the quincunx [book review]


“How then may we become free? Only by harmonising ourselves with the randomness of life through the untrammelled operation of the market.”

This is a 1989 book that I read about that time and had not re-read till last month…. The Quincunx is a parody of several of Charles Dickens’ novels, written by another Charles, Charles Palliser, far into the 20th Century. The name is obviously what attracted me first to this book, since it reminded me of Francis Galton’s amazing mechanical simulation device. Of course, there is nothing in the book that relates to Galton and its quincunx!

“Your employer has been speculating in bills with the company’s capital and, as you’ll conclude in the present panic, he has lost heavily. There’s no choice now but to declare the company bankrupt. And when that happens, the creditors will put you in Marshalsea.”

As I am a big fan of Dickens, I went through The Quincunx as an exercise in Dickensania, trying to spot characters and settings from the many books written by Dickens. I found connections with Great Expectations (for the John-Henrietta couple and the fantastic features in the thieves’ den, but also encounters with poverty and crime), Bleak House (for the judicial intricacies), Little Dorrit (for the jail system and the expectation of inheritance), Our Mutual Friend (for the roles of the Thames, of money, forced weddings),  Martin Chuzzlewit (again for complex inheritance stories), Oliver Twist (for the gangs of thieves, usury, the private “schools” and London underworld), David Copperfield (for the somehow idiotic mother and the fall into poverty), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (for the murder, of course!) And I certainly missed others. (Some literary critics wrote that Palliser managed to write all Dickens at once.)

“I added to the mixture a badly bent George II guinea which was the finest of all the charms.”

However, despite the perfect imitation in style, with its array of grotesque characters and unbelievable accidents, using Dickens’ irony and tongue-in-cheek circumlocutions, with maybe an excess of deliberate misspellings, Palliser delivers a much bleaker picture of Dickens’ era than Dickens himself. This was the worst of times, if any, where some multifaceted unbridled capitalism makes use of the working class through cheap salaries, savage usury, and overpriced (!) slums, forcing women into prostitution, men into cemetery desecration and sewage exploration. There is no redemption at any point in Palliser’s world and the reader is left with the impression that the central character John Huffam (it would be hard to call him the hero of The Quincunx) is about to fall into the same spiral of debt and legal swindles as his complete family tree.  A masterpiece. (Even though I do not buy the postmodern thread.)

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