There’s a scene in Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son where the narrator watches over a London slum, choked with smog and pestilence, and imagines a world where moral decay was as visible as the dirt that choked the era.
A century-and-a-half later, Dan Vyleta has built a world, and this novel, around that idea.
Set in an alternative England, Smoke is a sort of supernatural revisionist history where the id is physically manifest. People smoke, physically smoke, when emotional – when they are angry, or lustful, or they gently smoulder with resentment, contempt or pride. Smoke scorches and smears everything it touches, even on a metaphysical level. To stand too close to someone smoking in anger will fill the witness with rage. As a result, London is a cesspool of smoke and avarice, while the ruling elite lead austere lives in manors outside town.
Our story begins in a boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed for power and trained to control their smoke, tamp down their baser instincts. The hero, Thomas, and his friend Charlie, misfits in the mode of young adult fiction, bridle against the system.
A Christmas vacation, during which the boys are sent to Nottinghamshire to keep them out of trouble, sees them stumble upon a hidden world of secrets, subterfuge and grown-up secrets. Thus the action of the book begins, a kind of Dickensian reimagining of supernatural adventure stories in the mode of Harry Potter or the His Dark Materials trilogy, if more grim and Gothic.
Like Dickens, Vyleta isn’t interested in brevity or orderly narrative. He spends the first hundred pages or so building the world and exploring the psychology of the teen protagonists before things get rollicking. Long explanations of smoke and its meaning riddle the pages, choking them. Vyleta exhibits a vast, intricate imagination, that of an author who has thought deeply about the world, but he has seen little need ever to hold back.
At times, Smoke is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro and his sublime use of a fantastical concept to explore the minutiae of class and society. At its worst, it’s a hot mess of abandoned thoughts and long tracts of expositional dialogue that bracket the action. This is a strange hybrid book, as nebulous as its subject matter, but ultimately a thrilling read, if a little weighed down by all the smoke and mirrors. ZC
W&N, 504pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Dan Vyleta, Smoke". Subscribe here.