The Dream of Perpetual Motion: Dexter Palmer

First off, I should say that I feel like I would’ve gotten more out of this book if I could remember more about The Tempest than the names of the characters. But the last time I read that play was at least twenty years ago and I have only the vaguest memory of how the whole thing went down. A quick look at Wikipedia has reminded me of the basic plot, which does illuminate my reading of The Dream of Perpetual Motion somewhat, but probably doesn’t get down to the heart of things.

Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter if all those references fly over my head. The story in this stands strong, even if you’ve never heard of the work it plays off of.

The cover is quick to tell me this this book is “steampunk”, a term I am very much tired of hearing since it seems that anything with a machine in it qualifies these days. But there are some actual steampunk-y bits to this story of greeting-card writer Harold Winslow: the tin men invented by Prospero Taligent (which Wikipedia [yes, I spend too much time reading Wikipedia] tells me was the name of an operating system back in the days when Mac computers were still Apples, a portmanteau of “talent” and “intelligent”, and I am wondering now if that was deliberate because if it was, it adds a whole new layer of interesting things to think about); the zeppelin on which Harold is doomed to live out the rest of his days flying high above the city with only the disembodied voice of Prospero’s adopted daughter Miranda to keep him company; the mechanical playroom enjoyed by Miranda and Harold as children, which is reset every night to be some other fantastic, hyperreal location.

Harold is invited to Miranda’s tenth birthday party, her first, and it seems only, party and her first contact with other children her age. Prospero keeps her locked in the obsidian tower that dominates the city of Xeroxville, but grows concerned that the lack of contact with children her own age is in fact hindering her development, hence the birthday party. A hundred boys and girls are flown to the tower, clutched bruisingly tight to the chests of terrifying mechanical angels and demons. Once there, Prospero promises each of them their heart’s desire. Which, through a rather circuitous route, is how Harold ends up on the zeppelin with Miranda twenty years later.

Palmer is a graceful storyteller, moving fluidly between Harold’s telling of his past as a ten-year-old boy, then a twenty-year-old man and finally, a thirty-year-old man, and his present aboard the zeppelin, with some lovely details popping up along the way. My favourite is the meeting of Harold and his sister, Astrid, in a bar in Picturetown, a place where the residents have decided not to speak, and instead carry on passionate conversations on index cards. Palmer manages to direct the reader’s attention to the right character, the right place at the right time, but nothing feels forced. The story unravels smoothly, without hitches, and even the occasionally stilted speaking style seems perfectly at home in this book, only feeling stilted when you lift your head and wonder if you would actually say something like that.

And the man has a sense of humour! There are some wry little turns of phrase here and there, but the moment I actually laughed out loud is when Harold’s sister, Astrid, is introducing some people to Harold at an opening for a show of her paintings:

“And this,” Astrid says, gesturing at a wiry gentleman wearing eyeglasses and a houndstooth suit in need of pressing, standing a little distance away from the rest of the group, looking slightly uncomfortable, “is Dexter Palmer, and he’s a—what?”

“I,” says Dexter Palmer. “Um.”

Endearing! And he also touches on some things that I have spent the last many years thinking about, such as the perception you have of yourself and the perception other people have and what the intersection of these two is. (Yes, I do need to just go play outside more.) The idea that the people you interact with carry around an image of you in their heads, and they tweak this every time they see you to constantly approximate a you in their heads. And naturally, the longer you know someone, the closer this approximation gets to the approximation you yourself have in your own head. It’s thing I think about and I’m always glad to see it pop up in someone else’s words, a new perspective on an old idea.

As if he didn’t already have me hooked, he throws in a little math to sweeten the deal:

I just want a sculpture that—” (he sighs forcefully and places the palm of his hand to his head) “—that means change. Pretend she’s a function and take the integral. That’s what I want.”

That is what we all want.

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