Books: More force-fed than feasting

Dreamland by Kevin Baker Granta pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
In Simulations, his brilliant analysis of the post-modern condition, Jean Baudrillard describes a United States in which the endless proliferation of signs serves to disguise an absence of meaning. "Disneyland," he explains, "is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest [of America] is real" when actually, he argues, the rest of the US is like Disneyland, too, all signs and simulations, hyperreal instead of real. Kevin Baker's fascinating historical novel - the first of a planned trilogy - depicts a turbulent US in the incipient stages of this hyperreal state.

Baker takes us back to New York, 1910, to a city open to the steady flow of immigrants and to the sudden rushes of a nascent modernity. Every day, large crowds would go over to Coney Island to enjoy the lights and clamour of Dreamland, a sprawling amusement park boasting a papier-mache Underworld, a midget metropolis, a murderous elephant, and any number of vaudevillian sideshows. It seems that all mutant life was there, and, more frighteningly, on the streets of the city as well.

In pacy, anxious prose conveying the excitement and uncertainty of transient times, Baker alternates the narratives of his key players, and for each one picks out the idiosyncracies - the dialect and demeanour - of their immigrant lifestyles, whether they're from Italy, Portugal or, more commonly, Eastern Europe. There's Trick the Dwarf, physically the lowest of the lowlife (but morally superior), who, in his quest for a better life, will risk everything for love. Then there are the gangsters, Kid Twist and Gyp the Blood, who attempt to bludgeon their way to prosperity. Not forgetting Big Tim, a politician and fixer, who isn't averse to twisting a few arms himself. Indeed, there's an awful lot of violence in the book - gangland murders and maimings, woman-beating and rape, dog-baiting with rats - all rendered with enough blood and broken bones to illustrate convincingly the bitter underside of progress.

As if to counter and quiz these stories of avarice and brutality, Baker introduces another narrative strand, "The Head Doctors from Vienna". Here, the writing is calmer and less congested as we follow Jung and Freud on their trip to the New World to promote the science of psychology, the methodology for interpreting another kind of dreamland. We hear them analyse each other's fears and express their contrasting views on America (Jung positive, Freud unconvinced), but it's the growing antagonism between them which makes these episodes so entertaining. As Freud secretly worries that he will be superseded by his protege, the two great thinkers argue with a rapport suggestive of a comedy double act, their affectionate one- upmanship always leaving the other somewhat bemused. These shrewdly controlled, frequently funny scenes very much help to steady the book.

The same can be said of the final narrative perspective which focuses on Esther, a seamstress, as she struggles through long hours and atrocious conditions before marching (and fighting) for union recognition. Adding a much-needed ordinary humanity to the novel, the story - based on the New York City Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-10 - works because it finds a telling space between the bareknuckle realism of the city scenes and the cool detachment of the "head doctors" episodes. Only Esther's sentimental romance with Kid Twist threatens to detract from this emotive account of her life.

However, there are obvious problems with such a vast and hybrid narrative, not least of which is remembering the character you are following at any one point; the gangsters and freaks, especially, tend to merge until it's impossible to know who's who. Yet the quick-fire sentences, always fat with detail, lure you on; a whiskey is "sweetened with hot rum and camphor and benzene, and a few loose sweepings of cocaine and sawdust". Likewise, Baker displays a devilish glee in picturing sleazy interiors, from the "gin and bedsweat" of the whore-houses to the two-cent restaurants where the whiskey is served in an "old tomato can".

At times, though, it all feels more like a force-feeding than a feast, and the abundance of sensory information ultimately hinders the playing- out of the plot's intricacies. As a result, the book sometimes reads like a strange encyclopaedia of ribald anecdotes and historical fact, a demented epic reined in only by the author's comprehensive research. That said, it's an impressive feat of creative synthesis, with a prose style sufficiently animated to remain, for the most part, on the right side of the fact-fiction frontier. And by the end of book three of the trilogy we're bound to be in Disneyland.