Stephen Jarvis's Death and Mr. Pickwick is not quite like any other novel I've ever read. I'll explain why in a moment.
First, I need to tell you something about the characters and plot. The novel gives a fictionalized account of the life of Robert Seymour, the first illustrator of The Pickwick Papers. Written in a rambling and episodic style, like Pickwick itself, Jarvis's book thoroughly examines not just Seymour's life, but also the myriad of influences on his life and work -- the world he grew up in, the artists whose work he saw and the writers whose work inspired his own art, his employers and relatives and friends. In particularly minute detail, he recounts everything in Seymour's life and work (for instance, a habit of drawing plump men, an interest in fishing, a meeting with a particularly gullible person) that might have any relation to anything in Pickwick.
There's a reason for this. Jarvis is trying to make the case that Pickwick really belongs to Seymour and not to Dickens. He gives us long passages with Seymour imagining the story and carefully plotting each detail of his pictures for it -- the fact that an author will be needed to provide words to go with the illustrations is almost an afterthought. And once that author is found -- 24-year-old Charles Dickens, fresh off the success of Sketches by Boz -- he will spoil everything for Seymour.
The story is framed by the investigations of a modern-day scholar and his assistant. The scholar, for reasons best known to himself, has nicknamed the two of them after typos in the first edition of Pickwick -- thus, he is "Mr. Inbelicate" and his assistant, who also narrates the book, is "Inscriptino," or "Scripty" for short. Mr. Inbelicate has hired Scripty to write a book based on his ideas, and -- ostensibly -- to serve as a devil's advocate who will challenge any weak places he finds in the narrative. In reality, he seems to want him as a "yes man" whose challenges can easily be run roughshod over and who can then be made to agree with everything he says.
Mr. Inbelicate is an expert on all things Pickwick, and he is consumed by the quest to give Seymour the credit that he is certain Seymour deserves, and to discredit Dickens in the process. Dickens's account, along with his publishers' account, of how Pickwick originated has been much disputed, and Mr. Inbelicate is convinced that they were all flat-out lying.
This brings me back to my opening statement, about the difference between Death and Mr. Pickwick and other novels that I've read. Most novels of this length are driven by some sort of passion -- a passion for justice, for truth, for love, or for some other principle or sentiment. They almost have to be, for the author to sustain them for so long. But I believe Death and Mr. Pickwick is the only lengthy novel I've ever read that is driven largely by hate.
I don't use that word lightly, as people do these days when they use "hate" to mean a lack of interest in a certain pop star, or a lack of support for a certain politician, or even a literary work they didn't enjoy reading in high school. I'm talking about real hate. This, I believe, is what Stephen Jarvis has come to feel for Charles Dickens while tracing the history of The Pickwick Papers. It leaks through in details large and small.
There's the way that Dickens turns completely, insufferably obnoxious for no reason while meeting with Seymour. (We have no way of knowing what they actually said to each other when they met, so Jarvis was free to invent as much as he liked.) There's the way Mr. Inbelicate disbelieves every single word that Dickens ever said about anything, however inconsequential: He doesn't believe that Dickens reacted to the sale of his first story the way he says he did, he doesn't believe Dickens's brother got his nickname in the way Dickens says he did, and so on. There's the way Mr. Inbelicate turns sullen and exasperated when forced to talk about Dickens's painful time in the blacking warehouse, complaining that the story "is almost too well known" -- as if Dickens had gone around telling everybody about it, when in fact the opposite was true. And there's much more in the same vein.
Is it fair to conflate Mr. Inbelicate's feelings about Dickens with Jarvis's own? There are reviewers who think that they clearly have two separate points of view -- that, in fact, identify Scripty as Jarvis's counterpart in the novel. They may be right, but I'm not so sure. Jarvis certainly treats Mr. Inbelicate as an authority whose word is to be respected and trusted at all times, and that seems like a pretty sure sign that he endorses his viewpoint.
Of course, it's Jarvis's right to hate Dickens if he wants. The problem is that his hatred throws his whole book off balance. Here and there we see a thread of argument that looks credible and convincing, but then it's lost in masses of speculation and recrimination, which is sometimes carried to an almost ludicrous extent. (The novel format is a particular problem here, as it enables Jarvis to mix up fact and fiction willy-nilly.) His Mr. Inbelicate combines the obsessiveness of Howard Hughes and the vengefulness of Tony Soprano to come up with conspiracy theories that would make Oliver Stone take a step back.
Add to this the way that every pro-Seymour, anti-Dickens character in the book is placed on equal footing, as a reliable and trustworthy source. I thought more than once while reading the book that Jarvis might have come up with something really brilliant -- something almost worthy of Poe or Dostoevsky, perhaps -- simply by using some of these characters as unreliable narrators, or people with an agenda, or case studies in obsession or bitterness or envy or self-absorption. It would have added all kinds of interesting shades and dimensions to the work. Instead, he treats them all as a biased journalist might treat a group of sources that he wants very badly to believe, regardless of their credibility.
Jarvis spent 14 years researching Robert Seymour, and the research paid off in a wealth of fascinating historical, literary, and artistic detail. And yet the character as presented in the book seems rather colorless, with few defining characteristics beyond his artistic abilities. Ironically, the man who set out to find justice for Seymour doesn't do Seymour justice in this portrayal. And when Seymour passionately tells Dickens that pictures are more important than words, it almost seems like a joke, considering that he says it in a book made up of 802 pages of words. The use of Dickens's mode of work to prove Seymour right and Dickens wrong about the importance of that kind of work, pretty effectively undermines the author's effort.
There are those who have actually called this work "Dickensian" based on things like its abundance of pages and characters; for instance, Alex Lemon in The Dallas Morning News called it "a Dickensian takedown of Dickens." But in the final analysis, Jarvis is more like the anti-Dickens -- not just because of this apparent hatred for him, but because he writes with such drastically different motives. Dickens, for all his faults (and he had plenty), was driven by a very different kind of passion: a passion to create something good, truthful, world-changing, and ultimately life-affirming.
As its title hints, there is not much that is life-affirming in Death and Mr. Pickwick. Though the obsession with The Pickwick Papers permeates the book, affecting countless lives, it does most of the characters no good -- almost every life it touches (the artists who worked on it, the writer who turned down the chance to work on it, the man who gave his name to the main character, and more) seems to wither as if it had brushed up against something poisonous. It certainly is an odd way to treat the legacy of a novel that means as much to Jarvis as The Pickwick Papers does. Here again is a missed opportunity -- if he wanted to focus on lives ruined in the aftermath of Pickwick's success, he could have played the situation for irony, but as far as I can tell, he doesn't seem to see this, and just plays it straight.
Like his character Mr. Inbelicate, Jarvis is caught in a peculiar sort of bind: loving Pickwick while hating Dickens. Perhaps the greater irony of the situation blinded him to lesser ironies.
Now, having said all that, let me say this: Am I, as a fan of Dickens, a biased reviewer? I admit that I am. I went into this very much aware of my own bias, and determined to treat Jarvis's attack on Dickens as fairly as I possibly could. But ultimately, it's not the attack on Dickens that dooms Death and Mr. Pickwick in my view; it's that the attack is carried out so ineptly. I could have respected a book that attacked Dickens if it made its case carefully, objectively, and thoroughly, and as a talented researcher and writer, Stephen Jarvis most likely could have written such a book. But Death and Mr. Pickwick is not that book.
(Review copy obtained from Amazon.)