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Book Review: Hyde

By (March 23, 2014) No Comment

Hydehyde cover
by Daniel Levine
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

It’s been almost twenty-five years since the appearance of Valerie Martin’s novel Mary Reilly, a pastiche on Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal 1886 novella “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Martin’s book sold well, and a few years after its publication it was adapted into a big-budget movie starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich (playing Dr. Jekyll’s housemaid and Dr. Jekyll, respectively, and not, as you might think, simply two aspects of the same hideously untalented over-actor). Mary Reilly is an effective novel for precisely the two reasons that pastiche-work always entices writers: first, it answers the natural readerly desire to ‘fill in the blanks’ of beloved stories, and second, it allows the reader to spend a little more time living in the worlds of those beloved stories.

A third appeal of pastiche-fiction has strengthened in the quarter-century since Mary Reilly was published: the rise of both the Internet and home video-gaming has created a reading public that’s almost immeasurably lazier than any reading public in any previous age of mankind. Hence the increased appeal of pastiche fiction (including of course the gigantic upsurge of ‘fan fiction’ from which several recent bestsellers have been derived), since pastiche fiction is the laziest species of fiction. A novelist who titles his book “Captain Nemo” or “Long John Silver” (or, once all the relevant lawyers have been staked in their coffins, “Katniss Everdeen” or “Harry Potter”) has already done the work of four or five chapters’ worth of writing – and his readers, more to the point, have already done four or five chapters’ worth of reading. This arrangement works out well for both parties; after all, writers have bitter festivals in Williamsburg to attend, and readers know that Flappy Bird isn’t going to play itself – we live in busy times.

So a certain sharp slant of praise is due to those few authors who use pastiche not as a lazy short-cut to their readers’ affection but rather as a way of digging deeper, of challenging that affection by standing old certainties on their heads. Such writers remind us that for every twenty or thirty by-the-numbers Sherlock Holmes knock-off novels that appear every season, there’ll be one or two pastiches that are more than simple loving tributes to source material. The most famous of these in recent years is certainly Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a smart and beautifully-done take on Frank Baum’s familiar “Wizard of Oz” universe. And fit to stand alongside it is Daniel Levine’s debut novel Hyde, out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in a lovely little hardcover that also (in an act of either sincere admiration or breathtaking chutzpa) includes the full text of Stevenson’s original story. Levine has delved deep into the story of Henry Jekyll’s famous alter ego, recasting much of Stevenson’s novella to make Edward Hyde not a lawless monster but a misunderstood hero. It’s a simple inversion, and Levine clearly relishes it, drumming the melodrama of his main character’s mysteries even in early conversation between Jekyll and his lawyer:

Utterson made an astounded noise. Harry, what on earth are you talking about? I’m talking about revising my will, John. Leaving everything you own to some – some protege? Your house? Your family estate? Who even is this man? First of all, as it stands, Jekyll said calmly, at my demise, the family estate will fall to my father’s sister’s step-grandchildren. They’re not blood. And if you are concerned that I’ll be cutting you out in the process, my friend, I hope you know – Stop it, Utterson interrupted. That’s not remotely my concern, and you know it. Harry, who is this man? You mean, Jekyll said, his name? Yes, all right, his name. What is his name? His name is Hyde. Edward Hyde.

This Edward Hyde a newborn man, very smart but also overwhelmed by the world around him, to which Jekyll’s machinations give him tantalizingly irregular access. He’s not evil, just over-stimulated, although even some of the reliable old stimulations fail to gain the traction they might have had in the bemusedly moralizing Victorian Stevenson:

I tried to divert us both over the next few days. I dropped into the Great Cornelius Luce’s hypnotism demonstration on Poland Street and stood in the beery hall while onstage the tailcoated maestro cast mental spells over his volunteers. I visited a dolly shop and let a blonde reeking of ambergris slap her rump up and down on my thighs on a pink circular bed. Afterward I lurked outside until a tall gentleman emerged and took a satisfied pinch of snuff, and I followed him into a side street with some vague notion of mischief, of teaching the geezer a lesson of some kind. But my heart wasn’t in it.

Hovering over all such narration, expertly invoked all throughout this effortlessly readable book, is the perfectly pointed question of that ‘my heart wasn’t in it’ – whose heart? Whose mind? One of the main brilliances of Stevenson’s novella is how sure-footedly it evokes Jekyll and Hyde as not only two personalities but two separate, physical beings; we keep expecting them to meet and reminding ourselves that they can’t – that the whole point is that they can’t. And here Levine brilliantly takes the baton from the master: Hyde is foremost a book of multiple, viable selves. And in addition to all its energetic rumblings of plot and character development (in addition to picking up on some of the half-hearted threads in Stevenson’s book, our author introduces a few plot-threads of his own – not all or even most successful, but not from want of sincerity), this book fractures and re-fractures the ideas of selfhood, and it uses a refreshing variety of means to do so. It’s not just that central potion of Jekyll’s but all such potions that we watch at work – and all of them very daniel levineevocatively described:

Yes, Jekyll urged me toward the opium. The miraculous black, sticky tar was kin to his laudanum in the brown bottle in the press – yet so much more potent when draw into the lungs and absorbed through the alveoli. I imagined I could actually feel the smoke dispersing through my capillaries like a healing milk, a magical balm, anointing my nerves. My fingertips were especially affected. I could spend hours caressing my splintery beard, enthralled by its electric crackling, or rubbing my fingertips together and deciphering the secret contained in their whorls. An opium hour is infinitely elastic, and when the wan pink dawn pierced the shanty walls, it would seem to me – goggle-eyed, transported – that the night had lasted for days.

The gesture of including Stevenson’s original novella as an appendix to all Levine’s thrilling fun is an obvious invitation for readers to keep going, to encounter or re-encounter Jekyll and Hyde in their first appearance. It’s a generous gesture and we must not believe it’s an uppity one, not meant to point out the gaps or flaws in Stevenson’s imagination but rather to pay due homage to his propulsive narrative skill. You won’t always find such generosity in pastiche-writers (a notorious example being the romance writer who commented that her boilermaker Jesus-novel was something of an improvement on the Gospels), but we can always hope that it’s the rule rather than the exception among the pastiche-writers who’ve praised Levine’s book in chorus.

Hyde deserves all such praise; it’s a thumpingly enjoyable novel, one that ought to bring its handsome young author as much acclaim as the original brought to its own handsome young author a century ago. And maybe a Broadway musical? Stranger things have happened.