- Dan Vyleta
- 431 pages
Dan Vyleta's fourth novel, the aptly titled Smoke, is set in England, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. For the most part, the world is one we recognize: socially repressive, divided along class lines and filthy. The difference is that, here, all that soot and grime isn't just a byproduct of industrialized London. Rather, it comes from the dark clouds that tumble out of people's pores and orifices every time they sin.
As you might expect, this biological quirk makes daily life somewhat more difficult, beginning first thing in the morning, when citizens wake up and check their pillowcases for silhouettes of soot – a dead giveaway for lustful or vindictive dreams. And yet things are not that simple. "The laws of Smoke are complex," Vyleta writes. "Not every lie will trigger it," while at other times, it is conjured "by transgressions so trifling, you are hardly aware of them at all." Where there's Smoke, in other words, there isn't always fire.
The cruellest twist, however – one in keeping with the novel's approximate Victorian setting – is that Smoke is not accepted as a basic fact of life. Rather, it is seen as a sign of social and mental perversity that must be stamped out. Citizens are reprimanded for giving off Smoke in public. Posh schoolchildren wear pure-white uniforms so that no fleck of soot goes unnoticed; one unlucky professor is tasked with spending every laundry day "locked in his office, rooting through boys' underclothes." Chaotic lower-class London, meanwhile, is a Smoker's bacchanal, with visibility levels worse than contemporary Beijing's. Many fiction writers, from George Orwell to Philip K. Dick, have explored the idea of punishing thoughts as if they were actions. (The Ten Commandments also have some thoughts on the matter.) But Vyleta's version comes with a ripe gothic twist. And the good news is that Smoke, at least, has led to a more egalitarian world, one in which everyone's sins are judged equally, regardless of status or family lineage.
Ah, I'm just kidding. The rich have obviously invented their own workarounds: expensive lozenges that absorb Smoke before it leaves the body, as well as a special brand of cigarette that allows users to safely take drags of its purest, most intoxicating form. So even this visible tell is neither as honest, nor as fair, as it first appears.
The trio at the heart of the novel learn this the hard way. Two are schoolboys, scions of some of the country's richest families, attending a boarding school in Oxford: Charlie, a plucky redhead, and Thomas, a strong, silent type brooding over his troubled past. While on holiday at Thomas's uncle's manor, they meet Livia, an upstanding young woman who likes to think she's tamed her inner Smoke. Before long, they're all on the run through the English countryside, chasing answers that many prominent citizens will fight tooth and nail to keep quiet.
The central conceit of the novel is clever, though the mechanics aren't always foremost in its author's mind. For instance: Hardly a page goes by without Smoke pouring out of one character or another, but how does it dissipate? Have these people resigned themselves to lives of wheezing and lung cancer, or does every room in every building have a secret industrial-strength exhaust hood going at all times? Also unresolved is the precise correlation between Smoke and sin – though here the ambiguity actually heightens the mystery. Smoke's origins, too, are a source of intrigue. Obviously, it's a key part of human biology, as essential to our survival as blood. Everyone knows the story of how Adam and Eve gave off the first Smoke in Genesis. Except there's this one old Bible, and this set of 17th-century paintings, that tell a different story. It takes some time before readers find their feet, but that's because it turns out Vyleta's sights are set on something much bigger than the initial campus setting. Once the novel's scope locks into place, the story takes off. The middle third in particular – which careens from coal mines to cargo ships, and includes a chilling torture scene told entirely through one side of a conversation overheard through the floorboards – is flat-out thrilling.
Vyleta, whose previous novel, The Crooked Maid, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2013, has a knack for world building, and ambition to spare. His philosophical musings, on the other hand, feel a bit simplistic by novel's end. Smoke, like sin, doesn't have to be seen as wholly good or bad. And if we're all doomed to smoulder anyway, the bigger question is how to manage and make peace with our own personal cloud – starting with opening a window every now and then, to let some fresh air in.
Michael Hingston is the author of The Dilettantes and editor of the Short Story Advent Calendar. He lives in Edmonton.