Drood--Dan Simmons

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In his review posted on Amazon (derived from the Washington Post), Louis Bayard, author of several novels that play off of Dickensian Characters, took Dan Simmons to task on his newest book:

Louis Bayard on Drood

Drood, as one might expect, bears a nominal relation to Dickens's unfinished final volume, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," but it plays out more as a cross between "Amadeus" and "The Usual Suspects." As hybrids go, that has the potential for some horsepower, especially because Simmons, in earlier days, was a much-lauded sci-fi writer, and the pictorial imagination he brought to that earlier genre pays handsome dividends here. In one hallucinatory moment, Collins sees the audience at Dickens's public reading tied by "hundreds of slender, white, barely perceptible cords." Books are "dalmatianed with spattered ink," a nasty black scarab burrows into a human belly "as if flesh were sand" and a man looks down at himself and sees "the hands of a corpse disappearing into chalk." The most successful of the book's set pieces is in the very first chapter, when the train carrying Dickens and his mistress plunges from the Staplehurst viaduct. . . . It's when Simmons takes his book aboveground that he loses his way -- in a forest of factoids. For long stretches, "Drood" is little more than warmed-over biography, larded with the minutiae of London sewage systems and Dickens's Italian travels and his fistula surgery and the names of the dogs who visited his estate and the titles of every last reference work consulted by Collins during the writing of "The Moonstone" . . . and then more of same. "Perhaps I have already mentioned . . . ," Simmons's narrator murmurs. "Perhaps you also know . . . . Perhaps I have told you, Dear Reader . . . . I may have mentioned earlier . . . ." You have. You have.

That said, Drood is fascinating for those of us not familiar with the life of Charles Dickens nor with the working relationship between Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It may be "warmed over biography," but it is good and interesting warmed-over biography. It is also of interest that neither Collins nor Dickens come out of the book as particularly likeable or admirable characters.

My problem with the book is that I came away unclear about what Simmons wanted to accomplish with it. It is the story of the last five years of Dickens life, during which he did relatively little writing and a great deal of touring and reading. The lead incicent of the book is a horrendous train crash in a place called Staplehurst--a train crash that really did occur and in which Dickens really was involved. From that incident Dickens becomes involved with the man or creature named Drood. While helping the victims of the crash, Dickens encounters Drood and eventually infers that rather than helping, Drood is dispatching the victims of train wreck.

From there we are launched into 700+ pages of a victorian phantasmagoria involving the sewers of London,opium dens, macabre readings during which Dickens "murders" Nancy (from Oliver Twist) over and over and over again. Drood pulls the strings and Collins and Dickens dance. Just before the end of the book Dickens reveals something to Collins that is to cast the whole narrative into some doubt and the reader is left to decipher the rest.

There are all sorts of things unexplained--the nature of the thing in the stairway toward the middle/end of the book, who is the Other Wilkie, and who or what is Drood and why? The explanation offered for this most successful and hideous of serial killers is insufficient to make clear what Drood is or why.

The book is great reading, highly enjoyable, a real roller coaster ride of a narrative. But the ride is over and we leave the car disoriented, and perhaps a little dissatisfied that we waited an hour in line for the end result.

Nevertheless, I would recommend the book to people who like to read very long, very detailed, very macabre, well-researched and well-written books.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 9, 2009 7:33 AM.

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