Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Smoke


Doubleday: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Doubleday: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Doubleday: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Doubleday: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Smoke

by Dan Vyleta

Smoke is set in England, "a century ago, give or take," a familiar yet strange land where, when the wicked lie, or sin in thought or deed, they release Smoke: thin, white wisps, or oily black and oozing, or yellow or green, depending on the crime. They might smoke through their mouths, or the pores of their skin. "One notices it at the shoulders first, and where the sweat has plastered the nightshirt to his skin: a black, viscous blot, no bigger than a penny. It's like he's bleeding ink. Then the first wisps of Smoke appear, stream from these dark little spots, leaving gritty Soot behind." It is a remarkably convenient way to judge people. Or so it seems.

With this premise, Dan Vyleta (The Crooked Maid) introduces a world of action, intrigue and challenge. Smoke opens in a boarding school for upper-class boys, where they are taught, using the stringent and often painful methods of Discipline, to smoke no more. It is fitting of their class that they show no flaws; being without Smoke or Soot marks one for the aristocracy, and it is taken for granted that the lower classes will "show": "[their] kind are meant to." And the teachers always know: when a boy smokes, it leaves Soot on his clothing, which can be removed only by intensive cleaning with lye. The stain is seen in the laundry, and this evidence results in a boy being called before the Master of Smoke and Ethics--or, worse, a tribunal.

Charlie and Thomas became friends upon their first meeting, when Thomas arrived at the school at a later age than most. Charlie is the golden boy who hardly ever releases Smoke; he has money and breeding, and everyone likes him. Thomas is mysterious, and not well-liked. His Smoke is not under control, and his history involves a shame better kept hidden. Julian, the head boy, seems determined to cut him low.

At Christmas, Charlie had thought to bring his new friend home to his estimable family estate for the holiday, but the orphaned Thomas gets a surprising invitation--or is it a summons?--from an uncle he hardly remembers. The headmaster pressures Charlie to accompany Thomas, and requests a report when they return: Charlie, apparently, is to spy on Thomas's family reunion.

All of this takes place in the first of six sections of Smoke, entitled "School." Charlie and Thomas remain fast friends, but they will confront many new and frightening realities, and enemies, and even meet newly discovered relations--some friend, some foe. Within just a few weeks, the two schoolboys are forced to reckon with more than a schoolyard bully and the standard methods of Discipline. A lovely young woman aspires to blamelessness: her mother scornfully calls her a nun and a prude. A madman is strapped to his bed. A lady challenges the very order of their world, calling into question the role and the value of Smoke itself, aiming to recruit the Soot of the most evil men and women for a mysterious purpose. And still the plot twists, thickens, roils--dark like Smoke. To pursue truth and good, the boys, now joined by a third companion, will have to venture into the darkest of places: London, a city of criminals, dim and choking with the evidence of their wrongdoing.

Smoke is many things: a fast-racing, heart-thumping adventure tale of good and evil paced with formidable momentum; a collection of lovely characterizations; a series of questions about children and adults, passion and reason, trust and corruption; a marvelous world of mind-bending unreality that simultaneously echoes our own; a philosophical puzzle and an entertaining whirlwind of a tale. Seemingly a plot-driven novel, it nevertheless poses existential problems: If one's Smoke is imperceptible, as in a coal mine, does one really smoke at all? Which is greater, emotion or rationality? And can one be human without Smoke?

Smoke is told from many perspectives, and as the plot continues to expand, the cast expands as well, eventually spanning social classes to include religious fanatics, compassionless scientists, imitators of virtue, good-hearted working-class misfits--and, possibly, the truly evil. Readers and characters are confronted with revelation after revelation, eventually including the very nature and meaning of Smoke. At a little over 400 pages, Smoke feels both longer and shorter than it is. It begs for a single-sitting read, such is the momentum of the plot. On the other hand, its world-building is so massive and engrossing that the experience feels much larger than a mere novel. Indeed, the scope of what began as a story of individual people and a fantastical premise swells into something both larger than life and intrinsic to life itself.

For moralists, or those who question them; for those pondering the difference between good and evil, or whether such a dichotomy even exists; and, especially, for readers who appreciate a wild and large-scale story of action, adventure, risk and destiny: Smoke will entertain and provoke thought. Thinking and feeling readers alike will be left wanting more. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Doubleday, $27.95, hardcover, 9780385540162

Doubleday: Smoke by Dan Vyleta


Dan Vyleta: In Dialogue with the Manuscript

Dan Vyleta is the son of Czech refugees who moved to Germany in the late 1960s. He holds a Ph.D. in history from King's College, Cambridge. Vyleta is the author of three previous novels: Pavel & IThe Quiet Twin and The Crooked Maid. An inveterate migrant, he has lived in Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. When not reading or writing novels, Vyleta watches cop shows or listens to CDs from his embarrassingly large collection of jazz albums. He currently resides in Stratford-upon-Avon, in England.

You employ many voices and events. Was this your plan from the beginning?

I'm not a great planner, if I'm honest. I always feel as if you write from the gut and you edit with your brain. It felt right to give people their own voice, let people speak--because it's a novel about the state of your soul, I suppose. Everybody's wrestling with this phenomenon that nobody can quite make sense of. The entire society works in a certain way because of it but it's never been explained, it's just there. And then, because this is also a novel about class, about different parts of society interacting, I had to find voices more peripheral to the action to give interesting counterpoints. The more I think about it, I think of the structure as quite dramatic, i.e., like a theater play, where occasionally somebody will come out from the chorus and stand there dazzled by the light and start talking at the audience. I think it was a dialogue between the manuscript and myself: things I wanted to do and things that the manuscript responded to. And that's how a novel is shaped, you push forward and you listen into your own work and it gives you guidance and an architecture emerges out of that.

What makes a good hero, or a good villain?

For both the answer is complexity. Evil comes in many shades. It has to be complex. We have to feel the human being in there, we have to have some level of sympathy. We can fear them, but--there's something quite attractive about villainy, isn't there? The villain has to work on you emotionally on a whole range of notes, rather than just hitting the base notes over and over again with a fist. There has to be movement, so we realize there is a thinking person behind this, who is reacting and evolving and changing. And very often there's a tragedy, since most people don't grow up thinking, when I grow old I want to be a villain. I think as a writer it's quite simple: you have to love the people you write, and all the more so if they are your main protagonists. It's hard to love people who don't have warts. You love them for the flaws as much as for what they can do. You love them both for the things you recognize of yourself in them and for the things you admire or wish you had. This is a strange refraction. What I admire in the three heroes of the book is courage, in very different keys. One is very... leading with his chin, as it were; one has the courage of emotional honesty, almost a courage of tenderness; and the third, in some ways my favorite, has the courage to change, to actually think differently, which is about the most difficult thing in life, you know.

Do you create those elements consciously, or does it come naturally?

I think anything you try to put in consciously feels off. It's funny. Obviously you think about your book, and obviously you have plans for it, and hopes. I take reams and reams of notes, often including bits of dialogue or monologue that will never show in the book but which tell me something about the character. But the moment something simply has to happen in a mechanical sense, the page kind of dies. The page becomes an instrument to deliver that prearranged piece. And I think the beauty of writing is that you as a writer are in the position of the reader--each sentence can surprise you. Of course you think about plot and you're aware of certain plot twists or elements, but the precise rhythm or emotional tone of it--it's always good if there's something in it where you think, wow, that's how it worked out? That's kind of sad, or very untoward, or funnier than I thought it would be.

In what ways is Smoke like and unlike your previous novels?

I've been asking myself that question, and I don't have a good answer. My first three novels are all historically set, as is this, although in the middle of the 20th century. I feel as if, in this book, I'm writing unchained. When friends ask me what I'm writing I say, it's like a Foucauldian children's book for adults [laughs]. What does that even mean? On the one hand it's more conceptual than anything I've written, about how we are trained to function well in society and what it would mean not to function well, and how we differentiate between who's worthy and who's unworthy. On the other hand, and this is what I mean by unleashed, it's channeling this sheer joy for narrative that I remember in reading as a child. A sheer hunger for just turning the next page, which I really admire in the best of children's literature. I have been thinking of Dickens a lot because this is a 19th-century novel partially set in London. Great Expectations is essentially a children's book for adults, I think. Its entire engine, the way it drives forward, its tenderness, is very close to a children's book, but the things that it explores are very adult indeed.

As a physical symbol, why smoke?

As Dickens points out, based on 19th-century medical theory, there must be particles of disease rising out of poor quarters of town where lots of people suffer physical ailments. If we could only see them, we would be scared, and it would be even worse if we saw their moral ailments. That, coupled to Dickens's emphasis on fog and soot flying through the air, as it did in London in the 19th century, suggested the smoke to me initially. But the more I thought about it, I thought, well, it's versatile. It's undeniable, it's immediate, it leaves a stain, it can't be suppressed. It correlates with our own suspicions. You know, quite recently and suddenly cigarette smoke has become a sinister marker. You can't have a hero in a film smoke anymore, right? It has dangerous implications. You can do it ironically if you set it in the '60s. So that was part of it. And once I realized that the point wasn't just that smoke marks sin or desire or vice, but that it was infectious, that it was something that could crawl into you, possess you, it became clear to me that smoke is really the perfect metaphor. You can walk through it like a mist, you can inhale it, you'll feel it on your skin, it'll be in your hair. And there's a kind of analogy to sweat, right? Your every pore can be suffused with it. There may be moments where smoke pours out of your eyelids, finds its way around your fingernails. There's this sort of visual power to it that I love. --Julia Jenkins


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