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!


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Pejudice and Zombies

"Parallel fiction" (a name which I abhor) is a relative newbie in terms of literary genres. It takes many forms, anything from telling the "backstory" of a minor character from a major work of literature (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Wide Sargasso Sea, or basically anything by Gregory Maguire) to telling the possible life of an author (Dan Simmons's recent Drood is a good example). But Grahame Smith puts a slightly different spin on this genre: Why not simply reprint the original literary masterpiece ... and weave zombies and ninjas into the existing storyline?

Thus, Netherfield and Pemberley remain the same as always, with the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr. Darcy doing their usual cat-and-mouse against the swirl of Lady Catherine's haughtiness, Mrs. Bennett's peevishness, Mr. Wickham's deceitfulness, and the typical Regency background of Jane Austen's novel. But a recent "plague" has apparently rendered the English countryside aswarm with zombies -- delicately referred to as "unmentionables" in Grahame-Smith's world -- and scene after scene in the novel is interrupted by mayhem from the undead, whereupon various characters must draw upon their ninja skills to slay the attacking unmentionables before returning to the latest ball or afternoon tea.

I must admit, it was curiosity more than anything else that drew me to get this book. But the result is a weird "two great tastes that taste great together" approach that -- somehow -- works! As you might imagine, the Austen/Ninja contrast is amusing at first. But in this re-imagined Janite world, one's ninja training and skills become a mark of status (or lack thereof) in much the same way money and being landed function in the original. And the ubiquitous zombies become a metaphor for the faceless social norms that continually push and pull against the characters of Netherfield. And the book is funny, especially when we see Elizabeth Bennett remove an ankle dagger and proceed to take out two or three zombies feeding on servants.

Additionally, with so much of the original novel intact and untouched here, I could see a young reader engaging with this book for the pure fun or it and, in the process, reading all of Pride and Prejudice.

This is a delightfully wicked little book. Enjoy!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reading ....... for Pleasure??

This has been a very odd Spring.

Normally, I'm able to juggle the demands of reading for school with the demands of the Newberry Library, plus adding in a few "fun" reads per month. But this Spring has not afforded me much of a chance to do that. Somehow, I feel like I've been running in place for a long, long time without gaining any distance ... plenty of stuff read, but little of it new.

With having a student teacher these past four months, I was able to read prodigious amounts of literary criticism and biographical material on Charles Dickens, not to mention re-read both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. At the same time, I re-read The Importance of Being Earnest, Gulliver's Travels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Waiting for Godot, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Streetcar Named Desire with my Argo classes (as well as countless poems and a ton of student essays). So, everything considered, I accomplished a LOT of reading in four-and-a-half months!

But not as much supplementary reading -- reading just for ME -- was accomplished during that time. I have several different books under way to varying degrees and for different purposes -- and my hope is that I'll get to talking about them here over the course of the summer as I finish them -- but I feel as if I've somehow short-shrifted myself of quality reading time ...

Life is too short, right?

Anyways, I'm now in the process of re-reading Nicholas Nickleby for one of my summer Newberry seminars, as well as re-reading Paradise Lost for the other summer seminar. And in the Fall I hope to co-teach a seminar at the NL with a friend on Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, so I've begun doing some reading there as well.

The ol' cliche: Too many books, too little time ...