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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1858

Author: Dan Vyleta (b. 1974)

Publisher: Doubleday (New York). 448 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Alternate nineteenth century

Locale: England

Dan Vyleta’s novel Smoke imagines an alternate nineteenth-century England in which sinful thoughts and bad deeds manifest themselves as Smoke excreted from one’s body.

Principal characters

Thomas, a newcomer and misfit student at an unnamed, prestigious boarding school who is prone to bursts of a fiery temperCourtesy of Doubleday

Charlie, a fellow student and Thomas’s only friend

Julius, the school’s resident bully and prefect

Dr. Renfrew, the school’s forward-thinking but puritanical Master of Smoke and Ethics

Lady Naylor, an amateur scientist who studies Smoke

Livia, Lady Naylor’s daughter, who is obsessed with purity

Dan Vyleta’s Smoke is a historical fantasy novel set in an alternate, nineteenth-century England. In it, two schoolboys—a misfit, Thomas, and his only friend, Charlie—grapple with the meaning of purity. In Vyleta’s England, humans must contend with an excretion called Smoke, a bilious, greasy cloud that can be emitted from a person’s pores if they sin. In the book’s gripping first scene, Thomas and Charlie are rudely awakened in the middle of the night. Prefect Julius has summoned all of the boys in the dormitory to gather in the cavernous bathroom. Pulling names out of a sack, Julius brings boys forward one at a time and forces them to submit to a strange interrogation. Under the guise of aiding self-improvement, Julius asks the humiliating or anger-inducing questions in an effort to get the boys to smoke. He succeeds in making one boy smoke in anger, which leaves a sweat stain, the color of ink, on his clean, white nightshirt. This is unfortunate for the boy, who will be punished for the stain when it appears in his laundry (Smoke is very hard to get out of clothes).

Smoke exits the body through the pores or mouth. It tastes bitter, and it can also be felt and smelled. Sometimes, Smoke leaves an ashy residue called Soot. The popular teaching is that Smoke comes from the soul; if a person is smoking, it is an indication that they have lied, committed a crime, had a lustful thought, or expressed anger. Smoke can only be controlled through arduous self-policing. The rich, already significantly divided from the poor by money and class, use Smoke as another way to separate themselves from the lower classes. The rich tend to smoke less, taught control in fancy schools like Thomas and Charlie’s or able to afford secret aids to stop smoking, but it is all passed off as piety. In this way, it is a brilliant commentary on Victorian social mores and how they informed the era’s deep class divide. Victorians believed that the poor were morally inferior. In Smoke, the rich, like Charlie and Thomas, attend elite schools to learn to control their Smoke. While powerful adults—all men—sample Smoke in the form of cigarettes made from Soot, and then suck on hard candies, a sort of anti-Smoke, to hide the evidence, the poor smoke constantly out of misery.

Vyleta explores class, but he also explores, at various points in the novel, sexuality, science, anti-intellectualism, political corruption, and colonialism. The world of Smoke is richly detailed but, as many reviewers pointed out, often collapses under its own intellectual weight. Charles Finch, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, wrote that Smoke, the book’s unifying subject, is freighted by so much meaning “that it eventually becomes meaningless.” Vyleta was inspired to write Smoke after reading a passage from the Charles Dickens novel Dombey & Son (1848), in which Dickens describes London’s dank curtain of coal smoke. Dickens muses about the corruptible cloud: “But if the moral pestilence that rises with [it] . . . could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation!” (The quote sheds light on another aspect of Smoke—wafting sin begets more sin.)

Vyleta was inspired by Dickens in subject but also appears to have been inspired in form as well. The mystery of where Smoke came from and a plot to uncover its source emerges, and Thomas, Charlie, and a young girl named Livia embark on an adventure through England to solve it. Unfortunately, critics uniformly agreed that the plot somewhat derails at this point, and is full enough of long lyrical asides that it becomes a bit difficult to follow. Frustrating as this may be for some readers, the confusion appears to be a part of Vyleta’s larger, more cerebral intentions for the novel. In his afterword, he writes with conviction about the book’s purpose—that it is “political” but also contains “no thesis.” He describes Smoke as a “jazz solo,” a riff on morality, rather than a straightforward thriller.

Regardless of Vyleta’s intentions, Smoke has been compared to fantasy books such as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. (These novels are classified as young-adult literature; Smoke is not, though it features teenage protagonists.) In The Golden Compass (1996), the first book in Pullman’s trilogy, a girl named Lyra becomes familiar with a particle known as Dust. Like Smoke, Dust is feared by the powerful as the manifestation of sin. (Finch suggests that Pullman falls prey to his own concept in the same way Vyleta does.) Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, is a rebellious figure who researches Dust. His intentions are ambiguous, but his discoveries fuel the subsequent novels in the series. Vyleta has a similar character in Lady Naylor. Continuing the work of her bedridden husband, Lady Naylor seeks the origin of Smoke. Her research spawns a diabolical plan, the particulars of which become the novel’s major plot line in the final stretch.

Vyleta is the author of three historical novels, his most recent being The Crooked Maid (2013), which is set in post–World War II Vienna. The Crooked Maid is a sequel to Vyleta’s second book, The Quiet Twin (2011). Both novels are ostensibly murder mysteries, though reviewers noted Vyleta’s loose allegiance to the genre and to realism in general. The Quiet Twin describes the surreality of life under the Nazis, while the tone of The Crooked Maid, as described by Esi Edugyan for the Guardian, is akin to works of German Expressionism in that its form is an inner darkness made manifest. Vyleta’s debut, Pavel & I (2008), is a thriller set in the rubble and squalor of postwar Berlin. In Smoke, Vyleta stays true to form with a historical setting, a mysterious plot, and the cerebral nature of some of the writing, while diverging with a jump into fantasy.

Like Dickens, Vyleta has an eye for detail—particularly when he is describing the wretched or disgusting. In another well-executed early scene, Thomas and Charlie join their classmates on a trip to London. The trip was once a tradition at the school. The forward-thinking new Master of Smoke and Ethics, Dr. Renfrew, lobbied for the trip to be reinstated. It should be noted that the school is a cold and unwelcoming place. The food is bad and friends are hard to come by—thus the boys are eager to embark on a journey to an unknown place. None of them have ever been to London. Their excitement makes Vyleta’s reveal all the more powerful. The train arrives in the station “literally encased in Soot,” and when they arrive in the city, the Smoke of London blots out the sun. The Smoke stains their clothes and seeps into their skin, making them feel excited, irritable, aggressive, and afraid. As they make their way through the streets, Vyleta describes the queasy evil of Smoke:

Drunks and beggars line the house fronts, slumped against the plaster; they display mangled limbs and open sores, or simply sleep away their stupor. Children dart through the press of the crowd, some in play, some loaded with goods for delivery or sale. The street is made of black muck five inches deep, soggy with meltwater. It takes Charlie a while to realize that it consists of Soot, deposited over decades and centuries.

Later, the boys watch a woman, a murderess swirling with Smoke, hanged for her crime. Underneath the platform of the gallows, Thomas witnesses an even more fearful sight—a hooded figure scraping Soot from the women’s corpse and sealing it in a jar. Vyleta’s London is horrifyingly specific; it sticks in the mind like Soot. Interestingly, it is also very close to the London of Dickens, who sought to make powerful people confront just how terrible the slums really were. Vyleta is at his best when his writing serves a similar purpose. The boys, wealthy and concerned only with their own Smoke, are shocked by what they see. Vyleta emphasizes this disconnect later when Thomas and Charlie visit Thomas’s aunt, Lady Naylor, for Christmas. From the Naylors’ wealthy estate, the boys find themselves, through an odd sequence of events, on the run and living with a family of coal miners. Livia, Lady Naylor’s daughter who is with the boys, must grapple with her own privilege as it dawns on her that the miners’ lives depend on the whims of people such as her parents.

Vyleta touches on a larger empathy divide in which the powerful focus on sin itself rather than the people committing the sins because they suffer. The English government has locked down its borders to keep the English people from learning about Smoke, or the lack thereof, in other countries—a modern, realistic corollary might be a church forbidding its congregants from learning about evolution. But the other end of the spectrum is just as dicey. Dr. Renfrew is a reformer and a scientist. He wants to understand Smoke, but like his mentor Lord Naylor, he falls prey to a kind of self-gratifying righteousness in pursuing that quest. (Another plot point, involving certain indigenous cultures that do not smoke, complicates the ethics of the book further.) He obsesses about Smoke—about his own sins and the sins of others, particularly his young niece—to such a degree as to obscure any value to the greater good. His goal becomes purity, a mastery of his own impulse to sin, rather than education or liberty. The resulting heady asides—about human imperfection, discipline, and empathy—can become convoluted, but at moments, provide serious food for thought in an ideologically divided age.

Review Sources

  • Finch, Charles. Review of Smoke, by Dan Vyleta. TheNew York Times, 10 June 2016, Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
  • Mandelo, Brit. “Passions in Dust: Smoke by Dan Vyleta.” Review of Smoke,by Dan Vyleta. Tor, 21 June 2016, Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
  • Quinn, Annalisa. “Smoke Author Dan Vyleta Keeps It Messy.” Review of Smoke, by Dan Vyleta. NPR, 22 May 2016, Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
  • Roberts, Adam. “Smoke by Dan Vyleta Review—Visions of Sin.” Review of Smoke, by Dan Vyleta. The Guardian, 13 July 2016, Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
  • Review of Smoke, by Dan Vyleta. Kirkus, 15 Mar. 2016, Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.

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