Drood by Dan Simmons
It was the best of books, it was the worst of books. It was the tale of two books in one. At 775 pages, this is one of the longest books I have managed to read through to the end in the last decade. It is a serious test of patience, requiring the dauntless courage of an epic hero about to set off on a quest to reach the last page. This is Drood by Dan Simmons — a monster of a book that devours your time and energy with a rapacious appetite.
There is a real problem for authors who create unreliable narrators and give them the starring role in a first-person narrative. If everything is filtered through the eyes of a drug addict afflicted by paranoid delusions, then the world the novel presents must be distorted. That means any and all historical infodumps become very problematic. Authors love to do research, particularly when they are going to play with real-world characters in a specific place and identified times. In this case, we are at home with Charles Dickens, his family and intimate circle as seen through the eyes of Wilkie Collins. If this was an actual manuscript by Wilkie Collins, it would be redundant to engage in all the historical detail of their lives and times in London. The excuse that this is a document written for future generations does not hold up despite the repeated knowing winks to the Reader as yet more descriptions, explanations and research is dumped on to our poor Reader’s plate. Collins himself would never have written like this. While it is true that his works are rambling, this was the popular style in a Victorian era that first saw publication in serialised form, followed by a later hardback version (often in two or more volumes). He would not have felt the need to explain everything at this length.
I am reinforced in this belief because here is a man shown as experiencing mental disintegration. He is slowly becoming more paranoid, his self-admitted schizophrenia growing more pronounced and his delusions more disruptive to everyday life. He does, after all, look through a door and, for a few moments, stay watching a meeting between Dickens, his alternate self and the hypothetical Drood. I do not believe that a man increasingly divorced from reality would include vast digressions from his personal story in the form of factually accurate content. If he did make this editorial decision with the benefit of hindsight, the author would never leave delusion juxtaposed with reality without some acknowledgement. The text as here published is a modern author playing an elaborate game with his readers, and not a warts-and-all confession by a dying author. Worse, if this book is pretending to be an autobiography written by an English Victorian writer, it should be written in Victorian English, leaving the modern American reader to struggle with both the raw sexism, racism and unknowing hypocrisy of Victorian times, and the different vocabulary, syntax and spelling.
The format adopted by Simmons is to offer an insight into the mind of an author while he is building up to the creation of what is probably his best work and going through the well-documented domestic upheavals. At its heart, The Moonstone is a wonderful book, being rightly regarded as one of the first true detective stories in the modern sense of the word. It was also controversial in that it features a character seriously addicted to opium. This produced the sensationalism that is indispensable if an author is to market a bestseller. Simmons uses the autobiographical nature of The Moonstone as one of the two hooks on which to hang Drood, the novel. The second hook shadows the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Dickens, introducing narrative threads from the episodes published by Dickens before his death. A part of the pleasure in Drood comes from watching the creative processes in both authors as their experiences give birth to literary ideas. The tension, for those who are familiar with the relevant published works, comes from seeing how the addicted Collins responds to Dickens. In fact, they were real collaborators. This fictionalisation explores one possible way in which that collaborative relationship might have worked. We also have Simmons indulging in intertextualism as he interweaves analysis of textual material drawn from the two authors’ works into the text of Drood. Frankly, although this sometimes adds an extra dimension to the paranoia of Collins, it is overused.
So this is two works in one. I would have been quite interested to read a literary biography of the collaboration between two such respected authors. Lives are shattered by events. These two men are both suffering, one from what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder following a near-death experience in a railway accident, and the other suffering from paranoid delusions arising from his drug addiction. But, not being a historian, I cannot say with any degree of certainty where the reality ends and the fiction begins. It is all very well for a modern author to play with history, but this is just annoying. If I had the time, I would disappear into a library and find out which bits are true. As it is, I am left with the terrible suspicion that if I now spout information about either man derived from Drood to a historian, I may be making a fool of myself. It is much safer to read fiction about fictional characters.
In the midst of all this history, cod or otherwise, lies an excellent story about a drug addict whose continued and escalating use of opium compounds existing schizophrenia and induces a psychotic break. Collins cannot tell what is real. Some of the set pieces under London have a wonderful feel about them as, in both physical and psychological terms, the author plumbs the depths and drags up corpses whose faces have fallen prey to rats and maggots. The paranoia is palpable as Collins finds fear everywhere, whether climbing the servant’s stairs in one of his homes or speculating on the cause of his mother’s sudden loss of health and “unexpected” death. The central core of this story is Drood who may be a game played between two men. Dickens may create this mythic figure and persuade Collins that Drood exists. Collins may delude himself into believing that he is playing a game with Dickens that involves a person called Drood. Either way, Collins starts off doubting that Drood exists and ends up believing in his existence. This conversion against a background of the physical landscape of slum London is a masterpiece of psychological terror. It is a terrible shame that the act of burying this story together with a literary biography in a pit of fictional quick lime diminishes interest in both.