THE ABOMINABLE, by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown and Company, 663 pp., $29.
Since Dan Simmons' new novel of mountaineering, lengthy technical explanations, Nazis and the occasional yeti is titled "The Abominable," you should know at the outset that it is not a horror story. Indeed, defining the book at all seems to have eluded the publisher, who billed it as a "thrilling tale of high-altitude death and survival set on the snowy summits of Everest" -- but be advised that the characters aren't even kitted out and in the correct hemisphere until well after the 200th page, and thrilling, gentle reader, is in the eye of the beholder.
Simmons has enough truly enjoyable novels on his resume (including "The Terror," now in development as a TV series on AMC) that it's hard to glibly dismiss one of his books. The plot, as such, follows Jake Perry as he is recruited by a mysterious benefactor and legendary mountain climber named Richard Davis Deacon, who leads a team composed of himself, the plucky and beautiful Regina (Reggie), Jake, and a young Frenchman named Jean-Claude up Mount Everest in search of Reggie's missing cousin, Percy. There are threads of World War II intrigue and might-be supernatural woven throughout. But I desperately wanted Simmons to just tell the story rather than drowning the reader in stultifying factoids that could only amaze somebody who's never heard of Wikipedia.
Thus "The Abominable" is populated not so much by characters as by little faucets of exposition and irrelevance with British or French or German accents, which Simmons leaves running for long, long, long passages. "I wear the usual wool underlayers, but the sweat buildup is less because of the breathing capabilities of the eiderdown," explains one character over dinner to two men he's just met. "The eiderdown would lose its insulating qualities when soaked -- it's the pockets of air it creates that kept the goose, and now me in the jacket of the goose's down, warm -- but the balloon fabric I chose resists water short of a full immersion in a lake.' " Tell me less about that.
I wish I could say that the obvious depth of his research makes all of Simmons' climbs and gunfights crystal clear, but in fact it has the opposite effect. The writer appears to be allergic to similes and metaphors and instead opts for exhaustive description that veers between the repetitive (I never want to hear the phrase "12-point crampon" again) and the terminally confusing. "I'm far west of where the First Step rises so far above me on the North East Ridge and almost have reached a point below the terrible Second Step." I'm sorry, where? Seriously, bring a map.
As a precise book about mountain climbing, "The Abominable" lags behind recent classics like Jon Krakauer's nonfiction "Into Thin Air," in which the detail is focused and in support of larger points; as a novel, it's so narratively thin and physically thick as to be inexcusable. Long books can be wonderful, but with this one, Simmons appears to have invented a brand-new genre: the nearly 700-page novella.