It’s been a long time since I wrote a book review on here, and this won’t really be that either. It’ll be more similar to what I wrote about Patrick Rothfuss a few months ago.
Which is to say, it’ll be more about my experience as a person and a reader, and less like a formal book review, which I guess I don’t even really do on goodreads, where I’ve begun reviewing just about everything I read, even if only dropping in a few sentences.
I discovered Dexter Palmer accidentally. His novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion was one of the first novels I bought and subsequently read on my kindle.
See, I bought my kindle way back in 2010, after I graduated college. I bought it because I was about to move to South Korea and knew I wouldn’t have easy access to physical books, so I took the dive into the ebook world and I still spend a lot of my reading there.
Anyway, I came across The Dream of Perpetual Motion somehow. I don’t even remember how, but what I remember is loving that title and its cover. Maybe more than anything else, those two things caused me to hit the buy button and wait for it to download.
Of course, that’s not when I read it.
What kind of maniac reads books the moment they buy them!
No, it wasn’t until I was on the first of what would be three plane trips that took me to Seoul, where I’d then take the bus to Gwangju. But I started reading this and I fell in love.
When I was growing up, I loved science fiction and fantasy. I fell in love with worlds and words but somewhere in my teenage years I became convinced that they were not proper Literature.
A foolish and ugly notion–I know. But so I spent a solid ten years not reading any science fiction and fantasy. It’s only in the last five years that I’ve really come back to it, and only last year where my reading was primarily speculative instead of literary. This is one of the novels [along with China Mieville] that brought me back.
I honestly don’t remember the novel very well anymore–such is time! But my thoughts on the novel, written months after I read it, are a bit instructive.
The thing is, I remember enjoying it and I remember feeling those things I wrote about in that review, but I didn’t really love it. It’s complicated, I guess, but I thought it was a fun, inventive, and clever novel, but it didn’t crawl deep inside me.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
The truth has become that it’s one of the novels I think about pretty often, even still, five years later. It’s grown in my estimation since then and I really want to give it another read, but I almost never reread books–who can say why–but after reading Version Control, I may just go back to it.
To be honest, I wasn’t super excited about this new book. I mean, I was, but what usually happens to me is that I get a book when it comes out and then don’t read it for months. This is probably one of the most persistent of my reading habits, unfortunately. So it’s very unusual for me to read books as they come out. Usually I’m a year or five behind, even if I preordered something.
For example, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which I preordered way back in 2010. I still haven’t read even a word of it!
No real reason, either, especially considering how strange it is that I’ve read his newer novel already.
The other thing was that I go into novels knowing almost nothing about them. I don’t read excerpts or reviews or anything like that, except by way of gauging whether or not people seem to think it’s good or bad. I’m not really interested in what a book is about until I read it.
Sure, I often have a good idea. For example, when I picked up Game of Thrones I had a lot of assumptions about the book already–most of them proven incorrect–purely because of its genre.
But I knew this novel was a time travel novel, and though I grew up loving science fiction, time travel has never been something that really interests me. Even in Chrono Trigger, a game I love, the time travel wasn’t a selling point for me.
And still, I don’t much care for time travel in fiction or film, though Primer is devastatingly brilliant and La Jetee is so gorgeous I can barely breathe and Doctor Who is whimsically funny and terrible and worth watching. But, for the most part, I’m happy to skip over anything time travel related.
But the copy was available at the library so I picked it up.
And I started reading.
I’ve had a weird year of reading thus far. Most of what I’ve come across has been disappointing, to a certain degree. I haven’t really come across something yet that felt essential to my life or that changed the way I felt about the world. Or, I should amend that–though I won’t–because The Traitor Baru Cormorant might be one of the best novels I’ve recently read, barring this one, of course.
But most of what I’ve read this year has been somewhere between disappointing and just okay.
A lot of it has felt very thin, I guess. Very–I don’t know–shoddy? Books with high praise but little I found worth loving. Some of them have been extremely interesting or subversive or whathaveyou, but none of them have been what I really needed. Especially since last year was such a great year for me as a reader. It seemed like nearly everything I read was my favorite book!
So maybe I’m being unfair to the books I’ve read this year, especially since some of them have been quite good, but the point I’m coming to is that none of them were this.
None of them were Version Control. The book I needed but didn’t know. The book that would breathe into me in ways I haven’t felt in over a decade.
I was thinking about this, in the hour it’s been since I read those final words, tears on my cheeks, and now. How the closest I’ve ever felt to the way I felt after finishing this was when I discovered Steve Erickson, a writer who changed my life.
But more than him, even–giant that he is to me–I’m brought way farther back, to when I was sixteen and reading Crime and Punishment over and over. I read it the first time in three days when we had two months to read it. Immediately after finishing it, just crying my eyes out, I went back to page one and read it again.
I wept into that book. Nearly every page is underlined [which wasn’t useful, as a student, but maybe demonstrates how much this book meant to me] because every sentence, every word was precious to me. I was tattooing it on my heart. I was dying over those pages. Losing my mind.
That book broke me. It broke me to pieces. I was no longer the same person I was before I came across Dostoevsky’s words. He fundamentally transformed who I was and the way I saw the world. I’ve written thousands of words about him and read everything he’s written twice, and I’ve avoided him since I was eighteen.
I’m afraid of him.
Afraid to read him again, not so much because I fear he’ll be reduced by revisiting his work, but because I can’t bear to lose myself.
His books taught me to love myself, maybe for the first time.
They broke me apart and gradually rebuilt me. And I like who they made me.
If I read them again, and I fall again to pieces, who will I be once I close the book for the last time?
It scares me, even now, just sitting here.
Version Control wasn’t as dramatic as all that for me, no. But it hit me in ways that are very much familiar.Ways that I haven’t been hit in a long time.
Steve Erickson hit me in mostly emotional, existential, and aesthetic ways. I tore through his books twice and wept in a number of them, and he showed me how to live, how to write, how to love.
But Dostoevsky gave birth to me.
And reading Version Control–it’s similar to that.
It hit me in every way possible.
Intellectually, this is one of the most interesting novels I think I’ve read since Dostoevsky. Where Dostoevsky is all philosophy and existence, Palmer is more scientific. The intellectual capacity of this book is more cerebral than emotional–for me, Dostoevsky will always be understood emotionally as well as philosophically, and I think those are extremely linked in his work. I came across ideas in Version Control that were invigorating but also ones that were familiar.
Familiar in ways I’ve rarely shared.
The way he writes about social media, information, science, relationships–and he hits these on several registers–are all things that feel so much like reflections of how I’ve felt for years, living through this age of screens and avatars.
But more than that, he’s delving into the nature of reality, into the nature of the self and the other, into personal and cultural history.
This book was also genuinely funny at times. I laughed out loud through various scenes. So much so that my wife thought I was distracted by something else unrelated to the book! She asked me, from the other room, if I was on imgur because of how much I was laughing!
The characters are so fresh and alive. They feel lived in and real and familiar.
I feel like I could pick Philip or Rebecca or Carson or Kate or even Cheever and Sean out of a crowd if I had to. They feel so real to me, so obviously true.
And this goes down into the worldbuilding.
The novel takes place in the 2020s, and it’s all so well thought out, so reasoned, but no time is really spent creating it. There are all hints as background and implication. Palmer doesn’t need to write a chapter about how the world has changed. He shows you through the simple ways that characters react and interact with each other and the world around them.
It feels so solid.
This is, perhaps, what many of the books I’ve been reading have been missing–a solidness.
Palmer also lays out a world that is very much what I fear and expect the world to become.
You could label it a dystopia, but even in its harrowing implications, the book never deals with it in that way, because its characters don’t view it that way. Characters who are, for all intents and purposes, my generation. People who were in college during the financial collapse and spit out into a world of drones, social media, debt, and no jobs available.
He captures our loneliness, our ineffable sorrow for the things we can’t even name or describe. This wrongness we feel–or maybe just I feel–with the world. Like something happened somewhere, sometime to make the world slightly askew.
He delves into morality in interesting ways. The way we deal with the moral implications of the potential dystopia we consistently agree to and give into and let define us. The morality of relationship and our choices.
It really is an existential novel, with choice standing at its center, which is maybe why I keep thinking of Dostoevsky now that I’ve finished the book.
It’s not as heavy as him, because Palmer is still having fun. You can feel it.
He captures our awkwardness, our drunken shenanigans, our inability to do what’s right even when we know what it is, even when we truly want to.
He captures the distances between people and the times those distances evaporate until we’re almost one.
What I’m trying to say is that he does a little bit of everything and he does it brilliantly.
But what surprised me were my tears.
In this novel, I found pieces of myself laid bare.
I don’t often look for myself in art. I do often find myself there.
It’s an odd sensation, when you read something that sounds like your own brain, when you experience something that feels like your own life, that reverberates through your bones, that beats with the blood pumped by your own heart.
That’s what I discovered here. Even the cadence of my thoughts. Even the murmur or my own heart.
It was more of a recognition, at first. Seeing myself so clearly in a text that isn’t really about me.
It may be about my generation, but it’s not about me.
But then there I was, standing at its center, naked and alone and afraid but smiling, eventually laughing.
And ultimately crying.
It took me by surprise.
The emotions run deep in this novel. It’s easy to get lost in how interesting everything is, how clever the novel is, how real these characters are, how solid and true it all feels. Because of how well all these elements work, you don’t realise that you’ve already signed over your heart to these people, to Palmer.
He holds it and he knows how to squeeze it at just the right moments.
Even still, I didn’t think I’d cry. And I cried twice. In the space of about three paragraphs. On the last two pages of the book.
What’s maybe most amazing about this book is that it does a wide variety of things that would seem digressive or separate in most novels.
His exploration of race, for example, is breathtaking, and is also so tied into his explorations of science, society, relationships, capitalism, government, and emotional resonance that nothing feels out of place.
Every element works together, synergistically.
Dexter Palmer’s PhD is on the work of postmodernists like Pynchon, Gass, and Gaddis, but what he manages to do is never digress the way they do. They digress endlessly and you come to realise, maybe, that those digressions are part of the whole. But Palmer’s explorations into various facets of life never feel digressive. They feel like wholeness.
I’m endlessly impressed and in love with this novel.
I can’t imagine finding another book this year that’ll match it, but I am hopeful. But, yeah, this is already holding my vote for best book of 2016, early as we are into this year.
I hope you give it a chance and I hope you love it.
Dexter Palmer really does something gorgeous here. Something unforgettable.