The puzzle that is Palliser
The problem with Charles Palliser as a famous novelist is that in every book he tries something radically different. He's the ultimate experimental writer, which makes him a bold and always interesting writer for those who appreciate such experiments but also makes it hard for him to develop a devoted fan base as they never know whether they'll love or hate his next book.
Every now and then such a writer can hit upon something that really connects with the general reading public. In Palliser's case, fortunately or otherwise, this was his first novel.
Many readers know Charles Palliser for only this book. But what a book. Or rather what a lot of books—in this one.
Occasionally a current writer, like John Irving, is said to be the Charles Dickens of our era, creating fictional worlds with large casts of eccentric characters resolving great moral and emotional issues with intricate plots and coincidences, ranging through all levels of society. But Palliser's The Quincunx recreates the entire Victorian world of Dickens—all of Dickens, plus Collins, Thackeray, the whole Brit lit crowd of that era—in both its detail and its literary conventions, while still being a page-turner for a modern readership.
Having experienced Quincunx, it's surprising to discover Charles Palliser was born an American, near Boston. But he was educated mainly abroad after the age of ten, residing in England for the most part. He attended Oxford and taught at university in Scotland, England and then back in the U.S., before settling in London. His first published works were articles on English and American literature. A couple of plays were produced for stage and radio in the early 1980s. (None appear to have been published in book form.)
The Quincunx took a dozen years to research, write and publish. It was first released in Scotland in 1989 but soon became a worldwide phenomenon, quite deservedly. The massive novel has an unimaginably complex plot that nonetheless catches hold of the reader, involves him in the main character's story, takes him through more highs and lows than a dozen roller coasters, and then, unbelievably—but believably, if you know what I mean—comes together beautifully. Like Dickens or Collins on speed or crack whatever the latest drug for such comparisons is.
Two years later, his next work was a slender volume—a novella really—in a modernist style that seemed designed to discourage readers. The only page-turning The Sensationist (1991) inspired was readers turning back to find what they had missed. Palliser's disjointed style purposely left out essential details of place and character and skipped basic plot points. It reads like a paranoid joint project of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. With little emotional impact and a seemingly irrelevant twist ending. It had mixed reviews, to say the least—the most common complaint being that it was nothing like Quincunx. The unspoken question: why was Palliser going out of his way to write in a fashion guaranteed not to engage readers?
An experiment perhaps, to see if it could be done?
Betrayals (1995) was a better-received mystery novel, written in a whole new variety of genre-mixing styles. Stories within stories, puzzles within puzzles, and critiques of the publishing world again wowed some critics but confused readers.
Then, to the relief of many, came The Unburied (1999)—a return to the Victorian era from which murder mysteries taking place in three periods of British history are addressed. The interweaving of the stories and the multitude of characters make it all frustratingly complicated and, unfortunately, the brilliant but cold plotting fails to engage sympathies for any of the people involved, a mistake Wilkie Collins or Dickens never made. But it still intrigues, continuing to make Palliser a writer one can always count on for something interesting and different.
His latest, Rustication (2013), again visits the Victorian-era mystery but this time handles it in a 1930s hardboiled style, stripped down to the basic elements, noir-ishly violent and darkly amoral. And again a mixed reaction, some considering it a return to the page-turning success of The Quincunx, others saying it falls far short of it.
Either way, it seems Palliser cannot escape comparisons to that monumental work of a quarter century earlier.