Sunday, February 22, 2009


I had to buy Drood.

Friends and acquaintances won’t be surprised. I was the goofy young woman who used to read Dickens on the roof of the office building . My co-workers and I would sit up there during breaks, illicitly soaking up the sun, even in the dead of winter, sometimes chatting, other times reading (most of us reading because we were bored to death with each other), and some of us smoking - something (not opium like Drood; mostly cigarettes and cigars). We wore old air force parkas with the fur flapping in fringes around the hoods: you get the picture. The Roofs on the Plains Are Freezing-Windswept. Occasionally someone would read something witty aloud from the Village Voice or even, very occasionally, from Dickens.

People started naming their cats Nat Hentoff and Drood.

I was browsing at Borders the other day with a 40%-off coupon. It turned out to be inapplicable towards buying Dan Simmons’s new 30%-off bestseller Drood, which I snapped up. I've heard about Simmons for years because everyone insisted that I needed to read his science fiction account of the Iliad, Ilium - though Achilles seemed a sufficiently sci-fi-ish hero already in the epic. But a historical novel narrated by Wilkie Collins and centered on Dickens and his research for The Mystery of Edwin Drood was necessary to my life immediately.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood isn’t my favorite, but that’s all right - because Drood is as much about Wilkie Collins as it is about Dickens’ unfinished last novel. Cleverly presented as Wilkie Collins’s account of the last five years of Dickens’s life, it focuses on his bitter jealousy of Dickens (particularly of his most perfect book Our Mutual Friend), Collins’ growing addiction to laudanum, and his night walks with Dickens through London’s ghostly underworld in search of Drood, an opium addict/angel of death, whom Dickens claimed to have met during a traumatic train crash he survived in 1865 (along with his girlfriend, the actress Ellen Tiernan and her mother).

It’s an eerie novel. Well-written, well-researched, and historically accurate except for the Drood fantasy, it also cleverly takes the form of a sort of gigantic Wilkie Collins melodrama. There is the borderline hysteria of the novel of sensation: Dickens is a nervous wreck after the train wreck, and his motivation for pursuing Drood, who may or may not exist, baffles Collins as he is dragged by Dickens through crypts and tunnels, occasionally guided by Detective Hatchery, and later persecuted by Hatchery’s boss Inspector Field, a blackmailer who, though this doesn’t make much sense, needs Wilkie to tell him everything Dickens says about Drood (since his employee is guiding Dickens to Drood, this plot device seems thin, but it’s best not to think. It combines the character of Bucket in Bleak House with the detective in The Moonstone).

Anyway I’m enjoying this enormously (771 pages: I’d better). Collins's voice is easier to imitate than Dickens's, and though Simmons doesn't exactly claim he is doing that, it seems to work.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

At GMU one year Jim and I saw a stage presentation of _Edwin Drood_ which has made me curious about it ever since. I also like the imitations or allusions to it in M.R. James's ghost stories. Alas not enough to read it.

I am no longer a Dickens reader. I can listen to it read aloud.

See my comments on Bleak House.