The hardest thing for me as a writer is to speak without irony, without the protection of being misunderstood. To say, "this is what I think is important," or "this is what I think is true, or beautiful, or funny, or moving"—that is what is difficult for me. (Paul Park, interview for Infinity Plus, 2006)
All Those Vanished Engines is an extraordinary work. Whether it is a book for everyone is a question I cannot answer. But as a book for me, it succeeds almightily. If there were any justice in the literary world, Paul Park's most recent novel would win every prize going in 2015, and no matter on what side of the literary/genre divide they cast their particular net.
The novel is formed from three densely interwoven novellas. The first, Bracelets, is set in the state of Virginia in an alternate version of post-Civil War America. A teenager named Paulina is writing a novel in the form of a diary.
She enjoyed writing in first person, inside the mind of a boy she called "Matthew". As she wrote, she invented or borrowed the phonetic spelling and simple constructions of the future, where (she imagined) writing might finally serve to communicate thought rather than reinforce social distinctions or bedevil children. But would the world ever really change so much? There also she fumbled in the dark. (p. 14)
Paulina's written future—an exciting pursuit, complicated by the arrival of steampunkish airships—becomes inextricably entwined with her lived present, such that by the end of this first section of the novel it would appear that reality is actually being warped and changed under the influence of Paulina's imagining of it.
Now she could see the land more clearly as the shadows of the mountains retreated towards them. Looking back, she could see the steam engine in the distance, the stalled train, its windows winking in the sun. How could she have come so far? And in the darkness, propelled as if by fate, she had found the only level ground for miles. The railway tracks skirted a wide plain, but on the near side the ground fell off suddenly. They sat at the edge of a cliff face with the valley below them. What originally she had mistaken for pine needles, now she could see it was just sand, rust-coloured sand, and she dug her toes into it. (p. 66)
Paulina's "hero," Matthew, urges her to continue with the story, that "what's coming next is up to [her]" (p. 70). The novella ends with Paulina reunited with her mother, and the recovery of a golden bracelet from the body of her cousin, who has been killed in the war.
The second novella, Three Visits to a Nursing Home, takes place in an alternate present, and begins with a story commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to accompany an installation by the sound sculptor Stephen Vitello entitled "Those Vanished Engines." In Park's story, a blinded and crippled engineer recounts his experiences during World War Two and his part in a secret project to develop a new kind of "sound weapon" and the deleterious effects of the experiment on both the immediate environment and those who participated.
He paused, cleared his throat, ejected some sputum into his handkerchief. We watched the pulsing skein of blood vessels under his transparent skin, the webs of veins on the backs of his hands. He said: "You know up at the top of the hill there was a foundry that made steel plates for the Monitor during the Civil War. This was like that—weapons grade. We had sounds that could break glass, even at low volume. With the refinements and additions, it would turn concrete to sand. You could put your thumb through a two-inch steel plate, after it had been permeated and submerged in one of the acoustic vats." (pp. 96-7)
Following immediately upon this story within the story, Park himself—a version of him, anyway—enters the text to tell us about the origins of the story and Vitello's sound sculpture. He then wanders off into his own book—this seems the best and most accurate way of putting it—revealing that the eponymous nursing home was based upon the actual nursing home where his mother died. He proceeds to reminisce about his mother's funeral, his father's aging and illness, his younger sister's autism. He has conversations with a creative writing student named Traci—whose college writing project appears to be the book that Park himself is writing.
Part Three of the novel, Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, takes us towards a strange, darkening future that has stealthily replaced our own world with a low-key dystopia. There are "troubles," checkpoints, demands to see identity papers, unspecified threats. But these are not the subject of the narrative so much as a matter-of-fact backdrop to an older Paul Park's obsession with a painting by his great-grandfather Edwin Claiborne, "Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance," and his pursuit of clues and insights into his own artistic and spiritual legacy. In the end, the partially ruined city finally slips away. We have come full circle, to re-enter the fantasy world invented by Paulina in Part One:
I could see how the land had changed. Instead of the middle of the city, I stood at its outer edge. North, the forest sloped away from me. East, past Loch Raven Boulevard, the land opened up around patches of scrub oak and ash, and the grass was knee-high as far as I could see. There was no sign of any structure or illumination in either direction, unless you count the lightning on the eastern horizon, down toward Dundalk and the river's mouth. The wind blew from over there, carrying the smell of ozone and the bay. Black birds hung above us. Thirty-Third Street was a wide, rutted track, and as I watched I could see movement down its length, a deeper blackness there. (pp. 268-9)
This summary does not even begin to offer a complete account of the links, overlaps, concurrences, and coincidences that populate these three entwined narratives, the continual, compulsive interpolation of fact with fiction and vice versa. We can guess that "Paulina" is an avatar of Paul. Park also tells us that "Matthew" was the name given to him in The Siege, an account by his mother, Clara Claiborne Park, of his and his sisters' early childhood, just as Elly—Paulina’s younger sister in Part One—was the name Clara gave to Paul's sister Jess, who has autism. Park similarly grants his fictitious wives the names of characters from his novel A Princess of Roumania (2005), a text that is heavily referenced in this novel's Part Three.
Anyone with a liking for amateur detective work could spend a happy hundred hours trying to unpick the literally true from the partially fabricated, the retold, the re-imagined—Paul Park was not born with a caul, for example, but one of his sisters was—but trying to prize fact from fiction, though a pleasurable exercise, is really not the point of this novel.
What All Those Vanished Engines is about, more than any other text I have yet encountered, is how fiction is written, the interplay of outside influence, composted autobiography, wild imagining, and subconscious impulse, the emotional and intellectual compulsions that drive the engine of the creative process. In a passage towards the end of the novel, Park recounts a confrontation with a Professor Rosenheim, a teacher of literature in Williamstown, Virginia, who has invited Park into his class on metafiction to talk about his novel A Princess of Roumania:
But then he roused himself, brandishing in his right hand the preliminary text of something else I had been working on, a memoir, or fragment of science fiction, which I would finish many, many years later, when I was an old man, and which, ill-advisedly maybe, I had emailed to his class a couple of days before. "How dare you?" he said. "How dare you send this without my permission? Did you think I wouldn't find out about it?
"Did you think I'd be jazzed about this?" he complained, indicating the phrase "whispered drunkenly" in the text. "Did you think I'd want them to think I'm an alcoholic? Though in a way it's the least of my problems. Right now they are reading this," he whispered drunkenly, conspiratorially, "and they have no idea why. Right here, right here, this is confusing them." (pp. 211-12)
The "fragment" that has so upset Professor Rosenheim is, of course, the text we are reading, the text Park has written, art and artifice simultaneously, inspiration and the product of that inspiration both. That Park can convey this, talking about it whilst not talking about it, that the passage can combine both humor and pathos and yet still rise above both of these to provide a commentary on its own existence, all in prose that is both narratively engaging and poetically moving is proof in microcosm of the extraordinary technical and artistic achievement of Park's project as a whole.
Park's use of speculative materials to undermine our default belief in an empirically provable "reality" is worthy of particular note. In its subtle and measured approach, its thorough understanding of the canon and through that understanding the skill with which it co-opts and advances science fiction towards its own ends, All Those Vanished Engines is everything that, say, David Mitchell's recent novel The Bone Clocks is not.
I have no doubt that for some, All Those Vanished Engines will prove too metafictional. Such readers will lament the sacrifice of story to artifice, of passion to irony. They will complain that the very beautiful book trailer put together by Park's publisher, Tor, is misleading, that it promises adventures and fantasies that are never delivered, substituting these alluring fictions for another kind of deception entirely. They may be right to complain. Even Part One of this novel, the only part that goes any way towards providing the kind of alternate-world entertainments hinted at by the book trailer, is not like the book trailer. If anything is like the trailer it is The Rose of Sarifal, the D&D Forgotten Realms franchise novel alluded to by "Park" in Part Two—as written by one Paulina Claibourne and described by one reviewer on Goodreads as "unlike any Realms novel I've read before, and probably unlike anything else Wizards of the Coast will publish."
I would be lying if I said I didn’t long for more of the story Park allows us a glimpse of in Part One—but surely this is the point. Park is inviting us to tell our own stories. He is hinting that there is as much of that story here as you care to unearth. In the end it is as Matthew says: "what's coming next is up to you."
This is a novel that would not so much repay multiple readings as demand them. After a mere single reading, I find myself convinced that this is a text I shall return to often, not just for its insights into the art of fiction and the creative endeavor, but for the lambent beauty of its prose, the elegance of its conceit, and for its mysteries, above all, which even after one has picked over the entrails of this remarkable text, searching for clues and hopefully arguing with friends and colleagues over their meaning, remain: fantastical, elegiac, and entire. A critic or academic might conduct a book-length study of this novel and still not get to the bottom of it. I would recommend that readers—and writers, please, writers—approach with less caution, and simply enjoy themselves. Ultimately, the meaning of this book is what it means to you.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, is available from PS Publishing. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.