Paul as a whole is divided into three Parks. Also his book. I am quite certain I've not yet grasped All Those Vanished Engines, which I expect to read at least three times before I get there, but I would not think of attempting even a first read of Park's new SF-like novel without a lot of threes to go by.
The first trio is Parts. Part One is set in a congeries of post-Civil War pasts, and radiates a magic-realist uncanny-valley intensity in its depiction of more than one America—maybe three of them—as it becomes steampunk; Part Two is set in a mutable present; and Part Three is set in a near future less stable than the real-life 3D virtual-reality world Second Life where some of the characters play sometimes, or maybe lots. A triplet of Parks guide us through the Parts. Paul Park himself is of course the real Paul Park who wrote the real fake piece of reportage that fronts "Visits to a Nursing Home", part two of the novel; this real piece, which dates from 2011 or before, is itself entitled "All Those Vanished Engines" (at least three of them), and describes a real installation at the real Mass MoCa in the real North Adams town where Park really lives, a collaboration with the real sound artist Stephen Vitiello. Paul Park is also the implied author "Paul Park" who stirs what one might call the claustrophobia cauldron (see below) until we are dazzled in fogs and figmented Stories which never gain quite enough velocity to escape the pot. And Paul Park is also a character named Paul Park, who is sometimes very nearly autobiographical, who is sometimes pretty well made up, and who is sometimes some one else entirely with the same life (or not) called Matthew more than once, for convenience I guess.
But as it seemed a good idea to start with the simple stuff, I have waited till now to mention the triad of families whose members make up most of Park's cast. There are the Claibornes, who dominate part one, the Parks, who dominate part two, and the Claiborne-Parks, a kind of third family created when marriages join the Claibornes to the Parks. ("I couldn't bear to tumble them together, the Parks and the Claibornes, on some inappropriate shelf", says a false Paul Park in near future Baltimore; he is lying.) All three families are real, though "Paul Park" tells some more porkies about them. Paul Parks's mother Clara Claiborne Park (1923-2010)—author of seminal analyses of autism, focusing for the most part on her own autistic daughter, whom she initially calls Elly to disguise her identity but eventually refers to under her real name, Jessica (both appear in the novel)—is perhaps the most famous of them, though Robert W. Claiborne, Robert W. Claiborne Jr., Frances Park and Edwin Avery Park, all real-life family members, all wrote real-life books. There may be others. It all begins to feel a bit like a hot tin roof for a scion to write autobiography on, like a well unconscionably deep to swim in unasphyxiated. Ghosts don't die really down there; that the exudates of the engines of time may have vanished does not allow any safe inference that they no longer govern.
So it may be that Vanished Engines, in common with most lives, is a tale of Attempted Escape. And that the kneecapping of almost every seemingly unencumbered tale within tale in the book (sometimes three in succession), and the implied author's frequent repudiations of what he's just told us as falsehood, are a Body English of lacrimae rerum: the terror and the chivalry that comes when we learn that the climb is more slippery than we are: that our only escape from the Cauldron of Story will be a final period. Except for the fact that none of the Parks kill anyone and that none of them are dead, and except for the weird American glamour of the final pages, the truncated fascicles of Story that bleed together to construe Vanished Engines convey a chill as wrenching as the chill at the heart of Gene Wolfe's Peace (1975). In neither case is it a chill of indifference.
Until a third reading, no synopsis is possible. A little can be said. Part One is a literal braid or bracelet of stories set a decade or so after the Civil War, which has resulted in two separately governed Americas; each story in succession intersectingly advances (but in a sense disqualifies) a partially successful attempted escape of Paulina (who is a Claiborne, though I was insecure about her actual surname) from immurement in Petersburg, Virginia northwards through ghost re-enactments of a steampunk battle between Union and Confederate forces at the Battle of the Crater, until the stories fail, and if she reaches her goal—she may be the true daughter of the Queen of the North—we do not witness that moment. There are moments here where the ghost of the latter-day Michael Moorcock may be discerned, some hints of Temporal Adventuress Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free tropes: but these hints do not persevere.
Part Two: Park interviews a blind engineer responsible for the post-World-War-Two construction of a three-part device (explicitly I think compared to the Past, the Present, and the Future), an engine that shapes the sounds of time and powers something like the world, Or not. In any case, Park and Vitiello, by creating a rather Second World-like simulacrum of this apparent Great Engine, may keep something from vanishing. Various versions of the character Paul Park inhabit various lives embrangled in family. Clara Claiborne Park, who is dying or dead, movingly haunts the scene. The walls of the Cauldron of Story are steamy with nutrient (families are pure saltlick), but seem very high.
Part Three: the near future. The venue remains a version of the megalopolitan Northeast Corridor of America, which runs from Virginia to somewhere north of Boston. There are clear hints of a world increasingly beset by what besets it today: climate change, drying up of exploitable resources, privatization and corporatization (ugly words for what ugly people do) of urban space, modest balkanization of the Corridor, with each state operating immigration controls. A Claiborne/Park-inflected painting, "Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance", provides the title for this part (it is also the title of an earlier text published as a stand-alone novella in 2011, Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance: The Parke Family Scrapbook Number IV). There have been hints throughout Vanished Engines that mysterious creatures—"huge, misshapen airships" whose power was possibly generated acoustically—have been visiting the Corridor as early as the eighteenth century, as evidenced in the transcript of a sermon by the Reverend Paul Parke, a First Contact passage that evokes echoes of John Fowles's A Maggot (1985) or Patricia Anthony's God's Fires (1997):
When I saw a Greate Ligt at the top of the hill coming throug the trees as lik a cold fire and a vessel or a shipe come down from heavn theire and burning our fases as we knelt and prayd. . .[;] a vessill on stakes or [three] jointed legs was come for our delivrance: with Angels coming down the laddr with theire Greate Heads and Eys.
But deliverance was there none. In any case, it may have been nothing more than "an anomaly":
a silver funnel cloud, an Alpine lighting effect known as a Brocken spectre, and over to the side, the golden lines from one of Jessy's migraine headaches.
None of the Claiborne/Parks see God. Or whatever.
Who does? It is all some Confederate Mist, the lip of the Cauldron never seeable, except in fictions naive enough to be shapely. The Real Park almost succumbs to Homo sapiens patriotism at the very end, but holds delicately back from any engined cadence. As we approach the final pages, a version of Park as an old man lies on the ground after being mugged in the desolation of Baltimore in the middle of the near future. Suddenly he is uplifted, and suffused in light, which in Vanished Engines always seems a version of sound. As "the woman who had raised me up was dusting off my coat with her bare palms" a commander can be seen, an avatar of Claiborne-Park commanders who had defended some precious enclave after the Civil War, after World War One, and now. He asks Park or "Park" what took him so long? "I myself was curious. What had I been doing all these years when there was work to be done?" Like Arthur in the tattered morning, the old commander gathers his folk together. Martian "lightning licked the edges of the plain. The crack of thunder was like distant guns." The Parks we have met seem to join him.
We imagine a legion of Parks, shards of Story held high like hieroglyphs, uttering against the Barbarians.