Thursday, October 20, 2011

Surmising Information is Much More Convenient Than Actually Knowing It

The Last Dickens
By Matthew Pearl

The best thing I can say about this book is that Matthew Pearl has done a lot of research and has included many accurate historical details about book publishing in the 1870s, the opium trade, London's opium dens, historical buildings in Boston, and anecdotes from Charles Dickens's speaking tour in the United States. And some of these are even relevant to the plot.

The plot of The Last Dickens suggests that Charles Dickens wrote the missing chapters (the last six chapters of the book) for The Mystery of Edwin Drood while he was on his second US speaking tour… and then hid these chapters in a medical college in Boston because of an overwhelming fear of trains and ships, before going back to England and writing the first six chapters (huh?). Not only are cutthroat and honest publishers falling over each other to find the missing chapters, but so is an evil opium dealer (the long lost son of a jovial inn keeper who prances around dressed like Falstaff) who is convinced that Dickens's unpublished book is about him, and that the book's publication might be bad for his opium business. Seriously?

Pearl writes his book apparently in an ode to Dickens: "Dickens alone, among all the writers of popular fiction of the day, could employ wit and discernment, excitement and sympathy, in equal parts in each one of his books. The characters were no mere paper dolls, nor were they thinly veiled extensions of Charles Dickens's own persona. No, the characters were utterly themselves. In a Dickens story, readers were not asked to aspire to a higher class or to hate other classes than their own but to find the humanity and the humane in all." Well, Pearl ain't no Dickens, and his attempt falls flat.

The range of characterization in the novel runs from flat and uninteresting character portrayals (Dickens, Field), namby-pamby boring (Osgood, Rebecca Sand), evil delusional (Wakefield/Edward Trood), evil inexplicable (Herman), to evil capitalist (Harper publishers of New York). Plus an extensive number of incidental characters, some of whom show up at magnificently convenient moments who help extract the "heroes" from tight places, like Tom Branagan and Jack Rogers (aka Dick Datchery, aka 'George Washington' scalper), who repents for working for the publishing competition Harper; plus the cartoonish Bookaneers, such as "Molasses" who happens to be in the empty building that Osgood runs into while escaping from the evil Herman (although Bookaneers is a clever term that Pearl has coined).

The plot was convoluted and breathtakingly contrived. Are we seriously supposed to believe that a drug trafficker is afraid that the publication of a novel might harm his business? The man supplies opium addicts, not literary critics. Maybe if we were introduced to the character Edward Trood earlier in the novel, we might sympathize with his dilemma, and his reason for living under an assumed identity; but he is not developed as a character, so we don't really care about him, and it isn't interesting. The history has some merits but the labored word choices, unnatural syntax, and hackneyed phrasing make ploughing through this novel no fun at all. For the writing alone, this one of the worst books I have read in a very long time.

The character Dick Datchery very neatly explains Pearl's method of writing and resolving a mystery: “How did you possibly know about that?” “Oh, I didn't! I merely surmised it as well, which is a rather more convenient way of obtaining information than actually knowing it.” (Loc. 2819-20)

Some gems from the novel:

- Loc. 88-89 At the top of the stick was an exotic and ugly golden idol, the head of a beast, a horn rising from the top, terrible mouth agape, sparks of fire shooting from its outstretched tongue. [The walking stick appears many times in the novel; no more flames however.]
- Loc. 604-6 Not long after Dickens's death, Officer Carlton had delivered the shocking news about Daniel. Osgood had sent him to the docks to retrieve those three latest installments sent from England in response to Osgood's cable. It was yet another test to prevent emotion from becoming paralyzing.
- Loc. 607-8 Daniel Sand's senseless accident caused Osgood to feel a sadness of heart more intimate and stranger than that brought on by Dickens's death.
- Loc. 610 How much more real this seemed, in a way, than Dickens's apotheosis. [For some reason Osgood seems surprised that he is more affected by the death of his office boy, with whom he works every day, than the death of an author.]
- Loc. 806-7 a hoarse whisper as suits a man fading from the mortal state of life—‘It is God's,’ said he. It was much like a sentimental novel.”
- Loc. 1076-77 Rebecca went upstairs, her hands clenched in fists on her desk. [Can anyone make sense of this sentence?]
- Loc. 1086 The walk home seemed to be both instantaneous and cruelly tedious.
- Loc. 1241-43 Rebecca, turning to look at Herman. As she met the accused's eyes and innocent smile, a sudden, almost magnetic repulsion forced her to take a step back. The dark, malicious eyes gave her a rush of inexplicable fear and hatred.
- Loc. 1330-31 Those burning orbs of the thief had remained seared in Osgood's mind.
- Loc. 2144-45 “In truth, Mr. Osgood, we only wish there were more guests who were not dreadful auctioneers or house seekers tramping up and down the stairs.” Aunt Georgy had a ready smile [Because we all wish we had more houseguests after a death in the family.]
- Loc. 2322-23 The room displayed some expensive books but a greater number of dead, stuffed animals: a rabbit, a fox, a deer. The frightful artifacts emitted a stale, bleak odor [Let's see: that means there were two expensive books and three taxidermy animals.]
- Loc. 2346-47 He leaned in toward Rebecca—not exactly unfriendly to Osgood's predicament but entirely lacking in interest relative to the pretty bookkeeper sitting across. [He lacks interest in the pretty bookkeeper? Sitting across what?]
- Loc. 2819-20 How did you possibly know about that?” “Oh, I didn't! I merely surmised it as well, which is a rather more convenient way of obtaining information than actually knowing it.”
- Loc. 5159-62 This spot [the Medical College in Boston], this dingy lonely place, may have been the only safe place on earth for these pages. They would reside here undisturbed until he was ready to call for them to be retrieved—which he would do when he finished the first half. But when he died suddenly, it was too late for him to communicate it.”
- Loc. 5514-15 “I am, Osgood. You love her.” “Yes,” Osgood said, unhesitating. Rebecca for a moment lost all her terror. [She has just witnessed a murder and is being held with a gun to her head, but she is no longer afraid now that Osgood has said he loves her. Barf!!]

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