(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Spinning in the Boiler House, with sound from by Stephen Vitiello (Youtube).
I remember feeling very intrigued by the cover of All Those Vanished Engines, by Paul Park, when I first saw it a few months ago. Not having read anything by Park before, I made a mental note of giving the book a try. I was not prepared in the least for what was coming.
Saying that All Those Vanished Engines is not an easy read would be a huge understatement. The book consists of three novellas that are somehow related (or not) and each one is considerably more challenging than the previous one. There are stories within stories, subtle clues, unreliable narrators, autobiographical notes, doppelgängers, references to the real projects in the real world, ambiguous facts and, above all, lots of meta-literary elements. For instance, the first novella includes two different stories whose main protagonists are also the narrators of the other story, in the vein of some drawings by the wonderful M.C. Escher. In fact, I would describe All Those Vanished Engines as a kind of Cloud Atlas if it were written by Christopher Priest. But more convoluted.
If that sounds intriguing and original, it certainly is. But it is also extremely complicated to read, follow and understand. And that was my main problem with this book: it was way over my head. I had some trouble with the first story, but I more or less got it (or at least I think I did). Then, the second one was even more complicated and elusive and I found myself lost many times, not knowing what was happening or even when it was happening or who was telling it. By the time I got to the third part of the book, I had neither the energy nor the interested required to keep on reading and I only skimmed it.
There are nonetheless, many brilliant moments in All Those Vanished Engines. The idea of concurrent narrators in the first novella is just wonderful. And some of the images in the second are evocative and interesting. Take, for instance, this paragraph:
We thought these locations - in fact, in memory, and in the imagined present - might find their representation in the three defunct furnaces, all in a row, and in the three empty cubes of space, each one defined and encased with layers of rusted tubes.
Or this one:
Third, I thought you could build a story that would function as a machine or else a complex of machines, each one moving separately, yet part of a process that ultimately would produce an emotion or a sequence of emotions. You could swap out parts, replace them if they got too old. And this time you would build in some deliberate redundancy, if only just to handle the stress. One question was: Would the engine still work if you were aware of it, or if you were told how it actually functioned? Maybe this was one of the crucial differences between a story and a machine.
There are many fragments like these ones, and you can hardly get more meta-literary than that. These pieces are a clear commentary on the book itself, but also on the role of literature and art in general, and I really appreciated them, despite not being able to enjoy (or understand) most of this set of linked novellas.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that All Those Vanished Engines is not a good book. It is certainly ambitious and I'm sure it will be much liked by Paul Park fans (especially since I understand it is related to some of his previous works, such as A Princess of Roumania or Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, which are even mentioned on several occasions on this novel). But it was, definitely, too much for this limited and humble reader.