Dan Simmons’ Drood; or, On Originality
Drood has been on my reading list for quite some time now, and after Corey’s review a few weeks ago, I was even more motivated. As you’ve probably surmised, I am an absolute Charles Dickens nut, and the idea of a book that had Dickens and Wilkie Collins hunting down an evil Egyptian crime lord was absolutely fascinating to me.
As I began reading, however, I came to realize that the plot mentioned above is almost beside the point. Really this novel is a vehicle in which author Dan Simmons combines Dickens’ biographical information, myths and rumors surrounding the works of both Dickens and Collins, characteristics of 19th century literature in general, and even contemporary fantasy.
To start, Simmons lifts entire characters and much of his early plot from Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Durdles becomes Dradles, Datchery becomes Hatchery, and John Jasper’s name and personality are split between the sinister Drood and Drood’s father. Nothing is sacred when it comes to Simmons’ pilfering from Dickens’ last (and potentially greatest) novel — not even Dickens’ “Puffer Princess,” arguably the best minor character in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
When Simmons is not borrowing from master plot-smith Dickens, he uses biography. I’m not sure how much of the biographical information is real and how much is modified, but in my opinion, many superfluous details could have been cut in order to make this book a little bit more manageable. (That being said, I loved the bit about the asthmatic sheep, an anecdote I’m certain is true.)
Even the major plot twist is not terribly surprising to readers who have already encountered The Moonstone or The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “Other Wilkie” provides a clue to Drood’s identity — though in a particularly modern turn of events, this identity is never made explicit. Collins remains an unreliable narrator to the end, which might frustrate fans of 19th century literature used to all-ends-tied conclusions.
Say, however, that you are not a fan of 19th century literature. Say you are normally a reader of modern steampunk fantasy, and you picked this book up at an airport because you had a long flight ahead of you. Would you still notice that Simmons has filched key characters and plot devices?
Maybe not. You might notice that some of the settings, particularly the city in the sewers, seem strangely reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s London Below (Neverwhere) or some parts of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. The nod to Mieville is further underscored with Collins’ visit to “the nest,” which calls to mind the roosting place of Mieville’s slake-moths, and a reference to Khepri, the scarab-headed Egyptian god who lends his name to a race of scarab-headed women in Mieville’s Bas-Lag.
Simmons has a reputation for genre-crossing, so he may be deliberately engaging with these works. Bridging the gap between modern steampunk-esque fantasy and traditional historical fiction is possible, but not necessarily something one sees often. If this is deliberate on Simmons’ part, it’s very clever — and if it wasn’t deliberate, he should claim it was.
At first, all of this borrowing had me accusing Simmons of cheating. I mentally compared him with the “writer” of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, railing to myself about how writers “ain’t what they used to be” and anyone who needs to steal large chunks of his novel from other works can only be called derivative.
But maybe originality isn’t precisely the point. No one else has written a novel that is simultaneously so ambitiously intertextual, epic and historical. And like it or not, originality’s stock is falling — the sheer number of recent cinematic remakes should be proof enough of that, especially when one also considers that Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga is partially inspired by Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet.
So, basically Simmons is the epitome of what modern literature and modern readers demand — something old made new again. Is it my cup of tea? Not really. But even Dickens borrowed sometimes, and overall, I think Simmons has done exactly what he set out to do.
(As a postscript, apparently Simmons wrote a book set in Buffalo. This makes me love him a little more — setting aside the fact that there are no mountains in Buffalo, let alone mountains “populated only by corpses.”)