For the longest time I was obsessed with getting a copy of Dexter Palmer’s debut novel Dream of Perpetual Motion. I first saw the book on the shelves at Pegasus Bookstore in Berkeley, more attracted to the graphic design on the novel’s spine peeking out at me between the copies of other books than anything else. I pulled it out, read the dust jacket, and was immediately intrigued.
Like all steampunk novels, Dream of Perpetual Motion takes place in the early 20th century but one in which prototypical technology is the dominant mode of existence. Admittedly I don’t read a lot of genre fiction and certainly not steampunk novels. Sometimes if I’m in the mood for a good horror story or an occasional sci-fi novel I’ll seek one out. But it isn’t a general rule for me. I prefer realist fiction. Yet this novel’s premise drew me in.
The story is about Harold Winslow, a hapless copywriter for the Xeroville Greeting Card Works, who has been stored away on a zeppelin powered by perpetual motion, his only companions the cryogenically frozen remains of mad inventor Prospero Taligent and his adopted daughter, Miranda, who has been reduced to a disembodied voice that haunts Harold. How Harold winds up in this unusual situation is the core of the novel’s plot as we follow his life beginning as a child first encountering the mad inventor and his daughter, and the hold they have over him throughout his life. Harold becomes both observer and perpetrator of the events that push the novel forward.
Dream of Perpetual Motion is an excellent read (though it bogs down toward the end) and its perspective on the themes first introduced in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, about the consequences of power and magic, lend the novel its depth and poignancy. It also deals with other themes, such as the limitation of language as a means of forming relationships and what it truly means to be a feeling, thinking human being in a world overrun by technology.
Yet more than anything this is a novel of the imagination. Palmer creates a universe that is wholly unto itself, one where magic and technology mingle side-by-side. Mechanical men, perpetual motion, flying machines, cabs that not only ferry customers to their destinations but also provide therapy, and machines whose endlessly churning noise can cause eardrums to bleed are the natural landscape of the novel’s city Xeroville. Prospero Taligent, the city’s mad genius, is largely responsible for creating these inventions in his insane desire to control life, nature, and time itself. I won’t say to what extent Prospero’s inventions lead him, but needless to say both Harold and Miranda are his ultimate victims.
In realist fiction, writers attempt to recreate a world that is already familiar and authentic to the reader. Yet their attempts at authenticity can result in some really mundane, boring fiction. Reading the imaginative world in Dream of Perpetual Motion however is both a surprise and a delight. Freed from the constraints of realism, Palmer is able to deal with serious subjects in a universe in which anything can happen, including the young Harold being spirited away by a flying demon (a mechanical man) to Miranda Taligent’s birthday party. And yet Palmer never overplays his hand. His world isn’t so strange or completely rendered that it requires a chart just to understand it all. Rather he provides the necessary details and allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. By midway in the story, the prose affects a satirical, Pynchonesque style that invests the strangeness of the story with enough humor to create an ironic tone.
As I said before, the novel does bog down toward the end, as Harold encounters various characters whose relationship to the enigmatic Miranda offer some insight into the womanchild whose life to which Harold has developed a moral attachment and responsibility. While these passages offer more fractured images of Miranda alongside the one’s both Harold and Prospero create of her, they also slow down the story. While reading over these long passages you’re left scratching your head and wondering when the action will pick up again. Despite this, the novel as an experience is more than enough to overcome some of its weaker moments. Dream of Perpetual Motion is a novel of fairy tales and magic, of miracles and invention. But more than anything, it is one that fully embraces the power of the imagination.