A friend of mine, Angie, worked in a literacy program for adolescents in Houston. Each week, she had a small budget to take them to bookstores and comic shops. The kids had varied tastes: Some liked high fantasy, others superhero stories, many enjoyed realistic portrayals of teenage life. But one quality they all demanded of their books was size. Volume. She might suggest titles they could finish in an afternoon, but they always refused. Finally, Angie asked why the big books were in high demand. The kids waved the tomes as if the answer were self-evident: “To show off,” they said.
Dan Simmons is a big-book writer. Two of his recent novels — “The Terror” and “Drood” — clock in at almost 800 pages apiece. Both were bestsellers, and both displayed Simmons’s prodigious research. “The Terror” told the story of Capt. John Franklin’s doomed voyage to the Arctic, and “Drood” imagined the last years in the life of Charles Dickens.
“The Abominable” continues in this vein with a fictionalized account of the race to climb Mount Everest in 1925. This one clocks in at a svelte 663 pages, but it’s still a behemoth. Angie’s question to her kids — “Why such big books?” — occurred to me as I read “The Abominable.” What are big books meant to do?
Early in “The Abominable,” a three-man climbing team — Richard David Deacon, Jean-Claude Clairoux and Jacob William Perry — have just scaled the Matterhorn. But even here the men can’t escape bad news. A newspaper brought with them carries word that famed mountaineer George Mallory has died trying to climb Everest. The group’s leader, Richard, had gone on a previous Everest attempt with Mallory, and he seems shaken by the news of his old colleague’s death. But as the team descends the Matterhorn, he makes a surprising offer to Jean-Claude and Jacob: “Would you care to accompany me on a fully funded expedition to climb Mount Everest in the next spring and early summer of nineteen twenty-five?” Without hesitation, Jacob and Jean-Claude say yes.
If it were really that simple, this wouldn’t be much of a novel, though. Jacob, Jean-Claude and Richard will have their quest complicated by Lady Bromley, their financier, who will fund them only if they’ll search for her son, who was lost on the mountain around the same date as Mallory. In Munich, they’ll have a run-in with some unimaginatively drawn Nazis. Their three-man team will expand to include an accomplished woman climber, a Tibetan doctor and 30 sherpas. And of course, there is the possibility, implied by the title, that the mythical yeti roams the great mountain.
Sounds like good fun. There’s all this story to be told and much more besides. And yet the middle of this book suffers. Why?
Research. Simmons has clearly done a phenomenal amount of reading. Some of the climbs are so vivid I’d swear Simmons has done some mountaineering. But there isn’t a hiking maneuver or a piece of hiking gear that Simmons is willing to gloss over. Whether its pages and pages about Primus stoves or Mark VI oxygen packs, you can be sure you’ll read way too much about way too much.
The average reader can skim all this without losing anything.
And yet with all my carping about the research, I did find myself genuinely affected by the time I finished “The Abominable.” After all, I’d been traveling through countries and up mountains with this crew. I’d seen some survive and others die in ways that were admirable or foolish or horrifying. There are so many small, vivid moments in these pages, such as when an oxygen tank clanks all the way down a 1,000-foot drop in a glacier. By the end, I felt Simmons had led me on an epic journey, and I was grateful for it.
Maybe when Angie’s kids said they liked big books because they could “show off,” they were explaining only part of the appeal. After all, most of those kids regularly returned for more. Spend days, or weeks, inside a book and it becomes a companion. We come to cheer the triumphs and forgive the missteps because few of us will ever reach such heights.
LaValle is the author, most recently, of “The Devil in Silver,” now out in paperback.
By Dan Simmons
Little, Brown. 663 pp. $29