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Smoke signals

Dan Vyleta’s new novel is a Dickensian throwback (until it isn't)



Dan Vyleta


CONTEMPORARY NOVELS heralded as “Dickensian” are usually so only superficially: they’re just long books with multiple plots and a sprinkling of grotesque or quirky characters. Only rarely do they capture the other qualities that earned Dickens the nickname “the Inimitable”: the joyfully experimental language, the fearlessly excessive metaphors, the oscillation between the real and the symbolic, and, above all, the conviction that fiction can and should make a difference in the world.

Dan Vyleta’s Smoke (his first novel since 2013’s Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted The Crooked Maid) aspires to be Dickensian in the fullest sense. It pursues an ambition that isn’t just literary but also for the literary – for the novel as a force in our thinking about good and evil, about society and government, about what it really means and feels like to be fully human. Its epigraph, from Dickens’s Dombey and Son, provides the novel’s central conceit: if “moral pestilence … could be made discernible, how terrible the revelation!” Vyleta’s alternative history immerses us in a dystopian version of late Victorian England where the discernibility of sin (in the form of the titular Smoke) has created a world divided along both class and moral lines: a pristine elite rules over a soot-encrusted proletariat whose inferiority is rendered both tangible and justifiable.

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About Quill & Quire

Graphic novelist Michel Rabagliati puts his popular character on the shelf – at least for now. Plus, reviews of new books by David Adams Richards, Carmen Aguirre and Dany Vyleta.