Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dan Simmons, Drood

On June 9th, 1865, Charles Dickens was involved in a railway accident near Staplehurst in Kent, what would become known as one of the worst railway accidents to occur in England. The train on which Dickens, his mistress Ellen Ternan, and her mother were traveling derailed on a bridge, and most of the cars plunged into the river below. Dickens and his two companions were in one of only two cars spared the plunge and, although he was shaken, the famous author ministered to the sick and dying until help arrived. But the accident left him weakened, nervous, paranoid of railway travel, and -- coupled with the physical and emotional demands of his reading tours over the next few years -- pretty much led to the stroke that killed him five years (to the day) later.

Drood is Dan Simmons's re-imagining of those final five years of Dickens's life as told from the viewpoint of Wilkie Collins, his fellow author and sometime collaborator. In a sprawling narrative, Simmons gives us a laudenum-addicted Wilkie Collins who is obsessed with a shadowy figure named Edwin Drood, whom Dickens claims to have encountered during the Staplehurst carnage. As Wilkie, author of The Moonstone, bemoans his life in the constant shadow of Dickens, he fixates more and more on the perceived threat presented by this Drood figure unless he can murder Dickens -- often echoing the Mozart - Salieri relationship in Amadeus.

The research that went into this novel is impressive, to say the least. Simmons does an excellent job of presenting a period of Dickens's life that has fascinated scholars for well over a century, what with the vaguery surrounding his relationship with Ellen Ternan at this time as well as the questions left with his unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Simmons wonderfully captures the paradoxical qualities of Dickens: his compassion and his arrogance, his literary artistry and his blatant materialism. But the better achievement here is his characterization of Wilkie Collins, a nuanced narrator who undergoes subtleties of development over the course of the narrative while remaining stubbornly fixed in his hallucinations and self-import. And, if nothing else, there are laugh-out-loud moments of hilarity as Wilkie takes liberties with the establishment of writers and publishers of Victorian England that hold true today!

This is a long book (771 pages in my hardcover edition), but a pretty light and easy read -- especially in the last half of the novel, which really slips along at a rapid pace. Of course, I'd recommend that one first read Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood to "get" some of the things Simmons ties into the narrative, but it certainly isn't essential. Either way, Drood is a cool book that will give you your Dickens/Victorian England fix, along with some compelling murder-mystery entertainment!


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