Dexter Palmer’s debut novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion (2010), is a delightfully inventive one, and while its narrative structure is scattered, it’s also full of clever world-building, interesting concepts, and madcap situations. Taking place is the nebulous, steampunky 20th-century city of Xeroville, the novel tells the story of Harold Winslow, a professional greeting card writer. As a child, Harold receives a “golden ticket” invitation to the birthday party of Miranda Taligent, daughter of the famous inventor Prospero Taligent. Prospero’s mechanical men and other inventions have created a clockwork futurism in the mid-twentieth century; unfortunately, he also’s rather mad, and Harold’s youthful encounter with the man ends up drastically impacting the shape of his life.
Told largely in flashback from Harold’s imprisonment on an nonstop dirigible, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is an appealingly gonzo book, with a neat, steampunky Brazil vibe to its backdrop. Structurally, it’s all over the map, a nonlinear, fragmented narrative that leans into metafictional story-telling elements. Fortunately, this approach — while it leads to occasional laggy bits — works more often than it doesn’t. Palmer strikes me as a cagey craftsman who enjoy breaking the rules, but he also understands them, which makes reading his work refreshing and unexpected, even as he never loses your confidence. Ultimately, this one didn’t strike a chord with me as strongly as his later novel Version Control, but it’s also a wildly, impressively different than that book, more evidence that he has range and versatility worth keeping an eye on.