Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review: The Great Victorian Collection

Written by Brian Moore
E.P. Dutton, 1985
First published 1975

There is still some confusion as to when Anthony Maloney first saw the Great Victorian Collection. Can it be said that he first envisaged the Collection in his dream? Or did he create it in its entirety only when he woke up and climbed out of his bedroom window? [p. 3]

Brian Moore's novel The Great Victorian Collection tells the wonderfully bizarre story of Anthony Maloney, a 29-year-old assistant professor of history at Canada's McGill University in Montreal, and an expert in Victoriana. One morning, while on a trip to San Francisco to attend a seminar at Berkeley, Maloney wakes up to find that a dream he's had has come true: Outside his hotel window a vast, magnificent collection of exquisite and rare Victorian objects has magically appeared in the hotel parking lot.

From that moment, Maloney's life is completely taken over by the care and maintenance of the collection. The mass of objects is so large it can't be moved, so the hotel management has to be placated. Security has to be seen to. The press and TV journalists are soon clamoring for interviews. Maloney acquires an agent and an assistant (and promptly falls in love with his assistant's young girl friend). Debates develop between rival academic camps – some claim the collection is the real thing, others believe the objects to be very skillful fakes; although no one seems able to explain how Maloney might have pulled off such a "hoax." And Maloney finds, somewhat to his dismay, that when he goes to sleep at night, he can only dream about the collection – he conjured it up, and he's destined to guard it – even in his dreams.

Throughout the book, Maloney himself struggles with the problem of just how real or unreal the collection might be. Was it actually created by his dream? Or is there some other mystery involved? And if it is just a manifestation of his imaginings, what exactly is allowing it to exist in the real world? Is it here to stay, or likely to disappear just as suddenly as it came into being? At one point, Maloney experiments with trying to remove an object – an antique toy train engine – from the collection only to find the engine seriously altered when he inspects it afterward:
And, on picking it up, [he] read the . . . incriminating legend: "Made in Japan."

Then, and only then, Maloney realized the laws of his creation. Already the toy engine reproached him, a small cancerous blemish on the perfect bloom of the whole. It had been given to him to envisage the Collection here, in a parking lot in California. Any further attempts to remove these items to some other location would result, not in the greatest collection of Victoriana the world had ever seen, but in an astonishing conglomeration of . . . fakes
. [p. 17]
In the end, the collection causes Maloney nothing but grief, and his attempts to maintain it in its pristine condition fail miserably. But that's all I'll say about the ending because there are twists and surprises I don't really want to reveal (including a strange subplot involving Mary Ann, the young companion of Maloney's assistant, and a road trip to Los Angeles).

This stunningly inventive, and deliciously weird novel won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Canadian Governor General's Award for Fiction in 1975, but seems to be out of print now (I had to hunt my copy down on eBay). And that's too bad. It really deserves to be rediscovered.

Challenges: 20 in 2009; 2009 TBR (Lite); Book Awards II; Read Your Own Books (RYOB); Winter Reading Challenge

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