Rather than setting his story in the distant past or the far future, Dexter Palmer uses his debut novel to paint a picture of a technologically different twentieth century in which typewriters and phonographs exist alongside steampunk elements like tin men and self-sustaining zeppelins. The result is an eerie world that is unsettling in both its similarities to and differences from the one we recognize.
The protagonist is Harold Winslow who, trapped in a zepplin high above the city he grew up in, begins to pen his memoirs. Readers are given a view of Harold’s childhood and adolescence as he remembers it, often speaking about himself in the third person, refusing to recognize that each stage of his life directly relates to the man he has become.
What Harold ultimately reveals is a story of desires, dreams, and the madness that can result from blind fixation on them both. In Harold’s world, the rich and powerful maker of dreams is Prospero Taligent, an eccentric technological genius with far-reaching plans. Prospero’s adopted daughter, Miranda, is at the heart of Harold’s tale, as much in Harold’s dreams as in reality.
Through Harold, Palmer gives readers a disturbing look at what happens when the subjective layers we all place on the events in our lives are peeled back to reveal reality. After one fateful childhood event which places Harold forever under Prospero’s watchful eye, nothing in his life is as it first seems. It is often impossible for him–and the reader–to know whether his experiences are true, or part of Prospero’s increasingly insane personal plans.
As the tale goes on, Palmer reveals himself to be a master of the disturbing. With subtle ruthlessness, he tears the masks off the dreams and rose-colored memories of his characters, laying bare the shattered remains of what they believed to be real. The resulting disillusionment keeps pace with Harold’s growing up, and indeed has a profound influence on the style of the book.
As the title suggests, The Dream of Perpetual Motion possesses a bit of a dreamlike quality. And like all dreams, the telling is skewed by the imperfect recollections of its dreamers. The real truth of Harold’s life, and of Miranda’s, may never be fully extracted from the subjectivity of Harold’s story. One comes away with the feeling that nothing is ever what it first appears to be, and that perhaps there are times when facing reality is less dangerous than clinging on to old, dead desires.