Smoke: A Novel by Dan Vyleta (New York: Doubleday, 2016. 448 pp)

Dan Vyleta has lived in Germany, Canada, the USA, and the UK. With writing compared often to Kafka, Dostoevsky, Hitchcock, and Nabakov, Vyleta has written numerous books to critical acclaim, including making the shortlist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the winner of the J.I. Segal Award.

Sin and Sin Again

The history of humanity is a continuous struggle toward understanding why humans treat each other so disastrously. Any origin story or fable attempts to deal with the negative aspects of human relations. For some, it starts with the fruit of a tree and blossoms into brother murdering brother. For others, sin manifests itself in trickery and deceitfulness.

No matter the source, our human code wants to understand these basic notions of evil. Why does it exist? How does it happen? Why do we fall for it time and time again?

In Dan Vyleta’s magical realist take on Dickensian England, sin externalizes itself in smoke and soot. Smoke tells the story of bourgeois teenagers grappling with the sinfulness of society. Set in 1800s England, the rich and wealthy of society link most closely with the pure and holy. With sin literally dirtying everything it touches, the rich wear white linen as proof of the training achieved to never sin again.

The Laws of Smoke

Smoke’s protagonists, Thomas and Charlie, begin the hero’s journey at a boarding school for training of purity. Here, the students work toward understand the laws of smoke and finding ways to purge their base desires.

“The laws of Smoke are complex. Not every lie will trigger it. A fleeting thought of evil may pass unseen; a fib, an excuse, a piece of flattery. Sometimes you can lie quite outrageously and find yourself spared. Everyone knows the feeling, knows it from childhood: of being questioned by your mother, or your governess, by the house tutor; of articulating a lie, pushing it carefully past the threshold of your lips, your palms sweaty, your guts coiled into knots, your chin raised in false confidence; and then, the sweet balm of relief when the Smoke does not come. At other times, the Smoke is conjured by transgressions so trifling, you are hardly aware of them at all: you reach for the biscuits before they’ve been offered; you smirk as a footman slips on the freshly polished stairs. Next thing you know its smell of Smoke” (7).

Behind a tough façade, Thomas hides deep secrets about his family’s past. When provoked, Thomas’ smoke and soot feel different from the others. The dark, dense smolder suggests something more sinister underneath the surface.

Charlie, on the other hand, represents the honorable student, well attuned to a smokeless life. With a growing friendship, the school asks Charlie to accompany Thomas during winter break to Thomas’ extended family. Underlying the request, it seems, is the ability for Charlie to keep Thomas in line.

Sin as Separation

During this break, the boys uncover many aspects of smoke to propel them toward conflict and narrative resolution. Questions to smoke’s origins arise. Links between smoke and wealth become problematic.

“Smoke is infectious. It begets itself. People are to it nothing but carriers. There is a greater density of people in London than anywhere else on these, our isles. Here Smoke rules, runs rampant, fans theft, adultery, murder. It feeds on the alcoholic, the vagrant, the prostitute; coats the very city in its Soot. Pity those you meet as you pity the sick” (35).

And even more, smoke as a political tool runs in close parallel to our current geopolitical considerations:

“The Tory papers call it the ‘New Isolationism.’ A return to purity, both moral and ethnic. Kick out all the foreigners, all non-conformists. Chase off the Catholics and Jews. Limit trade to what we import ourselves from our Colonies. No more foreign sin! A high-minded bill. And incidentally rather lucrative for those who hold an import license. Your father can avenge you and line his pockets all in on quick swoop” (341).

And lastly, yet most problematically to the story, questions around love and relationships simmer when Thomas and Charlie discover a similar love interest.

When Love Loses the Way

Even though Vyleta presents an intriguing premise around the physical manifestation of sin in society, the love triangle runs counter to the emotional impact of the story. While I don’t reject love-interest developments in a story a priori, I find this particular implementation of relational chaos to be distracting. I understand Vyleta’s attempt to leverage love as an analytical tool into the values of our base desires, but people are more than a product of their sexual organs, and it seems too often that all coming-of-age narratives need to provide a fair dose of sexual frustration. Sometimes, people can be friends, especially when the overarching narrative upon which the group embarks would embody a significant amount of mind space.

Nevertheless, Smoke is an interesting read, particularly as a focus to the root of sin and questions to its influence. I recommend it to people who enjoy magical realism.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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