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Book Review: Death and Mr. Pickwick

By (June 15, 2015) One Comment

Death and Mr. Pickwickdeath and mr pickwick cover

by Stephen Jarvis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

As if turning in an 800-page novel for a debut weren’t an outrageous enough thing, Stephen Jarvis has further outraged the sensibilities of the Twitter era by making that debut novel a Dickensian pastiche. The result is Death and Mr. Pickwick, an enormous, fustian, brooding, playful take on Charles Dickens’ own debut novel, the 1836 bestseller popularly known as The Pickwick Papers. And readers familiar with the genesis of that merriest of Dickens books will know at once the twist in the tale Jarvis so elaborately tells here: young Dickens, writing under the pen name ‘Boz,’ took over the penning of the monthly “Pickwick” installments and transformed them into a runaway bestseller shortly after the original illustrator of the series, Robert Seymour, killed himself. The backstairs scandal attached to the book, a scandal against which Dickens expended a great deal of effort throughout his life, was that Robert Seymour actually created the raw materials of Pickwick.

Death and Mr. Pickwick‘s opening stroke of genius is to make Robert Seymour the narrative focus of the book. Jarvis portrays him as a kind of natural genius, an illustrator who captures the inner essence of everything he sketches – although the capturing isn’t easy, as is underscored in an early scene where Seymour shows his work to a young friend:

Seymour took out his sketchbook and embarked on a rapid drawing of the angler. ‘You know, Wonk,’ said Seymour as he added details, ‘an angler seeks three things. To catch many fish, to catch large fish, and to catch difficult fish. The bungling angler has these ambitions too – except that he will catch no fish at all – or if he does catch a fish it will be a very small one – and if he should land a difficult fish he will sustain personal injury and be arrested for trespass. Here.’ In the drawing, the angler had sat so long in the same position that a spider had woven a web between his person and his rod. ‘I might call this “A Study in Patience”.’ He very deliberately made the flourish with his hands.

‘You draw so effortlessly, Robert,’ said Wonk.

‘No, it is not effortless!’ The sudden anger made Wonk start.

‘I meant to say,’ said Wonk, ‘that you draw so quickly. You could sell pictures like these. Perhaps you could even get the etched and printed, and sell lots of copies.’

That quick shift from art to commerce is the heart of the book. With lavish, garrulous detail, Jarvis takes his readers into the seamy underworld of early 19th century London, filling his story with dozens of vivid, very Dickensian characters and fleshing everything out with frequent wonderful set-piece location descriptions:

It was an afternoon in Whitechapel two summers on, and there was hope, commerce and energy. Carts pulled by man, dog and horse, all laden with goods from the wharves, gave a businesslike buzz, while local breweries and sugar refineries scented the air. The sound of hammering and sawing emerged from numerous small workshops. There were fine public houses too, whose large doors welcomed in the customers, as did all their decorations, which caught the sun – the etched glass, the chandeliers, the mirrors, the smiling landlords on the doorsteps. Tanned faces of rivermen sitting by beers gave the impression of happy souls who had just finished their working day. Few on the streets of Whitechapel manifested imminent despair.

But the whole of this shambling, sprawling story continues to come back to that simple line “you could sell pictures like these.” In portrait after portrait of publishers, book agents, printers, and booksellers, Jarvis shows us the broiling underworld from which so many of our canonical classics were compromised into being. When the great illusrating Cruikshank brothers Robert and George, and the “sporting journalist” Pierce Egan pause to wonder about the commercial potential of something like Pickwick – and where that potential comes from:

‘Do you think this would sell?’ said Robert.

‘I think it would. People would like to see all sides of life in London. What if they could see the city in the safety of their own homes? No pickpockets, no violence, no dirt. So yes, they would buy.’

‘The whole of London?’ said George.

‘A one-mile radius of Piccadilly forms a complete cyclopedia of the world,’ said Egan. ‘The world that matters, at least. Life, gentlemen, life. People want to see it.’

Jarvis has overloaded his novel in a way that was common in the age of Dickens; characters and plots and sub-plots and red herrings abound in every section and place demands on the reader’s attention and retention that’s of a piece with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries or Lauren Owen’s The Quick. It’s every bit as satisfying as those earlier pastiches, although a pleasant word of warning: read The Pickwick Papers first.