The Abominable

abominableThe 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

Buy it at Amazon.

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Comment by Rick Ollerman
2013-11-20 08:55:05

I like your review. I didn’t care for “The Terror” but that may be because Simmons and I apparently share overlapping interests; I have done an enormous amount of reading of Franklin, the rescue expeditions, etc. I’ve done the same for George Armstrong Custer and climbing history, especially Everest, but I thought Simmons did so much name dropping and adding the real-life details of the historical figures in “Terror” that most of the dialog rang phony and felt contrived. Perhaps if I came to it without prior knowledge it may have worked better for me.

All the same, though, Simmons will always be forgiven for delivering “Summer of Night” and its quite different but magnificent “A Winter Haunting.” At least for me.

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Comment by Mike Reynolds
2013-11-20 09:04:56

Rick, couldn’t agree more–I keep going with Simmons because he’s often phenomenal. Besides SUMMER, the knockouts include CARRION COMFORT and the HYPERION novels. I didn’t care for this, but I’m excited by writers who are so omnivorous and excited themselves — always exploring new territory.

I’m pretty sure, though, that this one would run into the same interference for you (infodumping about stuff you seem to have a great knowledge of already…).

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Comment by Jake Arroyo
2013-11-20 13:25:10

I keep trying and trying Simmons and all his books so far have been slogs. I even tried Summer of Night and it just seemed like a King rip-off (though the same can be said for some of Robert R. McCammon’s 80’s novels which I still love). I’m not going to knock Simmon’s writing ability as some swear by his novels, but Mike hit the problem head-on. There’s an interesting story buried somewhere in all the unnecessary details, you just have to have the patience to find it. Reminds me of Neal Stephenson-great ideas, tons of unnecessary, uninteresting crap to wade through.

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Comment by Ray Kolb
2013-11-20 14:44:36

I thought Hyperion was one of the best novels I’ve ever read. The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion (all that I’ve read so far of Simmons’ stuff) were also very good but not up to the level of Hyperion, and the first half of Endymion was bit like you describe this book although not as bad. I definitely felt that way about the one McCammon novel I read (Speaks the Nightbird) – well written but with way too much info in the novel causing it to move at a snail’s pace.

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2013-11-20 18:33:41

I suppose when your name is big enough that almost anything will sell, an editor will let a lot of that useless lemonade slide…for me, though, I’m not sure I’ll drink.

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Comment by Jake Arroyo
2013-11-22 17:35:30

Hey Ray, good call on McCammon’s newer work. Some of his 80’s and early 90’s stuff was phenominal. He then took a long break and recently started writing again. I believe that he’s focusing on the American Colonial era now. His subject matter is very interesting but fails in the execution. Some of his early books were very long (see Swan Song), but he kept up the story’s momentum and didn’t seem to fill the pages with fluff. His current work is very comparable to Simmon’s books like The Terror-great stories that are drowned in tedious detail. If you like Stephen King, I do recommend Boy’s Life and Swan Song-two of his best books in my opinion.

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