Midway through Dexter Palmer's gorgeously surreal first novel, the author himself makes a cameo appearance, clad in a frayed houndstooth suit and a pair of spectacles. The occasion is an art opening, but the metafictional Palmer has little interest in what's hanging on the walls; he'd prefer to talk—at excruciating, circuitous length—about his own work. "I mean, Christ," one onlooker laments, watching Palmer drive patrons en masse toward the exits. "Artists and writers—let them kill each other off in cage matches; let God sort it out."
Like almost everything in The Dream of Perpetual Motion, the scene is part farce, part act of willed convergence—an attempt to blur the lines between our reality and the fantastic imagined world. What a world it is. Zeppelins hang like bloated jellyfish over the horizon. Flying cars course through the skyways. An army of tin men marches through the streets. And on the top floor of the highest skyscraper in the city of Xeroville, the famous scientist Prospero Taligent entertains his adopted daughter, Miranda, with a unicorn, a manmade tropical ecosystem, and an army of mechanized savages.
Palmer's hero is Harold Winslow, a "failed writer with no voice of [his] own." As a child, Harold spent several months in Taligent Tower, entertaining the preadolescent Miranda. Now, fallen from Prospero's grace, he toils in the Xeroville Greeting-Card Works, writing cards "designed to be given by boys . . . too old for naïve sentiments that tumble clumsily off the tongue, and too young for cookie-cutter blank verses about love that preserves through ravaging time." He is miserable.
Salvation arrives in the form of a hasty letter from Miranda, begging Harold to rescue her. "I know it sounds weird to ask a favor like this of someone you haven't seen in about ten years," she apologizes, "but I'm trapped here, and I can't trust anyone, and you're my only hope." It's a tall order, of course, but Harold, who feels himself wilting away at the Greeting-Card Works, is desperate for stimulation, and off he goes, a knight in search of his "damsel in distress."
Palmer's publisher is billing The Dream of Perpetual Motion as a steampunk Tempest, but in truth, there's little resemblance save the names (Caliban and Ferdinand also make appearances) and an abiding fascination with illusion. Dreams seep into dreams, and Palmer continually reroutes the narrative. "These days we seek our pleasures out in single moments cast in amber, as if we have no desire to connect the future to the past," Harold announces. "Stories? We have no time for them; we have no patience." It's a lie, of course. For Palmer, there is nothing in the world but stories: "snatches of poems heard as a radio dial spins through its arc; incomplete commandants reclaimed from shattered stones."