As I fumed and muttered, one of my eyeballs started to twitch and I could hear the manager behind me whisper to the security guard about my odor and ire. Was I going to explode right there in the store?
But then, I picked up a paperback with bright orange letters tastefully stamped into the ice blue center in the same font that you would find on a bottle of patent medicine. As I touched the book, my nerves cooled and my hand steadied. Was this an elixir to soothe the collywobbles and brain fever? The book was called "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, Volume Two."
Great fucking title -- if it delivered. Volume Two? Where was Volume One? What was going on? Was this a new book?
On the back of this book, there were not blurbs from Richard Ford or from Annie Proulx. Evidently, Michiko Kakutani had skipped this one. All the blurbs kept comparing the book to food: "a confection," "a marvelous tea cake, studded with treats." Already, I was hungry. I felt an animal lick of pleasure in the back of my mind from merely hefting the weight.
One blurb, from the Herald, said: "A vivid fantasy, liberally spiced with chases, stakeouts, fights, fetish gear, and a satisfyingly long trail of bodies."
That is exactly what I like to read. Why had I never heard of this story? What hadn't anyone with whom I associate -- many of them furious readers with myopic "reader's stoops" and the credit problems to prove a life of literacy -- heard of this story?
Had "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" just come out? It was in the "new fiction" section, after all.
Yes. The paperback said "February 2009." But then I looked again: it also said "Bantam hardcover edition of Volumes One and Two published September 2006."
It had taken three years for this book to make the transition from tome to pulp? Multiple volumes! I raced to the stacks and located "Volume One" as the security guard picked up a magazine across from me and pretended to read it, staring at my jittery back.
"Volume One" was blood red, and the back was just as mystifying about the plot within. Something about a broken engagement and assasins.
"Fuck it," I said. "I have no money, but I am buying this book anyway out of spite. You were trying to hide this book from me, world. Even though I cannot afford the $12 dollar price tag on this, I am going to read it and shame you for trying to bury a book on me that is exactly the sort of thing I like. What else are you hiding from the world, publishers?"
Along with several other volumes, I took this book with me on a long car trip across America to get my birth certificate. I finished it, and then, as soon as I got back to New York, I bought "Volume Two" and finished it in something like six uninterrupted hours of reading.
I'll tell you about why you've never heard of this book in a minute -- but first let me review it.
This is Mr. Dahlquist's first novel, and in every biographical note abut him, he is painted as a cipher, a "playwright from the Pacific Northwest who now lives in New York." Fine. Anyway, I like not knowing anything about authors: I like to pretend that books write themselves -- or rather, that they are assembled from blood, pain, memory, and fire and then take on a life of their own.
The two paperback volumes of "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" were originally published as one 700 page novel, and, as such, the paperback copies bleed together seamlessly and should be regarded as one complete work.
This, his first book, is both wunderkammer and wind-up dragon: it is set in a nameless fake European city sometime in the past and tightly (TIGHTLY) follows the paths of three outsiders as they each independently discover, confront, and hunt down a murderous cabal within the city that seeks to gain power over influential figures for mysterious reasons. Their paths overlap and they gradually form an alliance of expedience as they help each other to pursue independent, but related, goals.
Here is the setting of this book:
The three central heroes are familiar types: they are the virgin (Miss Temple -- lawful good), the spy (Captain Svenson -- true neutral), and the killer (a man called "Cardinal Chang" -- lawful evil). Their enemies are also familiar types: seductress, scientist, dandy, soldier, politician, and aristocrat. Structurally, the book is broken down into long, third-person chapters that follow each of our heroes in turn as they explore a debauched city and an even more debauched manor house in the country.
This book has: graphic sex, graphic violence, difficult ontological claims about life and death, shrewd contemplations on the pleasures of cult mentality, half-hearted speculations on the nexus of class and destiny, a dirigible, and so many murders!
This book does not have: wacky historical cameos and alternate history bullshit, magic, gratuitous winks at modern political problems, or an easy one-to-one allegory between the events portrayed within and the events of any world war or election.
Why people don't like this book: despite being a work of high fantasy and adventure, the heroes are despicable and flawed, and the only superpowers on display are courage and cunning. The virgin is a prig and plantation-heiress, the killer is indiscriminate, crude, and ignoble, and the spy is a bookish, German, cowardly depressive. The sexiest roles in this novel go to the villains. Instead of offering escape into virtue, the book was written to be cherished like drug-chocolates. You'll like it. Imagine if Oscar Wilde wrote an action-adventure thriller during a particularly tempestuous love affair with a young street thief. The book was not written to moralize or to make dull people happy by spelling out when to rest or when to clap. People complain about the "wordiness": to crib from Emperor Joseph to Mozart, the book has "too many notes," and too many dark holes to appeal to its intended "market" (teenagers? science fiction fans? who knows?).
Actual flaws in this book: the prose IS overwrought and thermonuclear, which is great, but I often found myself jazzed-up with suspense, only to receive a description of a drawing room. Sometimes, especially in the latter half, the book was like a French farce, with people crashing into boudoirs and abducting their lovers while shrieking clues and then crashing through another wall or dropping through the floor. Other times, the book felt like the blow-by-blow account of a tedious D&D game, and I felt like I needed character sheets and inventories of all the principal protagonists. Not a bullet goes missing, nor a special skill unused.
Look, America. I know you. I know the people among you who read for the physical pleasure of it -- for the flexing, stretching, bending, and deepening of your imagination. I know the people among you who are ALWAYS reading a book -- indiscriminately and without giving a shit about whether or not it is the "right" book. I know you people who read without caring what your preferences say about the size of your intellectual dick or the depth of your intellectual cunt.
"The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" is a great book to READ, as a physical thing. It is florid, tense, powerful, and strange. Reading this book is like stepping into a bodega to get out of the rain, and then realizing that the bodega is actually an opium-den and flesh-parlor. Before you can be stabbed in the belly and tossed out the the back door by security, one of the courtesans takes a liking to you and leads you to a private room for dinner and a cordial. Afterward, a blind Hessian who has been shivering in a corner grabs you by the arm and begins to speak. He tells you a tale while the courtesan slips out of the room and the drugs that were slipped into your tea begin to take effect.
I have a friend who used to smoke crack and then read book after book in a dingy Austin co-op, absorbing them all, loving every minute. If this is the kind of thing you like to do, check this book out.
This book reminds one that "literary fiction" does not refer to theme and setting, but to quality of writing and depth of perception. Dahlquist has a peculiar and ornate style that demands a world worthy of his flowers and spice, and in this book he has written himself a place where he will feel comfortable stretching his powers. Although debates rage on the internet, this book is neither "gaslamp," "steampunk," nor "alternate history." It is a story that tries to be as pure as possible to its own internal dream logic. What does Dahlquist care about his place in the fiction canon? He is, as he will tell you, a PLAYWRIGHT (maybe the most successful playwright in the history of America; more on that later).
If you like, you may read a selection from this novel at Scribd.com to see if you will like it before you drop thirty bucks on two paperbacks:
You can also play two text-adventure games specifically created by the publisher to market this book. Remember text adventures? Remember how thrilling it used to be to type in the right command and receive a chunk of text that did not contain your death?
LOOK AT MIRROR
The reason you have never heard of this book, I later discovered, is that it was a huge, hairy failure. This book is thrilling, utterly original, and fun as shit. This is the kind of book that makes you break off dates to be alone with it. But no one was buying.
Instead of a failure, the book could have been a knockout success for some small publisher. The bar was set too high: some editors read it and loved it and decided that it would be the greatest book in the history of America -- or, anyway, they wanted to bounce their stock price around a little bit -- so Dahlquist received a famous TWO MILLION DOLLAR advance on this book (his first novel!), with instructions to write sequels.
Anyway, after a powerful over-hyping campaign that STILL FAILED TO REACH ME (AN IDEAL READER), the book didn't sell the copies it needed to sell, and Dahlquist still hasn't made back his advance (he is about a million short, go figure). Anyway, his name is now anathema in an industry which trades on instant gratification and instant karma these days. Still, for two million dollars, I wouldn't mind being a reclusive outcast playwright banished from the publishing world. What playwright will ever see two million dollars in their lifetime without writing for the movies?
Still, business deals like these are a tremendous problem for publishing, considering how long it takes for fun books to trickle down into the hands of fun-loving readers. While this book will someday spawn an entire cottage industry of slash-fiction all to itself, it may never be the roaring success it ought to be. But you'll like this book, I know you will, because you don't fret and panic about finding the ONE book to read this year; the ONE book that everybody is talking about. You read like a paper shredder.
I'll leave you with my favorite passage, about a surgeon who has developed a famous treatment for frostbite:
"Svenson kept walking, his boots grinding on the wet cobblestones. His thoughts began to wander, the wet chill of the fog taking him to his time in Warnemunde, the cold rail of the pier, the snow falling silently into the sea. He remembered, as a boy, walking into the winter forest -- wanting to be alone, in despair once again -- and sitting in his thick coat under a pine tree, pressing the snow around him into a soft burrow, lying back and looking at the high branches. He didn't know how long he'd lain there, his mind drifting, perhaps even close to dangerous sleep, when he became aware that he was cold, that the heat from his body had been steadily leeched away by the snow and frosted air. His face was numb. It had happened so gradually, his mind had been elsewhere -- he could no longer remember the girl's name -- but as he forced his frozen limbs to work, rolling first to his knees and then to a shambling walk, he had a moment of insight, that he had just seen in miniature his own life -- and every human life -- a process where heat slowly, relentless dissipated in the face of unfeeling and beautiful ice."
Later, the surgeon will kill a motherfucker with a shard of glass. Dahlquist, have you been reading my diary?
NOTE: The sequel to "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" -- entitled "The Dark Volume" -- just came out (silently, like a goddamn mouse) last week. I hear it ends on a cliff-hanger, meaning there must be another one in the works. Neat.
Posted by miracle on Mon, 30 Mar 2009 04:06:57 -0400 -- permanent link