The Age of Miracles-- dead!
Welcome the Steam Age.
This is a first novel, & like a lot of first novels it is filled with a kind of charming "I'm going to explain everything about the human condition while exploding the conventions of modern narrative!" energy. Which brings to mind the immediate flipside of that: Dexter Palmer totally knows that the book is doing that. He manages to both participate in the exuberance of that kind of genre bending while at the same time staying above it-- without being obnoxious. The setting is a solid block of steampunk fare-- zeppelins & mechanical men, wax-cylinder answering machines & handcranked wonders. For once when I say steampunk, I actually mean it, too; the dystopian tropes of cyberpunk are recapitulated here-- you've got an actual struggle (however intellectual & self doubting) against monolithic corporate power. Teased between the two are strands of reference; not for nothing is the novel populated by Miranda & Prospero & Caliban.
The actual plot wanders through time, the first half taking up the span of a man's life, the second half the most interesting twenty hours of it; throughout peppered with flashbacks to the thoughts leading up to what is either the terminus or the metamorphosis of it. The frame of the novel is that of the protagonist's memoirs, though he writes it largely in third person, excepting the interludes. Harold, for that is his name, is weak & doubting, constantly questioning whether his emotional responses are real, valid, or if they even exist at all. Through happenstance & what others describe as cowardice of character, he falls in with the genius inventor Prospero Taligent's daughter, Miranda. In the mix are his relationship with his sister Astrid, his father, & his life in general-- from little boy to greeting card author.
What is the book actually about? Identity. Imagination in relationship to the real world. Technological ambition-- heck, the whole scope of human ambition. The inability of one thinking being to know another. Which is a fancy way of saying love. Expectations. Childhood, innocence, the loss of innocence-- sin & knowledge. The past as a construct of memory. Art, its meaning or lack of meaning. Its construction; its makers (Dexter Palmer appears here, in parody). Beauty & ugliness & which is which. Doing terrible things in the name of science. Doing terrible things in the name of art. Doing terrible things in the name of obsession. Doing terrible things because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Weakness. Authorship.
The book soars best at its imagery. Caliban's typewriter. The vitrioleur. Shrinkcabs. The nooks & crannies. Palmer plays with language, sometimes more successfully than others-- & again, like the premise of the book, he talks about how he's playing with language. How it is sometimes more successful than others. Recursive navel gazing is the order of the day-- & then he talks about that. Ideas in exchange between sentients. & you know. Decaying perpetual motion machines. Rusting iron, rotting meat. Though not without beauty; though beauty is not without its problems. The book brings questions to the table, then leaves them there. I haven't read Pynchon, so I can't comment on whether the comparison is apt. Still; a little gem set in brass, this one.