Mark Dunn's Under the Harrow (2010) is quite possibly the oddest book I've read in some time--which I mean in a good way. Think neo-Victorian-cum-dystopia-cum-conspiracy thriller, and you'll get the (unusual) idea. Dunn sets his novel in Dingley Dell, a mysterious valley community in the USA whose entire way of life derives from a combination of a) the complete works of Charles Dickens, b) the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (minus a few entries), and c) the KJV. Dingley Dell, founded in the 1880s, is entirely cut off from the rest of the world (the Outland or Beyond), except for regular commercial exchanges at the barrier; those who explore the outside world and return apparently develop some mysterious mental disorder that leads to their incarceration in the Dingleyan version of Bedlam. But as the plot leisurely unfolds under the supervision of Frederick Trimmers, crusading journalist, we eventually discover that Dingley Dell was originally the equivalent of a "feral child" experiment on a massive scale, surviving as a reality show-type plaything for the wealthy. Known officially as the Tiadaghton Project, Dingley Dell turns out to be part of a massive conspiracy that touches even "the assassination of a United States President named Kennedy" (473). Alas, the project is coming to an end, thanks to profit motive, and the Dingleyans are all destined for immediate execution by some combination of fire, flood, and bullets.
The novel's deliberately arch, even twee style contrasts starkly with its actual subject matter. Dunn's prose doesn't aim for the Dickensian; instead, it combines archaisms and a somewhat pedantic vocabulary with sentence structures that usually live up to twenty-first century expectations. Even the longer sentences lack typical Dickensian characteristics (e.g., asyndeton). To give an example from early on: "So began what was to become the longest month of my life, given all that eventually took place therein, as events began to transpire with accelerating rapidity over the course of those tumbling weeks" (19). Trimmers often shows a fondness for adverbs, adjectives, and auxiliary verbs, all of which expand his sentences. But, more to the point, the vaguely-but-not-quite cod Victorian style echoes the neither-here-nor-there status of the Dingleyans themselves, whose neo-Victorianness has been stretched and warped by the passage of time. (When presented with modern technology, like a television set or a bus, the Dingleyans tend to be remarkably calm.) The Grishamesque/Brownesque plot points jar strangely against Trimmers' prose; at first, it's hard to believe that Dingleyans may well be shot on sight if they escape the valley. However, the Beyonder characters bring with them their own recognizably twenty-first century speech, a stylistic rupture that underlines the intrusive violence to come: "'And then whatever genocidal plans the Project has in store will go into effect immediately--as of right then and there, Ruthie'" (181). The tension between subject matter--imprisonment, arson, mass murder--and Trimmers' style mushrooms as the novel proceeds, until we reach the literal and symbolic flood that finally does in the valley. ("Where was fairness and justice in this cosmological equation?" rages our distraught narrator.)
It's tempting to read the novel as an allegory for quite a lot of things, whether for the dangers of exoticizing Others or the moral threat of rampaging commercialism (a.k.a. greed), but what interested me was its twist on the concept of "the neo-Victorian." Dingley Dell is a culture founded on Dickens, loaded with characters sporting names straight from Dickens--Newman, Fagin, Micawber, etc. Its technology is largely stuck in the Victorian age (although the Moles, who are cooperating with those outside, have modern tech in their basements--sort of neo-Victorian man caves). Moreover, it initially appears to be a neo-Victorian utopia of conservative cultural values, in which even the badly-behaved children sit up straight, the entire society is Christian, and everyone aspires to a good family life. And, for once, there is no explicit sex anywhere to be seen. At the same time, we see that the oppressions against which Dickens inveighed return under new guises--a culture founded on Dickens replicates more than the hail-fellow-well-met jollity associated with the end of A Christmas Carol. Still, as the plot unfolds, the novel suggests the inevitable impermanence of this "Victorian values" fantasy: much as some resident of the Dell pens a sequel to Oliver Twist, in which he finally grows up to be...absolutely average, apparently, the novel makes clear that even the most Victorian of values will eventually morph into something else, both declining to the human average (or beneath it) and rising to more optimistic heights. For all that Dingley Dell appears at first to be a perfectly nostalgic space, forever frozen in metaphorical amber, it in fact has its own historical arc. Even under artificial constraints, culture still moves on.