The historian William Manchester compared himself to Dickens when replying to criticisms about the maximalism of his gargantuan account of the four days around JFK’s assassination, THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT. He noted “objectively” that some complain about histories which account not just for major events, but the in-the-weeds details about what historical figures had for breakfast. (JFK had grapefruit on that fateful Nov. 22, 1963.*)
He then noted, less objectively, that such cluttered narratives provide a banquet more than a mere meal, offering us — like the novelist Dickens — a rich, complex vision of all the things that go into making up a world.
In the prologue to Dan Simmons’ new novel, THE ABOMINABLE, the novelist visits an aging Jake Perry, a former explorer, as part of his research for a possible supernatural take on the fatal attempts to explore the Antarctic. As the two men talk, Perry discusses some of his experiences on the ice, but also brings up another previously unheralded event — an attempt of Everest not in the history books — as the two men are served lemonade. Simmons, in an aside, notes “the lemonade was homemade and excellent.”
Here is the primary way to evaluate your likelihood of enjoying THE ABOMINABLE: Does that lemonade, and its homemade excellence, seem to you to enhance the verisimilitude of the scene? If so, this may be your book. Perhaps the extensive detailing of ropes, equipment, dense backstory biographies, political events, news reports and so on (and so on) will rev your engines, will lead you to revel in the rich full world of mountaineering that Simmons crafts.
The novel follows on the deaths of Mallory and Irvine during their 1924 attempt on Everest. A crew of intrepid adventurers — which includes the young, narrating Jake Perry — follow the famous pair in the months that follow. They are caught up in the rigors of making that ascent, while also struggling with the mystery of another earlier climber’s death and the intersections with events in Europe, as well as whispers about deadly creatures stalking camps on the mountain.
There are stretches where the climbs are tense, tricky, full of perceptive detail. The interlocked mysteries produce some, albeit familiar, narrative momentum. But for every 10 pages that leave you hanging on the cliff, there are 20 pages of lemonade. (Or, to be fair: 20 pages of thoughtful, well-researched infodumping.) It too often bored the Dickens out of me.
Admittedly, Simmons can do the historical thriller as well as anyone, particularly that subgenre of doorstopping novels which somehow balance heft with headlong energy. THE TERROR does indeed trap you on the ice and in the ship’s hold, and the relentless detailing of what it might be like to be in that situation amplified the dread of the plot. (He also managed, in that work, to balance more effectively the hints of the supernatural with the already-scary-enough impact of the natural.)
However, the restless, inclusive desire to get the whole world into the story is itself a kind of trap: If the lemonade doesn’t have poison in it, if the details don’t have a narrative purpose, such Dickensian descriptions will swallow up a reader. Simmons includes any number of moments where characters account for the style or some stray bit of exposition in clunky defensive dialogue. (One character recites a whole passage from a letter Mallory had written, and then exclaims — after the narrator expresses surprise — that the style of education in France demands constant memorization! The exclamation point is his.)
THE ABOMINABLE feels like a slog, and it feels like the author knew it was a slog, but he was so dang interested in all this clutter that he found ways to shoehorn it all in.
*I made up the bit about the grapefruit. —Mike Reynolds