An intoxicatingly ambitious debut novel that somehow seems to encapsulate everything the author believes about everything.
This reads like a science-fiction update of The Tempest as rewritten by Jonathan Lethem. It takes place in the early years of the 20th century, though this is a past reimagined by a futurist, filled with mechanical men who have brought the age of miracles to an end. It begins aboard a zeppelin called the Chrysalis, where narrator Harold Winslow finds himself flying in perpetuity, along with the disembodied voice of his life’s love, Miranda, and the corpse of her adoptive father, the (mad, genius) inventor, Prospero Taligent. With a memoir addressed to his “imaginary reader,” for Winslow has no hope that anyone will ever see these pages, the narrator recounts the pivotal incidents in his life, sometimes in the first person, often in the third. The most crucial among them is his Willy Wonka–esque invitation to the tenth birthday of Miranda, isolated from the world in a tower, where her father invents the machines that transform the world and threaten to steal its soul. At the party, Prospero promises each of the 100 children whom he has gathered that all will achieve their heart’s desire. Harold wants to become a writer, and in fact becomes a writer of greeting-card verse, but the rest of the novel recounts the unlikely fashion through which he fulfills his higher ambition. Though the narrative propulsion seems to lurch and leap, occasionally lacking cohesion (sometimes even coherence), its provocative meditations on life and love, innocence and knowledge, the essence of ever-changing time and its tension with timeless art, and the limits of language as expressed through language, make this a parable worth savoring. It walks the tightrope “between madness and genius, between profoundly difficult truths and pure nonsense,” without a safety net for either writer or reader.
A novel of ideas that holds together like a dream.