Monday, November 28, 2011

Drood by Dan Simmons, a cranky not-exactly review

To begin at the beginning: Wilkie Collins is one of my favorite, most admired, and most-loved authors of all time. Moonstone and Woman in White both landed themselves among my most-treasured books the minute I read them. Armadale and No Name aren't quite there, but are close. I admit, none of the other books I've read quite equals these in brilliance, but four stunning books and several good to really good books is quite enough for any one author, don't you think?

Collins writes beautiful, polished, Victorian prose. He can be scathing in his character descriptions. He knows exactly where and how to use both drama and melodrama to the best effect.

Dickens may not be one of my favorite authors, but he never fails to draw me in, and I am never going to argue with the people who say he's brilliant. I may quibble with the ones who say he's more brilliant than Collins, and I certainly have a bone to pick with the ones who say that Bleak House is clearly and objectively better than Woman in White (I'm looking at you Julian Symons(1)), but I won't debate his brilliance.

And in a general way, I like Victorian novel.

So Drood, a novel purporting to be by Wilkie Collins about Charles Dickens and solving The Mystery of Edwin Drood was either a dream come true or a disaster waiting to happen.

Sadly, it was the latter.

It takes a lot of nerve to write about two great Victorian authors, and a lot more to presume to write as one of them. I didn't really expect Simmons to succeed. I did, however, expect him to at least try. I mean, it is possible to write as a Victorian novelist without being one. Look at Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell(2). Simmons, however, opts to write in an entirely modern tone, and it does not work.

This is Wilkie Collins introducing a character:
A mild, compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth. Nature has so much to do in this world, and is engaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remain by private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of the vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.
This is Simmons introducing a character:
[Dickens] was the most popular novelist in England, perhaps in the world. Many people in England and American considered my friend to be--outside of Shakespeare and perhaps Chaucer and Keats--the greatest writer who had ever lived.
Of course, I knew this to be nonsense, but popularity, as they say (or as I have said), breeds more popularity. I had seen Charles Dickens stuck in a rural, doorless privy with his trousers down around his ankles, bleating like a lost sheep for some paper to wipe his arse, and you will have to forgive me if that image remains more true to me than 'the greatest writer who ever lived.'
Can you see the difference?

This is not Collins. It's not Dickens. It's not Victorian, and it's not anyone I particularly want to spend the next six pages with, much less the next eight hundred.

I did read a few more pages, and skipped, and skimmed. After all, the book had come fairly highly recommended. It did not work out. I remained decidedly out of sorts and decidedly unimpressed by any resemblance to actual work by Collins or Dickens. Also, while it had been a while since I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood (what there is of it), I couldn't see any resemblance between the book I remembered and the book I was trying to read.

I kept telling myself I should stop thinking of Collins and Dickens and try to let Drood succeed on its own terms, but it doesn't want to succeed on its own terms. If it had wanted to, it wouldn't be "by" Collins and it wouldn't purport to be the "true" story behind one of Dickens' novels.

Yes, Simmons did his research. As far as I know, the biographical details are accurate (give or take the eyeless men and the sinister duplicates), but he missed the style and spirit of both authors entirely.

So this is a long, rambling, completely out-of-sorts review of a book I wanted to like and ended up not even finishing, not properly.

(1)Whom I may never forgive for saying that the book that gave us Marian is not quite up to the standards of the book that burdened us with Esther. To add insult to injury, Symons does this in the introduction to Woman in White. Seriously. If you're that in love with Dickens, introduce Dickens.
(2)Really. Do. It's a fantastic Victorian novel. It just happens to have been written in the twentieth century.


  1. Blech. It's never any fun to be disappointed in something you wanted to love. And it's fatal (at least to me!) to have in mind some other book that did sort of the same thing and did it better.

  2. Yeah, I really, really wanted to love it.

    Simmons doesn't even try to sound Victorian, not even a little bit. If he reminds me of anyone, it's David Weber. Sort of.

    I like Weber, at least sometimes, but if I want David Weber, I'll read David Weber, and I won't pick his books up when I'm in the mood for a nice Victorian Gothic.

  3. I had a really, really hard time putting this book down. It's just my kind of novel: lots of adventure, lots of tension. The narrator has a tendency to wander a bit, going off on tangents when he should be following the story, but I didn't see the extra information (and there's a lot of it thrown in) as detracting from it. Rather, I liked all the biographical notes on both Dickens and Collins, and I liked the interactions they had with one another, and the creative give-and-take of information that lead to novels like The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

  4. o each his own :)

    The tangents, at least, are Victorian!

    And, thanks for taking the time to comment!