Infernal Devices is the story of George, an unremarkable man with no major talents who has inherited his father’s watchmaker shop. Various zany characters show up and drag him into an intricate conspiracy reminiscent of H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, and mostly, in my mind, Jules Verne. K.W. Jeter propels George through increasingly dangerous, nonsensical, over-the-top adventures powered by steampunk, bravado, and sheer imagination. This is an adventure in the classical sense, and as a work of literary fiction it’s quite fascinating. As a story, I’m not sure I’m as enthralled.
Jeter’s style explicitly apes that of late-nineteenth-century narrators. For this reason it reminds me a lot of Wells and Verne, more so Verne, maybe, for the sheer grandiosity of imagination here. We have long-lost civilizations of merpeople, vibration engines that can destroy the Earth, holy armies ready to defend England against the scourge of fish-people, and so on. The technology is just beyond the reach of what you’d expect for the time period, much like we would see in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but Jeter, like Verne, is careful to offer up pseudo-scientifical explanations for these devices.
As a literature lover, I’m intrigued by the narration and writing style. George is verbose and writes with the same kind of florid hyperbole one might encounter in Dracula or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s very different from contemporary storytelling techniques, and it wears on one. I can’t say that I like it, and it’s one thing to wade through it because that was how people wrote “back in the day” and another thing to have to do it because of a conscious stylistic choice by a modern-day writer…. Additionally, Jeter also portrays George as an infuriatingly passive narrator: he is always reacting to what is around him rather than taking action; he just lets the story happen to him. That being said, I’m not sure how much I can criticize Jeter here, because this is exactly what he’s doing: he’s not attempting to emulate this style out of a misguided sense that it will sound better, but rather, he’s trying to emulate the entire experience of a nineteenth-century science-fiction novel, strange narrative and all.
Moreover, George is just such an unlikable person. I wanted him to get run over by a cab after about the first chapter, and my opinion only worsened as the story developed. He is a complaining, judgmental narcissist. This is totally intentional, again, but I still don’t necessarily enjoy watching him, if only because he seems like he’s supposed to be a sympathetic (if unlikable) protagonist.
That’s why I called Infernal Devices an interesting piece of literary fiction. It doesn’t strike me as steampunk and science fiction except only incidentally. In this way, Jeter is playing a kind of game of meta-genre, wherein Infernal Devices doesn’t so much transcend genre as use genre as a tool for storytelling. That’s an interesting and worthwhile goal.
But that doesn’t make me like it any better.
Experiments are all well and good, but at the end of the day, I like story. You might love Infernal Devices just as a story if Verne and Wells, et al, float your boat. For me, though, it’s underdeveloped and underwhelming, and Jeter’s writing doesn’t help. It’s just not my cup of tea.
Oh, and really, what is it with the male protagonists having to have sex with a woman as a necessary part of the plot? No thank you.