Quite Dreadful (Penny Dreadful): Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar’s Camera Obscura, out this week from Angry Robot, is dreadful: penny dreadful.

This steampunk novel both evokes the cheap, serialized sensational fiction of nineteenth century Britain, and engages the aesthetic of the comic book, grandchild of the penny dreadful. While it contains more literary references than any literature/creature mashups flooding the market these days, don’t go looking for high-brow literary illumination through this Camera’s lens: Tidhar writes in the manner Michael Chabon champions in “Trickster in a Suit of Lights,” applauding the speculative writers who keep one foot in the land of “literary” fiction, while invoking “the idea of playfulness, of mockery and inversion.” Tidhar is such a writer, delivering a rollicking adventure with passages of brilliant prose, all the while wryly winking at the reader. At its core, Camera Obscura is a little bit like a Dirty Harry movie, with a young Angela Bassett replacing Clint Eastwood, and 19th century Paris standing in for San Francisco. But that hardly encompasses the dizzying array of elements Tidhar weaves together in a maelstrom of pop culture and recursive fantasy.

If you haven’t read Tidhar’s first Bookman novel, don’t worry: Camera Obscura stands on its own, briefly referencing the character of the Bookman without demanding familiarity with the previous volume. In truth, readers will benefit more by a familiarity with French adventure fiction, or at the very least, reading-with-intent-to-google. Tidhar is clearly a fan of the characters who occupy much of Black Coat Press’s line of recursive fantasy works. As with Black Coat’s translation of Xavier Mauméjean’s League of Heroes, this is a category of writing that, to use the Encyclopedia of Fantasy’s definition, “exploits existing fantasy settings or characters as its subject matter.” Recursive fantasy can be parody, pastiche, or revisionist re-examinations of earlier works such as fairy tales, pulp adventures, or extraordinary voyages. Like League of Heroes, Camera Obscura samples from all of these, including appearances by Tom Thumb, Quasimodo, Fantomas, and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s (literally) bigger brother. In addition to fictional, revised historical figures appear, such as Toulouse Lautrec, whose style has advanced beyond Impressionism to Fin de siècle equivalents of H.R. Giger or Hajime Sorayama.

It’s the jam-packed approach to steampunk seen in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, as Jess Nevin’s companion books, Heroes and Monsters, A Blazing World, and Impossible Territories proved with their intertextual strip-mining. An avid archivist like Nevins could have a field day with Camera Obscura, enjoying numerous obscure references to 19th century adventure and speculative fiction. Not all of Tidhar’s references require a librarians’ acumen for antiquated trivia: where many steampunk writers are reinventing the wheel with their mad scientists, Tidhar boldly grabs the quintessential one. Viktor Frankenstein plays a major role in the events of Camera Obscura, complete with iconic hypodermic needle. Nevertheless, for every obvious literary reference, Tidhar uses an obscure one. I’m uncertain if Kai Lun, the first character of Lavie Tidhar’s Camera Obscura, is meant to reference Ernest Bramah’s Chinese storyteller, Kai Lung. If he is, it explains Tidhar’s approach to this episodic, seemingly rambling novel: Camera Obscura lacks the standard plot arc many expect their novels to contain, and as such, may be dismissed as second rate writing. However, given Tidhar’s use of Kai Lun’s story as “Interludes” rather than chapters, I’m suspicious Tidhar is emulating the Scheherazade-style framing narratives of a number of Bramah’s Kai Lung tales. For a change, Wikipedia puts it succinctly: “Kai Lung is a Chinese storyteller whose travels and exploits serve mainly as excuses to introduce substories, which generally take up the majority of a Kai Lung book.” This is also true of Camera Obscura, where Kai Lun’s story serves as introduction to the novel’s binding narrative: the transformation of “Milady” Cleopatra DeWinter.

Providing a transformational character arc for narrative cohesion, Milady DeWinter is the novel’s industrial era take on the tough-cop-who-flaunts-authority. Milady puts the punk in steampunk, for those pining for such things. Her presence addresses a number of post-colonial and feminist criticisms leveled at steampunk, without ever completely satisfying the naysayer. It’s almost as though, despite being an outspoken advocate for global diversity in steampunk, Tidhar refuses to make his fiction a soapbox. That isn’t to say there aren’t some interesting intersections for steampunk scholars, but Camera Obscura is, first and foremost, an adventure story, a mélange reminiscent of Warren Publishing’s horror comics blended with Neal Stephenson’s early works such as Snow Crash and The Diamond Age: both comparisons are reader-beware warnings.

Warren Publishing, the people who brought us Vampirella, Creepy, and Eerie, were among the purveyors of comic books in the 1970s and ‘80s who disregarded the Comics Code. Warren was known for its sex and violence, being primarily devoted to horror. I remember furtively glancing through Creepy and Eerie at the cigar shop as a child, too frightened to own Berni Wrightson’s art, but fascinated by it nonetheless. I can imagine any number of Warren artists illustrating several scenes from Camera Obscura, from a clockwork beetle’s combination autopsy and disposal of a murder victim in the opening chapters, to a chase scene involving a horribly obese Marquis de Sade. If you are squeamish about blood, evisceration, or amputation, steer clear of Camera Obscura. As I’ve said, penny dreadful.

Neal Stephenson’s early work exhibits a density of ideas akin to the literary equivalent of a black hole. In the opening pages of both Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, the reader is thrust into a world other than their own. Stephenson packs his futures tightly, as Tidhar packs the past, revealing wonder after wonder while eschewing lengthy expository info-dumps. Stephenson and Tidhar also share a seeming inability to wrap things up. I say seeming, as I’m not sure Stephenson is as terrible with narrative closure as many think he is. Rather, he yanks us into his world at the beginning, and then summarily kicks us out at the end—life is messy, it does not have a tidy ending, and neither does Stephenson or Tidhar. The literary minded reader may be looking for some resolution to the transformation of Milady DeWinter. I certainly was, watching in the final pages for something akin to a steampunked Witchblade. My horizon of expectations was not met, and while certain potential themes were left unexplored, I nonetheless found Tidhar’s writing compelling.

It’s likely that Camera Obscura will be very satisfying to fans of episodic adventure tales, who like their B-grade narratives elevated by literary-style prose. Don’t expect epiphanies on a literary scale from Camera Obscura. Let it be what it is—a dreadfully fun romp from Paris to the Chicago World’s fair, with references to Robocop, Dracula, Lovecraft, and a brief Batman villain’s cameo littered throughout. Easter’s just come and gone—if you didn’t get your Easter egg hunt, try Camera Obscura—it’s filled with hidden surprises.

Mike Perschon is a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and on the English faculty at Grant MacEwan University.


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