Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

As I mentioned before, I picked up The Dream of Perpetual Motion at the Strand (for some reason this bookstore requires the definite article). I was intrigued by the novel's title and cover design (art and text).

I can't say that I enjoyed reading The Dream of Perpetual Motion, but I did find it strangely compelling.1 I think I may have enjoyed it more if I had a better grasp on The Tempest (I've never read this play - horror of horrors!), which is heavily referenced in the novel.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion is around the turn of the (20th) century in a city called Xeroville. The "age of miracles" is gone, but only just.2 It is now the age of technology, of mechanization, of The Future. No one has done more to usher in this machine age than Prospero Taligent, inventor, entrepreneur, originator of mechanical men, and adoptive father of Miranda.
The novel's protagonist and narrator is one Harold Winslow (read: Ferdinand), a greeting-card writer, who has been imprisoned on a zeppelin powered by perpetual motion technology. Harold is alone, but for the cryogenically frozen body of his jailer (Prospero), the disembodied voice of his only love (Miranda), and the automata maintaining the zeppelin. The text of The Dream of Perpetual Motion is that of the journal in which Harold explains how exactly he came to be in his current predicament, interjecting his narrative with brief updates on his present circumstances.

I found The Dream of Perpetual Motion profoundly disorienting. The novel's prose is evocative and often dreamlike. It is for the most part very slow-paced and the emphasis on language (rather than plot) tends to slow it down even more.

I've been thinking that I didn't like The Dream of Perpetual Motion, but that can't possibly be true, not when I look at the evidence. I've already confessed on this blog to dog-earring my own books so I can freely admit that I did so to my copy of The Dream of Perpetual Motion. Not to keep my place, but to mark pages to which I wanted to return. Ten of them. Ten really is quite a lot for me, a book of this size would usually only yield 1-3. Here are a couple of passages that I wanted to revisit:
"Write down what you think happened, or what you believe happened, of something like what might have happened. All these things are better in the end than writing down nothing at all; all are true in their own way" (113).
"an imperfect grace is never what we seek when we fantasize about our futures, when we dream of a long life with someone we claim to love or we build machines that we read about in science fiction. We want all possible things made actual, the perpetual possibility of perfection, the best of all futures all at once. But whatever we accomplish in the end never measures up. We always fail. We always fall short. Because when we see the perfect thing before us we fell we have to touch it. And then it vanishes or bruises or turns to show its hidden flaws or turns to dust" (340-341).
That being said, the bits of the novel that I found really and truly interesting were few and far between. Thinking back, I keep remembering little bits and wishing that they could have been expanded on.

If I haven't made it clear already, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is no steampunk adventure novel. Yes, I think we can safely consider it steampunk, but The Dream of Perpetual Motion is literary to a fault. Palmer has created an interesting world, but its obscured rather than illuminated by his prose.

I'm going to leave The Dream of Perpetual Motion among my other books for now. I feel like I should reread it after reading The Tempest, but I'm not altogether sure that I want to.
  1. I'll admit that I've been procrastinating. I haven't wanted to post about the novel because I really have no idea what to write. The draft of this post has been stalled for ages, but I'm making myself push through today whether I like it or not.
  2. I was so intrigued by the references to this earlier time period. Here's one: "By the time the touring Exposition of the Future came to our town, all the signs were in the air that the age of miracles was almost at its end. It wasn't uncommon to see sights like an angle staggering down the middle of a street in broad daylight, weaving like a drunkard, clutching its hand to its stomach and vomiting up blood. My father was a metalsmith, and more than half his income in those last days came from demons, who'd come to the back door of his establishment under cover of night, sacks of silver clutched in their clawed hands, begging him to use his tools to file off their magnificent curling horns" (190-191).


  1. I've had this one on my TBR for months now but haven't made my way to it yet. I have to admit now I'm even more curious than I was when I initially heard of it.

  2. I'm happy to hear that. I really didn't want to turn potential readers off.

  3. It sounds like a bizarre story - I love the fact that Harold is imprisoned on a zeppelin with his cryogenically frozen jailer!

    I do like steampunk stories, but I think this one might be a bit too literary for me. Sometimes my brain likes an easy read, for the bus or nighttime ;)

  4. I'm going to deviate from your review...sorry...but tell me about The Strand. What's it like? Is it the coolest bookstore you've been in? Is it cramped and packed with books or spacious and friendly-looking? I'd love to go there someday.

  5. Ah, The Strand... it's wonderful. With their "18 miles of books" tagline, I'd expected it to be more warehouse-like than it actually is. It's really more like an enormous regular bookstore, which takes up four floors. Parts of it are nice and airy, while others are cramped more used-book-store style. It's friendly, but a bit overwhelming.

    Their website has a little video tour to give you a better idea what it's like.