Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s latest novel, Fever Dream, like most of their books, changes scenes with regularity. This time, the action moves among locations in Africa, Louisiana, New York, Georgia, Maine, the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and Mississippi. Eve when the action does manage to settle down for a moment, in one state, the story tends to move among lesser locations, such as towns, swamps, and plantations.
Because the action shifts among a variety of scenes, the opening paragraphs of the book’s chapters are largely devoted to the task of setting the scenes. Douglas and Preston accomplish this goal with economy, making each chapter interesting in itself, despite its similar mission with most of its brethren, by employing a variety of rhetorical and poetic devices.
The chapters in which a new or recurring scene occurs begins with a tagline, announcing the location, which is followed by the opening chapter. The first chapter is labeled “Musalangu, Zambia,” which is followed with this description of the place:
The setting sun blazed through the African bush like a forest fire, hot yellow in the sweltering evening that gathered over the bush camp. The hills along the upper Makwele Stream rose in the east like blunt green teeth, framed against the sky (1).The authors employ two similes, “sun. . . like a forest fire” and “hills. . . like teeth,” which add interest to what might have been an otherwise rather mundane description, and the second figure of speech suggests danger and, more specifically, a bestial danger, which the beginning of the story soon delivers in the death of Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast’s wife Helen, who is killed and devoured by a rogue lion.
Chapter 2 begins with the tagline, “Kingazu Camp, Luangwa River,” and involves the readers in the story’s action, as Pendergast and Helen drive to the camp mentioned in the chapter’s tagline. The writers’ description puts their readers inside the vehicle in which the characters make their way to their destination; the readers can all but feel every bump and jolt of the rough ride:
The Land Rover banged and lurched along the Banta Road, a bad track in a country legendary for them. Pendergast turned the wheel violently left and right to avoid the yawning potholes, some almost as deep as the bashed-up Rover. The windows were wide open--the air-conditioner was broken--and the interior of the car was awash in dust blown in by the occasional vehicle passing in the other direction (6).Involving the readers in the action creates a sense of immediacy, a sense of you-are-here, which gives them a stake in the characters’ mission. Thanks to Preston and Child’s use of this technique, their readers are literally along for the ride. This opening chapter also employs a personification; the potholes in the road are “yawning,” which may recall the simile, in the previous chapter’s opening paragraph, in which “hills” were likened to “blunt green teeth.” The authors seem, again, to remind their readers, albeit rather subtly, that there is a dangerous predator not far ahead--a “yawning” mouth full of “blunt green teeth,” the “green” of which could symbolize the African veldt--or a denizen therein.,
The opening paragraph to chapter 3 (which is labeled “The Fever Trees”) sets up a stark contrast between nature, as represented by the African veldt, and civilization, as represented by Kingazu Camp. The jungle is quiet, seemingly “subdued,” and its stillness contrasts with the busyness of the camp’s residents as they go about their daily business. The relative quiet of the seemingly somnolent jungle, however, appears deceiving, somewhat like the calm that precedes a storm, because the authors include the phrase “false dawn,” suggesting that the daybreak which illuminates the dark continent is somehow deceitful or fraudulent. In short, it would be a mistake, perhaps, to let down one’s guard. Even when the jungle appears to be at rest, it is a dangerous place:
The night had been silent. Even the local prides that often tattooed the darkness with their roars were lying low, and the usual chatter of night animals seemed subdued. The sound of the river was a faint gurgle and shush that belied the massive flow, perfuming the air with the smell of water. Only with the false dawn came the first noises of what passed for civilization: hot water being poured into shower-drums in preparation for morning ablutions (13).The suggestion of deceitfulness or fraud that the phrase “false dawn” creates is echoed, and reinforced, by other phrases. “The river was a faint. . . shush,” readers are told--and they are likely to think the noun “shush” strange in this context; normally, one does not think of a river as making a “shushing” sound such as librarians sometimes make to quiet noisy young patrons. Moreover, like the “subdued” jungle animals, the river seems to be in a conspiracy with the dawn to suppress some secret; the sounds that it makes--”a faint gurgle and shush”--themselves are deceitful, as it were, for they are “belied” by the river’s “massive flow.”
Finally, the opening paragraph to this chapter suggests that nature, as represented by the jungle, which is full of mighty forces--”lions, “night animals,” and a “river” of “massive flow”--is characterized as powerful, perhaps predatory, whereas civilization is portrayed as paltry and weak. One of the few improvement that the camp has been able to the offerings of nature is meager, indeed: The water from the river has been heated so that “hot water” may be “poured into shower-drums in preparation for morning ablutions.” Humans, who often fancy themselves to be the masters of nature, are here characterized as being something more like its parasites--or potential prey.