Contemporary novels heralded as “Dickensian” are usually so only superficially: they’re just long books with multiple plots and a sprinkling of grotesque or quirky characters. Only rarely do they capture the other qualities that earned Dickens the nickname “the Inimitable”: the joyfully experimental language, the fearlessly excessive metaphors, the oscillation between the real and the symbolic, and, above all, the conviction that fiction can and should make a difference in the world.
Dan Vyleta’s Smoke (his first novel since 2013’s Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted The Crooked Maid) aspires to be Dickensian in the fullest sense. It pursues an ambition that isn’t just literary but also for the literary – for the novel as a force in our thinking about good and evil, about society and government, about what it really means and feels like to be fully human. Its epigraph, from Dickens’s Dombey and Son, provides the novel’s central conceit: if “moral pestilence … could be made discernible, how terrible the revelation!” Vyleta’s alternative history immerses us in a dystopian version of late Victorian England where the discernibility of sin (in the form of the titular Smoke) has created a world divided along both class and moral lines: a pristine elite rules over a soot-encrusted proletariat whose inferiority is rendered both tangible and justifiable.
At the boarding school where Smoke opens, the most important lesson boys like Thomas and Charlie learn is the price of “showing.” Even a wisp of Smoke can mark clothing or bedding: “each transgression leaves behind its own type of Soot, and those versed in such matters can determine the severity of your crime just by studying the stain’s density and grit.”
What does it mean to know that your slightest transgression – “you reach for the biscuits before they’ve been offered; you smirk as a footman slips on the freshly polished stairs” – might show itself, and that you are powerless to control your own vaporous revelations? With the impossibility of deception seems to come the promise of perfect moral transparency and therefore an aristocracy of the truly virtuous: in such a world, the righteous really should inherit the land. But life under the pall of Smoke is pained and puritanical; the boys live in a state of constant vigilance, suspicious of each other and especially of themselves, fearful that their passions will betray them.
Things take both a dramatic and a philosophical turn when Thomas and Charlie make a startling discovery: there was a time before Smoke, though everything from paintings to histories to the Bible itself has been revised to hide this historical contingency. Then comes the equally shocking disclosure that the upper classes are not intrinsically superior but rely on special “sweets” to pre-emptively absorb their emissions and preserve their spotless facades. What seemed a natural social hierarchy turns out to be a massive conspiracy in which wealth and power are maintained by fraud and coercion.
At this point, what began as a fantastically literalized Dickensian metaphor becomes a more conventional thriller in which a small ensemble of heroes has to comprehend, escape, and then thwart their antagonists. It’s a suspenseful tale, full of twists and twisted violence, but the novel’s philosophical potential nearly gets lost in the action. Only at the end are we returned to fundamental questions about the kind of world we want to live in and the role of our unruly passions in achieving it. Is Smoke and all it represents – “Yearning. Courage. Anger. The type of fear that coils itself into a fist. Defiance. Triumph. Hope” – really to be shunned? Is purity really the ideal? Or is it better to “fight the lie that we are filthy creatures,” and to “quicken” a conflagration, a revolution, that will “remake our sense of good and evil”? The choice our heroes make reflects their experience in the unnerving and morally complex world Vyleta has created.
Smoke does not quite live up to its Dickensian promise. The prose, especially, is flat rather than florid, with the thrumming persistence of menace but no sense of play, no leavening of humour, no softening touch of pathos. Even Bleak House lets us laugh a little through the fog, and makes us cry a little, too, because grief is the price of compassion. But perhaps Vyleta’s grim palette is his way of prompting us, in his turn, to consider our own role in quickening humanity: if this is not the moral or political world you want, dear reader, then it rests with you to let it be otherwise.