Confidential to Mr. Wilkie Collins: Oh, yeah? Well, same to you, bucko.
Kidding. There's no denying that Collins finishes his book on a decidedly sour note, mad at Dickens, Drood, his readers, and life in general. But then, he's had a pretty bad time of it -- bad enough to put almost anyone in a foul mood. And not all of it was self-inflicted.
It's been a long, tough journey . . . and not just for Collins. There are good things in Drood, but there are also problems. Some reviewers have suggested that Dan Simmons was trying to ape the format of the Victorian novel, but if that's true, it didn't entirely work. With this particular story and setting, the book would have benefited from a tighter structure and plot and a quicker pace. Above all, it would have benefited from being shorter. I have nothing against long novels per se (I am, after all, a Dickens fan!), but in this book, the length worked against the story.
With its mysterious and gruesome title character, Drood in fact reminds me of nothing so much as Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera, and that, I think, is the model Simmons should have tried to follow. Leroux may not be considered an A-list writer, but he managed to keep his focus and to build an otherworldly atmosphere, and, in short, make you feel the horror of being haunted. With his sprawling 771-page novel, Simmons can't quite manage to do this. His book tries to do too much and be too much, and so it does only a little bit of everything. I appreciate the scope of Simmons's ambition, but he should have made this a fictionalized autobiography of Collins or a tale of the Dickens/Collins rivalry or a story of ghosts, drugs, and madness, not all of them at once.
As it is, Simmons throws great ideas at us, and then they trail off into nothing. Dickens may have found a phantom living underneath London, who may be good or evil . . . and then that doesn't really go anywhere, at least not for a while. Much later, Collins is attacked and possibly becomes mind-controlled by Drood . . . and then that doesn't really go anywhere. Dickens is learning new mesmerism techniques from Drood and wants to do a reading tour unlike anything that's ever been done before, and could it be for some nefarious purpose? Maybe . . . but that doesn't really go anywhere either. I mean, we see the reading tour and how exciting and brilliant Dickens's performances are, and how deeply they impact the audience, but there's no real mind-controlling of the audiences going on, despite what looks like a buildup to that idea. Much later, Collins speculates that Dickens is drawing energy from his audience like a vampire . . . but that -- well, you know the rest. We get all these intriguing suggestions, but they just peter out, lost in more of Collins's reflections on his love life and his drug habit and what not. When those ideas do come back, it's mostly in fits and starts. If Simmons could have hung on to those ideas and woven them into the story more, instead of constantly dropping them and picking up new ones, now that would have been a truly haunting story.
However, the climactic explanation behind the crazy goings-on is very good. Simmons has done a really admirable job of foreshadowing it, throwing in crucial hints without making them too obvious, and things aren't tied up too neatly, so we're still left wondering about various elements. And he manages to create sympathy for even his unpleasant narrator -- and to show how, sometimes, even the kindest person can be cruel without meaning to be.
And what of Dickens -- the reason most of us are reading the book in the first place? (Yes, Wilkie, I'm sorry, but that's the way it is.) Even through Collins's crabbed and spiteful descriptions, we get flashes of his friend/enemy's real personality, especially the maniacal energy and the almost childlike sense of mischief and of wonder. And, of course, the thing that really torments Collins: the genius.
There's a striking passage very near the end, in which Collins is desperately paging through Bleak House, trying to prove to himself and his readers that he really is a better writer than Dickens.
I came upon the following passage. . . .
Like Homer in the Iliad, Dickens briefly catalogues the ships becoming visible, including a great and noble Indiaman just back from India. And the author sees this -- and makes us see this -- just "when the sun shone through the clouds, making silvery pools in the dark sea."
Silvery pools in the dark sea.
Pools in the sea.
. . . I have seen the sunlight on the sea thousands of times and have described it in my books and stories scores of times -- perhaps hundreds of times. I have used words such as "azure" and "blue" and "sparkling" and "dancing" and "grey" and "white-topped" and "ominous" and "threatening" and even "ultramarine."
And I had seen that phenomenon of the sun "making silvery pools in the dark sea" scores or hundreds of times but had never thought to record it in my fiction, with or without that swift and certain and slightly blurred sound of the sibilants Dickens had chosen for its description.
Then, without pausing even for a breath (and possibly not even to dip his pen), Dickens had gone on having the fog in the harbour lift over Esther's shoulder by writing, "these ships brightened, and shadowed, and changed . . . ," and I knew in that instant, with my agitated, scarab-driven eyes merely passing over these few words in these short sentences, that I would never -- not ever, should I live to be a hundred years of age and retain my faculties until the last moment of that life and career -- that I would never be able to think and write like that.
Ah, Wilkie, don't be hard on yourself. Not many could.