Thursday, August 9, 2012

Drood by Dan Simmons

Title: Drood
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 941
Rating: 2/5 Stars

It took me nearly six months to read Drood. That fact alone could stand as a review, but I shall try to express in more detail why finishing this book - a book I was really excited to read - became such a chore.

Drood is a sprawling tale about the last five years of Charles Dickens life as seen through the eyes of his good friend, and fellow author, Wilkie Collins. The story begins with the Staplehurst train wreck that nearly claimed Dickens' life and ends with the great author's death. In between we learn about the enigma that is Drood and how this mysterious figure arguably drove both men to the brink of madness.

I commend Simmons on his research. I'm not an expert on Dickens, but I know enough that I was impressed with the author's attention to detail and the way he wove the real life history of the characters into his narrative. The language and style of Drood is reminiscent of the era in which it takes place while still managing to feel contemporary, so points for that as well.

That’s all the good I can say about Drood, however.

As much as I tried, I simply did not like this book. I didn’t like it. Dickens is a condescending prick who treats strangers with more care than he does his own family and friends. Collins begins the novel in a fairly sympathetic light, but by the end I just wanted him to shut up and stop whining. Collins is very much a product of his times – a sexist, racist, classist, ageist, misogynistic ‘gentleman’…and did I mention sexist? Damn. I’m usually quite good at putting concerns like that aside, especially considering the era in which the novel took place, but Collins had so few redeeming qualities that it his faults became overwhelming. I really didn’t need or want Collins to be perfect, but I did need something about him to respect.

The reason I picked up the book is because I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with The Mystery of Edwin Drood and according to the description, that’s what this book was supposed to be about. It’s not. It’s not even about Dickens. It’s about Wilkie Collins and his descent into drug-addled paranoia, hallucination and madness. Simmons didn’t even attempt to really answer whether or not Drood was real or merely a figment of mesmeric suggestion and laudanum and I suppose that vagueness could be seen as commendable. After all, the source material is unfinished, so why wrap it all up in a neat and tidy bow?

Well, because maybe then I would have felt like I actually got something out of this book instead of a general feeling of time wasted. I certainly don’t need to have my hand held and have the answers spelled out for me in simple, concrete language, but a few less options would have been nice.

There are a few passages that I really enjoyed and had me turning pages – the Staplehurst accident, Collins and Dickens’ first descent into Undertown, Collins entrapment in the catacombs and Hatchery’s death, Collins meetings with Barris, the death of Agnes, Collins opium and morphine induced dream of killing Dickens – but they’re interspersed far too judiciously amidst all of the dense exposition.

At one point I told a friend that I wouldn’t be reading any of Dan Simmons’ other work. I take that back. I read a few reviews of Drood and according to some this novel is quite the departure from Simmons’ other work, so I’m inclined to give him another try. He's a good author and uses language well. It just won't be any time soon.

And by the way, if I never hear the term ‘mesmerism’ used again, it will be too soon.

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