The Dream of Perpetual Motion
  • The Dream of Perpetual Motion
  • The Dream of Perpetual Motion

The Dream of Perpetual Motion

3.6 31
by Dexter Palmer

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A debut so magical… so extraordinary… it has to be read to be believed….

Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the

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A debut so magical… so extraordinary… it has to be read to be believed….

Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate who drove her insane.

The tale of Harold’s life is also one of an alternate reality, a lucid waking dream in which the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, where replicas of deserted islands exist within skyscrapers.. As Harold’s childhood infatuation with Miranda changes over twenty years to love and then to obsession, the visionary inventions of her father also change Harold’s entire world, transforming it from a place of music and miracles to one of machines and noise. And as Harold heads toward a last desperate confrontation with Prospero to save Miranda’s life, he finds himself an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all: the perpetual motion machine.

Beautifully written, stunningly imagined, and wickedly funny, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a heartfelt meditation on the place of love in a world dominated by technology.

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Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Hand
…an extravagantly wondrous and admirable first novel inspired by The Tempest…the work it most resembles is Angela Carter's hallucinatory tour de force The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972, released in this country as The War of Dreams), whose protagonist also makes his way through a nightmarish alternate future to confront a perpetual motion machine. Yet Palmer's vision is his own, with its Henry Dargeresque dream sequences and Crystal Palace cityscapes: an elegy for our own century and the passing of the power of the word, written and spoken.
—The Washington Post
Jeff VanderMeer
In his tragicomic first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer takes elements from Nabokov, Neal Stephenson, Steven Millhauser and "The Tempest," tosses them into a retro-futuristic blender and hits "purée." The result is a singular riff on steampunk—sophisticated, subversive entertainment that never settles for escapism.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Palmer's dazzling debut explodes with energy and invention on almost every page. In a steampunky alternate reality, genius inventor Prospero Taligent promises the 100 kids he's invited to his daughter Miranda's birthday party that they will have their “heart's desires fulfilled.” When young Harold Winslow says he wants to be a storyteller, he sets in motion an astonishing plot that will eventually find him imprisoned aboard a giant zeppelin, the Chrysalis, powered by Taligent's greatest invention, a (probably faulty) perpetual motion machine. As Harold tells his story from his airborne prison, a fantastic and fantastical account unfolds: cities full of Taligent's mechanical men, a virtual island where Harold and Miranda play as children, the Kafkaesque goings-on in the boiler rooms and galleries of Taligent's tower. Harold's narration is interspersed with dreams, diary entries, memos and monologues from the colorful supporting cast, and the dialogue, both overly formal and B-movie goofy (“I'm afraid the death rays are just a bunch of science fiction folderol”), offers comic counterpoint. This book will immediately connect with fans of Neal Stephenson and Alfred Bester, and will surely win over readers who'd ordinarily pass on anything remotely sci-fi. (Mar.)\
Library Journal
Palmer's debut drops elements from Shakespeare's The Tempest into a steampunk setting. The engines and mechanical men of inventor and industrialist Prospero Taligent have driven miracles from the world with the brute logic of technology. Young Harold Winslow's chance wandering at an amusement park brings him into Prospero's orbit. Invited to the birthday party of Taligent's beloved but objectified daughter Miranda, Harold begins a lifetime connection to a family plunging ever deeper into operatic madness. Palmer conjures unforgettable images—boys and girls carried to a skyscraper party by mechanical demons and angels, a "unicorn" created by pounding an ivory horn into the skull of a horse, for instance. VERDICT This clever, creative debut will appeal to readers who like literary and unusual fantasy. The emotional core of the story, metaphysical philosophy, visual splendor, and quirky humor are all strong, but, unfortunately, these elements aren't always blended gracefully. When Palmer learns to meld his strengths and avoid distracting asides, he'll be an exciting author indeed. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/09; library marketing.]—Neil Hollands, Williamsburg Regional. Lib., VA
Kirkus Reviews
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 expressedthrough 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.
From the Publisher
"This mind-bending alternate history is a veritable showcase for...Palmer's creativity and intellectual ambition." —Booklist

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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By Dexter Palmer

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Dexter Palmer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-312-55815-4

Chapter One

Hello? Hello.

Hello. My name is Harold Winslow. Yes. I need help.

Yes, I've used your services before.

Don't tell me everything's going to be fine. It's not. You can guess I know better than that.

I need help. This is one of my bad mornings. Some of the dreams I have are worse than others. This one isn't the worst, but it's bad enough for me to need your services.

I need to be taken to the Xeroville Greeting-card Works. I have to get to work.

No-no I still don't have insurance. I'll pay cash.

No-no I don't have a voice of my own.

But if you need a voice I can give one to you. It's the thing that I do best.

Chapter Two

Some of the dreams I have are worse than others, and though the one I had last night wasn't one of those especially vivid ones that keep me riveted to the bed and soaked in sweat for a half hour after I've woken from it, it was bad enough to warrant placing the call for a shrinkcab. It is there waiting for me by the time I hang up the phone, dress for work, and descend to the lobby of my apartment building-except for the light on its roof, white instead of the usual yellow, it is indistinguishable from the hundreds of other cabs that clog the city's downtown streets each rush hour. The drivers of shrinkcabs usually make a gesture toward dressing a bit better than the usual cabbie, and as I slide into the backseat, I see that this one is wearing a starched shirt with silver cuff links-unfortunately, the intended effect is spoiled by a sleeve sporting scattered stains of ketchup and scrambled egg, the remnants of a breakfast sandwich whose foil wrapper lies discarded in the passenger seat.

Without a word the shrinkcabbie starts the meter and pulls off. Then, unconscionably, he turns on the radio, as if he intends to listen to me with one ear and the news of the world with the other. This is not the grade of service I expect. Periodic static interrupts a parade of voices as he twiddles the dial.


"-after fifteen years of marriage you can see her disgust whenever she looks at you. You know her heart's a block of ice."


"-full fadom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made-"


"Hello out there! I just want you to know that I'm just like you, and, just like you, sometimes I have a little trouble holding things together."


"-but then you give her the greeting card. And she opens it, and she reads it, and the color comes back into her cheeks. And the smile spreads across her face that you haven't seen since both of you were young. And she bakes the casserole that you like. And she enters your bedroom and kneels before you.

"The Xeroville Greeting-card Works. When you need a reliable immediate intense targeted emotional response-"


"-those are pearls that were his eyes: nothing of him that doth fade-"


"-and I'm just like you. And between a seventy-hour workweek and a romance that's crumbling before my eyes, who can spare an hour to go to a therapist to get the help we all desperately need, every once in a while, to help us hold things together? To stave off the oncoming specter of insanity? Not me, I tell you! Not me. That's why, every once in a while, only when I need it, I pick up the phone and call a Shrinkcab. Shrinkcab's fleet of drivers are all rigorously trained in clinical psychiatry and licensed to dispense prescriptions, and will happily help you combine your necessary psychological therapy with your morning or evening commute for the maximum in twentieth-century convenience. Our cabs are handsomely upholstered in soothing colors and completely soundproofed for the ultimate in comfort. You just sit back, open up your head, and-"


"-our proprietary emotional-provocation technologies. Xeroville Greeting-card Works. The key to the human heart. The best in the business." -fffffsssssfffff-

"-sea nymphs hourly ring his knell. Hark: now I hear them. Dingdong bell."


"-relax. We'll help you hold things together."

I lean forward and tell him to turn off the radio in a tone meant to be peremptory, but the intended note of command in my voice has too much squeak and quiver. Nonetheless, after looking at me for a moment in his rearview mirror, he reluctantly shuts off the radio, leaving us in soundproof silence.

Then I begin.

Chapter Three

This is costing me a lot, isn't it. By the time we make it into downtown Xeroville I will have spent two days' pay in cab fare. So I guess I'd better start talking, and get my money's worth.

My name is Harold Winslow. I'm in the sentiment-development division of the Xeroville Greeting-card Works. Right now we're working on Christmas cards. That's right-even though it's the middle of July, we're working on the Christmas cards for next season. Time is always out of joint in the greeting-card works. Outside the works heat-shimmers rise from concrete; inside the works it's ice-cold, that special kind of ozone-flavored cold that machines make, and we've got Styrofoam snow strewn across the floors and red and green tinsel hanging from the walls. For inspiration. You'd be surprised: it's hard to summon the Christmas spirit in the middle of July. We hired a group of dwarves to dress up in elf outfits and run up and down the hallways, carrying lovingly handcrafted wooden toys and singing high-pitched, cloying songs of holiday cheer.

I've become disillusioned with my job: that's part of my problem, I think. I am a failed writer. I went to a university, hoping to become a successful writer, but I failed. Miranda, back then, tried to tell me that terrible things were in store for me, for all of us. But even though she was wise beyond her years, she was still young, and so was I, and all of our words were drowned out by the noise of our beating hearts, screaming at us that we were, after all, creatures of flesh and blood. So instead of taking our only chance of escape, we went back to her magic island when we had no business there. In a life full of failures, that was yet another.

I'm a failed writer with no voice of my own. What I do at the greeting-card works is this: I try to guess what kind of voice a voiceless person would choose if he could have any voice he wanted, and then I try to speak with that voice. I speak the words of love and affection that people would speak for themselves if they could. If they weren't paralyzed. If their lips didn't lock every time they even thought of expressing their own love for themselves. You have seen them, drifting up and down drugstore aisles like ghosts, their hands shaking, their teeth grinding, their jaws locked as they try to find the words that say the thing they mean to say. They are blind and dumb. I don't know what they'd do if they were confronted with greeting cards that were blank on the inside. Paralyzed. Blind and dumb.

My special talent is greeting cards that are designed to be given by boys between the ages of nine and sixteen, when they are too old for naïve sentiments that tumble clumsily off the tongue, and too young for cookie-cutter blank verses about love that perseveres through ravaging Time. My masterpiece is a greeting card I wrote for the Father's Day season three years ago, a large two-dollar affair that opened out into three panels, illuminated on both sides in brilliant pastels. As far as greeting cards go, it was an epic. The text was in iambic pentameter. The son, the implied speaker and the person presenting the card, details a fantasy in which his father is a monster, and the son is a smaller version of his father, a monster as well. And the father and son do monstrous things together, like throwing around automobiles and knocking down buildings and breathing fire and biting the heads off innocent bystanders. Then on the climactic final panel, the son thanks his father for being a "monster of a dad!" and for making him a "monster of a son!" It was a big seller. It went into several printings.

I know what little boys like. Little boys like monsters.

I have a recurring dream that goes something like this. I am lying naked on my back in the midst of an endless field of poppies, staring up at a blue sky. It is dead quiet, the way it is never quiet in the world anymore, now that machines are everywhere. Even when you think a room is quiet, there's always some damned machine in it, making some kind of noise: plumbing; an air conditioner; a fluorescent lamp. But in this endless field of poppies it's dead quiet, as it must have been when the world was still young.

Then the virgin queen comes. I can tell she's coming because, although I still have my gaze fixed on the sky, I have also shifted it to look at the queen as she leisurely walks across the poppy field with their retinue trailing behind her, in that way in dreams that you can look at two things at once and see them both with crystal clarity. The queen is wearing a crystal crown that glitters in the sunlight, and an intricately embroidered dress shot through with threads of gold and silver. She is accompanied by several small boys. Some are naked; some are clothed. Some are dressed like girls, with long dresses and two pigtails tied with red ribbons. Some have human torsos, but haunches and horns and hooves, like creatures out of myths.

Then the queen stops walking and sits in the midst of the poppies and crosses her legs and smiles and laughs, and the boys assemble in front of her and begin to enact some complex kind of dance, taking slow steps, moving in interlaced circles, swaying their bodies to a rhythm that only they can hear. Then the queen turns to look at me, and it's just before I see her face that I wake up.

Waking up from the dream is the worst part. It always takes a few seconds. It's like ... suppose you were underwater and naked and running out of air, deep down where all the light's gone, and you have to come up for air. And you spend every last precious ounce of your life's energy in the effort to rise to the surface and take that badly needed breath, and just as your head breaks from the water you remember, too late, to your horror, that you are a fish.

Why don't you just let me off here. I'll walk the rest of the way.

Chapter Four

In the morning, when the sun is rising, the building that houses the Xeroville Greeting-card Works is eclipsed by the long, yawning shadow of the Taligent Tower. The Tower is the uncontested dominant piece of architecture in the city, the defining element of its skyline, and it is owned by Prospero Taligent, reclusive genius, the richest person in the known world, the inventor of the mechanical man.

Prospero Taligent's tale is one of the last real entrepreneurial legends of the twentieth century. Not many people that anyone knows have actually been inside the Tower, a forbidding monolithic place with obsidian walls rising straight up to the sky, but it is said that Prospero endlessly walks the darkened corridors inside, that he never sleeps, that he has knowledge and talents that border on wizardry, and that miracles are commonplace within the Tower's walls. That there are manufacturing devices with tolerances so small that they can be used to make gears and pulleys and cranks that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. That Prospero's mechanical servants are so intricately and ingeniously constructed that they can play chess competently with masters of the game. That, at this moment, on the top floor of the Tower, a team of engineers and mechanical men under Prospero's direction are at work on the largest zeppelin ever made, a fantastic flying craft that will have a motor the size of a child's fist, and that this motor will be powered by the world's first and only perpetual motion machine.

And, of course, everyone knows about Prospero and his beautiful daughter, Miranda. How one of Prospero's servants found the toddler crawling about naked and grime-covered in a street in the red-light district and, moved to tears, brought her back to sanctuary in the Tower to sue for Prospero's help. How the never-married, childless Prospero fell in love with the girl on sight, used his considerable legal muscle to rescue her from her biological father, an abusive alcoholic semipsychotic schizophrenic gruel salesman, and adopted her to raise just as surely as if she were his own flesh and blood. How Miranda's playroom takes up an entire floor of the Tower, and that it contains creatures for her playmates of all kinds, both human and animal, both living and automatic, including, as the playroom's centerpiece, a breathing, warm, real, magnificent white unicorn.

I could confirm some of these myths if someone asked me to. When I was a child, I saw that unicorn and rode on its back. But now I am no longer a child, and that unicorn is dead and rotted away.

Chapter Five

Ophelia Flavin was six and a half feet tall, and beautiful. "For the first time in years," she said, "I feel young."

Ophelia and Marion Giddings and I were sitting in the writers' lounge of the greeting-card works. Outside, in the city, it was stifling hot, the immense mirrors of skyscraper walls beaming down the sun's scorching rays on asphalt streets. Inside the greeting-card works Christmas morning hung suspended in glass.

Marlon slouched in a corner next to a watercooler, wearing a poorly tailored brown suit, the top button of his shirt undone, the knot of his faded tie loosened, lighting a new cigarette off the tip of the one he'd just smoked down to the butt. "I'm gonna suck some neck tonight, Harry," he said, "you mark my words. I will be sucking neck before dawn tomorrow."

Sugary Christmas music dripped from tinny overhead speakers. Reclining in her chair, Ophelia reached up with a long arm and absently plucked a long, glittering strand of red tinsel from the festooned Christmas tree behind her, pulling it down and winding it around her neck as if it were a feather boa. Ophelia's specialty was birthdays, especially the arbitrary lines that we've invented to separate youth from old age: thirty, forty, fifty, sixty. Jibes about the loss of eyesight; mean-spirited jokes about gravity's hands clawing at the bodies of once-beautiful women, stretching them like putty, twisting them out of shape, painting stomachs with marbled scars. "I feel young again, for the first time in years," she said sleepily. "This morning I had a dream of what it must have been like before the machines. There was a song that you sang when you were young. But only under specific circumstances. The rules were these: if you spotted a male and female alone in each other's company, frequently and willingly, you were to sing the song, immediately, without hesitation. I cannot exactly remember the lyrics, but the song itself was part accusation, part admonishment, part threat. It began with an insinuation, that the youths had been indulging in certain moderately erotic physical contacts in the false security of arboreal camouflage-"

"I want you to smell my neck," Marlon Giddings said to me. I was lying on a couch, staring at the ceiling with my gaze unfocused, trying not to think about the machine noises: the refrigeration unit in the watercooler; the hum of the air-conditioning units behind the walls that were doing their damnedest to simulate winter in the dog days of July; the hissing white noise submerged beneath the high strings and horns of Christmas music. "Smell my neck!" Marlon said. Suddenly I found that he was huddling over me as if he were about to embrace me, and the tip of my nose was pressed against the underside of his chin. I blinked.

"Do you smell that?" Marion said, standing up and taking a drag off his cigarette with a flourish of his hand. "That, my friend, is Love. That is why I'll be sucking neck tonight. A woman said I looked loveless, and she gave me Love in a bottle.

"This is what happened," Marlon said. "Listen. I was walking through a department store, and this woman behind a perfume counter, with too much makeup and the plumage of a peacock ready to mate, pointed her finger at me and said, 'You look loveless.' I spend a lot of time in department stores because they're good places to meet women. Women are very open to suggestion when they're shopping. Their defenses are down. I have a collection of name tags that I stole off the shirts of different workers in department stores. How I steal them is: I just walk up to a clerk all confused- looking like I need help finding something and the guy says, 'Can I help you?' and then I say, 'I'll take that!" and I rip the tag right off his shirt be- fore he can even blink. And he just looks at me thinking, what the hell, that guy just stole my name tag and now he's running away, what would he want with that, my shirt is ruined, that was a remarkably irrational act, and I am troubled. Meanwhile I'm ollie ollie oxen free.


Excerpted from THE DREAM OF PERPECTUAL MOTION by Dexter Palmer Copyright © 2010 by Dexter Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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