The Abominable by Dan Simmons
The Abominable by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown & Co, 2013) is a “found manuscript” novel. As is required for a book of this type, there’s a prefatory frame in which our author goes to visit with an old man who was reputed to have been on one of the expeditions to the Antarctic in the 1930s. Some years after the man’s death, the author receives a collection of notebooks containing this story about an expedition organised in 1924 to find the body of a climber lost on Mount Everest. Courtesy of Simmons acting as an editor only, we’re therefore to suspend our disbelief as our first person narrator, Jacob (Jake) Perry tells how he met and then climbed with a Brit called Richard Davis Deacon, aka “the Deacon”, and a Frenchman Jean-Claude “J.C.” Clairoux, a guide from Chamonix. In fact we start off on the Matterhorn, where the threesome are refining their skills in the early 1920s just as news comes in that two climbers, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, are missing, presumed dead, trying to climb Everest. Perhaps surprisingly given that this is the British Hill, a German climber separately describes how two other climbers, one British, the other German or Austrian, were swept away in an avalanche. This proves to be the hook for the novel. The lost British climber is Lord Percival Bromley and his family want an expedition to recover his body (assuming him to be dead, of course). In turn, this requires our heroes to contact the German climber who has interesting things to say.
The real problem with this book is easy to state. It’s woefully overwritten. Simmons doesn’t just do detail. He does pages of exposition. Take as an example an early meeting with Lady Bromley. In the hands of an author prepared to listen to an editor, this would have been: the trio arrive at the stately mansion, meet the Lady, get the inside dope, agree the fee plus expenses to go to Everest, and get out of Dodge. This has a tour guide approach which tell us how big the place is, where the visiting royalty used to get out of their carriages, what the butler saw when Master Richard was younger, and so on. I’m not saying this is all uninteresting. But when we scale that approach up to all the scenes, you’d better be prepared for an awful lot of mountain climbing.
Now, in a sense, this fixation with the product of research would not matter if it was put in service to a plot which has great drive. But unless you suffer from vertigo when reading, this all starts in a somewhat low-key style. Yes, they are climbing and could fall off but, at the beginning of the book, we know that’s not going to happen. So being on top of the mountain is just an excuse to give us set-up plot information with a better view. When you look with a dispassionate eye, very little of interest happens during the first 250 pages of the book. Members of the political movement who will become the Nazis are met and later discussed (Hitler is in jail at this time). We have two mentions of yeti who may yet turn out to be the source of the book’s title. There’s practice climbing, and refinement of technique and equipment in Wales. And we get to meet Reggie who’s to accompany our three professional climbers as they use the search for a body as an excuse to try climbing to the top of Everest.
As we approach the two-thirds mark, we learn of the McGuffin. Yes, it’s up there somewhere, but no-one knows exactly what it is. On balance, I think it would have been better if our heroes had not subsequently discovered the nature of the McGuffin. It’s not so much the short-term impact that worries me. It’s the purpose to which the McGuffin is subsequently put. Because I prefer not to indulge in spoilers, I will not discuss how matters play out on Everest itself, or in the end chapters that follow the descent. Suffice it to say, I thought this particular piece of plotting absurd. Although it’s completely different, I’m reminded of The Hour of the Donkey by the magnificent Anthony Price. In that book, we’re given a contemporary explanation of the events which led the Germans to hold off their push against the British Expeditionary Force in May 1940. As a result, many trained soldiers were able to escape at Dunkirk. In other words, the author takes a minor historical mystery and creates a scenario in which the Germans do not consider it in their interests to push their numerical and strategic advantage. It’s a vey interesting piece of speculation. I reinforce the message that The Abominable is different in structure and form, almost all the action taking place in 1924 and 1925.
Personally, I was bored. Yes, there are some great episodes of daring-do as our climbers meet and overcome various climbing challenges, and the pace of the plot does improve slightly as we get closer to the end. But the denseness of the detail gets in the way of all efforts to generate thrills. Dan Simmons has set himself the task of writing a thriller, but then defanged it by taking too long to establish the nature of the antagonists. No matter how interesting it may be to learn about the climbing technique and technology of the 1920s, there comes a point when the reader just wishes something “exciting” would happen. It would not matter whether it was supernatural, just so long as it represented a threat other than falling off a bloody mountain. Yes, I got that frustrated! So I cannot in good conscience recommend The Abominable unless you treat Dan Simmons as a trusted brand and automatically read everything by him in the hope it will be good.