins relied; the presentation of multiple narrators through letters might have given Simmons the chance to set up the ending more effectively.

I did figure out a tiny pointless thing about myself. I'm careful with books, and it's generally hard to tell if I've even read a book after I've finished with it (which is one reason, I suppose, why people keep asking me if I've read all the books in the house). Drood took a while to read, and it spent some time in my bag going in and out of work last week. The cover got dog-eared and battered and it didn't really bother me; which was when I knew that I wasn't going to keep the book, and thus that I wasn't really enjoying it very much. So, new test; the dog ear test. If I don't care about the cover, I don't care about the book.

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