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Virtue and Vice Become Visible in New Novel 'Smoke'

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What would our world be like if every emotion we had was visible on our bodies? If our triumphs, but also our indiscretions, were revealed to the naked eye?

Dan Vyleta’s newest novel, Smoke, is set in an alternate reality Victorian England, where emotions are that discoverable. Anger, passion, lust, greed – they show up on characters' bodies and clothes as smoke – a fine dust that permeates everything and is very hard to erase once it appears. So of course, people go to great lengths to suppress the evidence of their feelings.

The concept for the book arose from a passage from the Charles Dickens novel Dombey and Son:

"If the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly to corrupt the better portion of a town. But if a moral pestilence that rises with them...could be made discernable, too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure."

There, Vyleta says, Dickens describes a slum in London plagued with disease. Dickens writes that if the upper classes could literally see the germs from the slums spreading and infecting the 'better parts of town,' they would be frightened.

Vyleta says what interested him was Dickens' second question: "But what if we could also make visible the moral germs that rise out of this pitiful place and equally infect the city around it?"

"So I read it as literally posed as a 'what if' question," he says, "and I thought, 'yeah, what if?'"

Vyleta explains that Dickens was a social reformist who felt that walling off or ignoring the unsavory would not make it disappear. "The truth is that by tolerating poverty and abject conditions, we are essentially living next to something that creeps into us without us seeing it," says Vyleta of Dickens' themes. 

Vyleta's starting point for his own book was "to think about a society where the divisions have become physically incarnate, you can read it on the skin, as arguably you already can, but we're in a constant process of denial." He says that the division of "virtue and vice, empowerment and disempowerment" is important. "It's a physical fact, and it's puzzling to people."  

Victorian England was a natural backdrop for the book. In part, Vyleta says, because "you can't say three words without being placed, geographically, in terms of social class... There's a sense of reading your background and your ambition." 

"It's important for me for it to feel real," he says. "If I look out the window, I don't understand most of the things that are happening on the street right now. There are too many motivations, people interpreting the world in too many different ways."

Because of this constant nuance of human behavior, "total understanding is an illusion, and kind of dangerous," assesses Vyleta. "People who think they understand everything are very dangerous people."

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018. She joined WUWM as a volunteer at Lake Effect in 2016, while she was a practicing criminal defense attorney.