PJG, March 30, 2009
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(2.5 Stars) While preparing a review for this book, I was reminded of the familiar observation that dogs and their masters often resemble each other.
This observation can be applied just as well when comparing Drood to its Narrator.
Although the title suggests differently, Drood is not so much a tale of Charles Dickens or the enigmatic Drood (who makes an excellent first appearance in the early pages); instead it is a story of complete and utter excess - all kinds of excess. In fact, an excess of excess. It seems that all of the Seven Deadly Sins have more than ample representation in this one single volume. I cannot think of one primary character in the book whose excesses are not explored and I find it to be the one theme that binds this overlong story together.
While the excesses of both Dickens and Drood (and all the other characters) have their places in the story, its primary focus is upon the Narrator, Wilkie Collins, whose gradual descent into madness, moral decay and complete degradation, is described in unrelenting and, yes, excessive detail. His voice as Narrator is at first quite interesting as he plays Watkins to Charles Dickens' Sherlock. As we come to know Collins, we appreciate his literary mind, powers of observation and skills in recounting events; and we are happy to follow the story through his eyes - at least at first.
But his is a mind embedded in a quivering mound of weak flesh born of unhealthy appetites. Collins' terrible gout (which he fully recognizes as a byproduct of his unhealthy lifestyle and lack of discipline) can only be assuaged by copious amounts of laudanum; a drug that gives him more than a helping hand in his mental deterioration, which, like everything else in Drood, is depicted in rather excruciating (and tedious) detail. Indeed, excess defines Collins' existence...his enormous appetite for food, wine and drugs finds its match in his so-called "love life"; for Collins is not satisfied with just one mistress - oh no - he has two. And his laudanum consumption? Well, it seems to be a source of real pride to him that he consumes in one dose an amount that would be fatal to anyone else. However, the capstone of his excess lies in his intense envy of his friend, Charles Dickens, which proves to be the straw that breaks Collins' back and precipitates the tortured avenues he embarks upon.
The entire novel becomes an accounting of Collins' slide down his own slippery slope, a slope that he almost throws himself into, madly and chillingly embracing each step of degradation from one to the next. Anyone who wants a grinding, unrelenting accounting of the quote "a mind is a terrible thing to waste" will find more than enough grist for that mill in this book.
Getting back to the dog and master observation, the book itself is the mirror image of its Narrator. It is impossible to tell which is the dog and which is the master because they are snarled up in each other, both getting in the way of the other. The book itself suffers from a severe case of gout and excess; its numerous pages filled with the bloat of too many details, meandering plot threads, unnecessary elaborations, tedious sidebars and so on...and on...and on.
Now, I love Dan Simmons' writing and his books and I also love very long books in which I can immerse myself, but a book has to have momentum - and this book, sadly, does not. By the time you get to the "twist", you really don't care anymore. What you really want is for the book to come to an end so that you don't have to spend any more time with any of these characters. Instead of intriguing you, they have bored you and you are ready to pull the (book)covers over them.
Oh, and Drood? The character upon which the book is supposed to be based? He does make a few appearances, but, other than his initial appearance after the train crash (which is a perfect example of the fine and compelling writing skills Simmons possesses), alas, he is gradually crushed into pale nothingness under the sheer weight of the story and characters wrapped around him. It is ironic that the title character is the weakest and least interesting member of the cast. Yes, Drood is supposed to be elusive and enigmatic and his very existence is supposed to be always in question and doubt; however, even an idea or a belief can be perceived and portrayed as just as "real" as reality itself. Unfortunately, Drood fails to become either. He isn't even real enough to attain apparition status. Indeed, as you read Drood, you will find yourself forgetting the title character completely, and for me, this is the biggest failure of the book
What is so unfortunate is that there is an excellent story buried in all this muck and gout. A talented editor, by shaving off a good 300-350 pages, could have produced an intriguing book full of Victorian atmosphere combined with a tight storyline and an intense momentum, all of which would have swept the reader along right through to the end, at which time the reader would have released a great sigh of satisfaction.
Reading Drood is like over-indulging in a meal composed of the finest dishes and accompanied by the finest wines; instead of feeling fulfilled and satiated, one feels as if some Alka-Seltzer and a long nap are required in order to sleep off the inevitable soporific aftereffects.
For me, this book rates 2.5 Stars. Had it been put on the diet it so sorely needed, it would have rated 4 Stars.