GW Dahlquist’s The Chemickal Marriage brings his odd, and at times difficult, trilogy about the Glass Books of the Dream Eaters to its conclusion.
Originally published in 10 part works which became increasingly pale as the series was published before arriving in a fine hardback, the book echoed an older form of publishing. The original version of Dickens’s novels appeared in serial form, meaning that each part had to have an ending which makes the reader come back for more. It was a way of making the work entertaining and keeping the reader coming back before the more expensive book form appeared. The form has continued in comics in their either weekly or monthly episodes, demanding that there is a continuation into the next episode.
This structure has followed through the series and has become a little less stilted in the final volume. That it is a single book perhaps helps with the flow but the first book could be very abrupt towards the reader. This does raise questions about our modern reading experiences and Dahlquist is less of a stentorian stylist than the Modernists or Post-modern authors. The form reminds the reader that linear stories are more a guideline than actual rules.
The sense of play with the nineteenth century novel is more palpable here, something which can be touched. The glass books echo Wilde’s sense of life imitating art. The Comte’s dream is discovered in his painting of the Chemickal Wedding and shows him driven by the dream of making that painting real. The dream of immortality, the true meaning of the Quest, is only discovered in the book within a book. An ongoing theme is the losing of the self in dreams and chasing the illusion which becomes more important than reality. In a fugue state, Svenson is appalled by the vertiginous detail of the painting and asks himself “[h]ow many souls had been dredged to serve the artist’s purpose?” (p137). The background, containing slivers of glass, is akin to the portrait of Dorian Gray but perhaps not just for one person but that strata of society. Its decadence is on show yet its grotesqueness hidden.
When Locarno and Chang discuss the plan and the painting, Locarno suggests that the world contains symbols. Most of these can be decoded by the Adept to reconstruct a story of the world. Perhaps reconstruction is the best phrase since it is another story, another layer of narrative which allows the individual to view the world. It is not only the dream of the Symbolists and alchemists but also post-modernists, like Umberto Eco whose characters deal with intersection of stories. Each is a way of understanding and viewing but is mutable.
Underpinning the ways of seeing the world are ways of trying to tell and spread the story. Intersecting the art is the way that women are seen and see themselves with a burgeoning sexuality. Miss Temple acknowledges that she is in love with Chang, leading to her beginning to have erotic thoughts about him. The Contessa merrily uses this in her dealing with both her and Dr Svenson before poisoning him, commenting “we are alive for pleasure”(p135) having undressed him. She is far more in control than either of her opponents. She becomes either Mina Harker or Lucy Westenra, a true vamp, who usable to control the world around her to no small extent. Even after her escape, the Doctor will always chase and desire her.
The Chemickal Marriage does come to the thrilling conclusion and is satisfying. Despite the many strands, twists and the depth of detail, Dahlquist delivers a thrilling read which explores the way in which nineteenth century literature might be seen and used. Rather than merely taking the style or using it as this month’s fashion, this series has delved and thought about the ways in which these narratives can be used and reworked. After perhaps a slow start, the Chemickal Marriage brings this all together.