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In An Alternate 19th Century London, Sins Are Marked With 'Smoke'


What if nearly every dark thought or deed that crossed your mind was visible? What if your body betrayed you by signaling to everyone around you that you did a bad, bad thing? That's the world imagined by Dan Vyleta in his new novel "Smoke." It's set in an imagined Victorian-era England where people emit a plume of smoke with every sin. He joins us from the BBC in Birmingham, England, to talk more about it. Welcome.

DAN VYLETA: Hey (laughter), great to be here.

CORNISH: So how did you come up with the idea - the, like, central idea of the book - this idea of us not being able to hide our worst thoughts or impulses?

VYLETA: I read a passage in a Dickens novel "Dombey and Son," which is not one of his best-known novels. And the narrator's looking at a slum, and he's musing that if he could see, you know, the disease rising out of the slum - all the fever, all the neglect, the hunger - and see them drift up the hill to the better parts of town, we would be very scared.

And then he goes on to say, but imagine if you could see the moral disease rising out of the same slum, if it was a dark plume rising out of this hole. And you know, there it was. My world emerged right there out of that sentence.

CORNISH: And we mentioned it being set in England, in and around London, which - and in a period where there are a lot of factories, right? And so this image of a city just surrounded by smoke and fog takes on something new when you think of it representing moral failing (laughter), basically.

VYLETA: I mean, part of what I'm imagining about the smoke that sort of seeps out of your skin - it might come out of your breath or your throat depending on what you're thinking about - part of the thing about it is that it's infectious.

It's not just that I'm sinning and you can see it. It will crawl across the room and touch your skin, and you will inhale my anger, say, or my avarice. And it will infect your very thought. And after a while, you too will start to smoke.

CORNISH: And the main characters in the book are Thomas and Charlie, these two young boys in a boarding school. They're essentially being trained to be good, to never emit smoke. And as we all know from the many books that have been written about boarding school (laughter), that's not exactly how things shake out.

You went to boarding school, right? What makes it a good setting for this kind of story?

VYLETA: (Laughter) I - yeah, I spent a year on a scholarship, actually, in a boarding school on the East Coast of the United States, which...

CORNISH: Right, just like the character - right? - Thomas. He's also a scholarship student.

VYLETA: He's also a newbie, which I think I was for my whole year there. You know, it's interesting to see the - I think the New England model is very much modeled on the British mode that connects to something, I think, in American culture that's kind of a Puritan narrative where success in life and moral superiority are kind of mapped onto each other.

So in other words, the elites train themselves not to smoke and can then rule in the smug knowledge that they are actually morally superior to the people they are governing. So there's this sort of strange reinforcement.

CORNISH: So get into this more. How - what are the parallels to you between present-day U.S. and Victorian England when it comes to class?

VYLETA: Well, I think - I mean, it's interesting. In the actual Victorian era, I think what went on there is that people with no class difference - the moment they locked eyes on each other because somebody would be dirty and the other person would be clean - they would wear different clothes - you could literally read it on their skin. You could smell it.

And you know, obviously we live in quite a different world now, and yet I think there's a sort of element of that if you look closely, right? I mean, there's a difference between a person who has to work 18-hour days and has no time to exercise, has no money to buy better clothing, et cetera.

So if you think about all these things mapping themselves onto bodies across a lifetime, we're not as un-classed or past this stage as we think.

CORNISH: As you are promoting this book during the election cycle (laughter), is there something here that you now feel like maybe captures the mood - right? as people are talking about the election in the U.S., especially because there's so much talk about the 1 percent or a kind of us-versus-them rhetoric?

VYLETA: Well, it was fascinating. So when - I was in the States recently to talk to people about the book, and so many of them just wanted to talk politics. And one of the things, of course, is the moment in a Trump rally, specifically where there were these eruptions of violence, right?

And of course, I was thinking of my smoke, and I saw those rooms as smoke-filled spaces full of anger. And that anger clearly exists, I think, in society at large about privilege, about sort of a system that is built on a certain model of social mobility that no longer is working. So I think people are probing this idea whether their own lack of success is really due to a lack of skill or of hard work.

CORNISH: The, is it me, or is it the system?

VYLETA: That I think is being interrogated with new ferocity.

CORNISH: How was this a challenge for you as a writer because I can imagine it can get pretty ham-handed (laughter) at a certain point, right? I mean, I feel like fiction writers - a lot of it is trying not to be so obvious about who's the villain, who's the good guy. And now you have this world where people are (laughter) literally constantly showing whether or not they're thinking a bad thing.

VYLETA: Yes. In one way, it's - smoke is almost like an additional limb.

CORNISH: Yeah, it's like this fictional body function that you can evoke at will (laughter)...


CORNISH: ...For your own narrative.

VYLETA: So in some ways, that's a liberty. I think the trick is to take people seriously enough that their smoke doesn't become a cliche. In other words, nobody is just smoking. Smoke is never simple. It's hard to imagine a certain kind of pride, for instance, that doesn't have an edge of anger. Or it's hard to imagine a certain kind of love that doesn't have an edge of a wish to dominate, say.

And I think these kind of complexities you can write into the smoke, you can write into to the characterization. And it moves you beyond a (unintelligible) of black and white.

CORNISH: How has writing this book kind of changed the way you observe people in your own life? You've had to create this world where people show their emotions in so many different ways. What have you learned? What has changed for you?

VYLETA: Well, I think there's - I mean, there's two things. I think there are moments when I now think to myself or I'll say to my partner, I'd be smoking now or, that person would be smoking. If you've lived in this world, you start thinking in terms of the world to some degree.

The other thing that has happened to me is, you know, it makes me interrogate moments where I think I'm uncomfortable; I don't like how these people behave. Is that because I'm uptight and they're actually liberated? Are they living in the smoke, and I am sort of the good, middle-class, self-disciplined party pooper here?

CORNISH: (Laughter).

VYLETA: Because in a sense, what the book is suggesting is that we have to live in the middle ground between smoke and non-smoke. And the middle ground is a difficult place to live.

CORNISH: Well, Dan Vyleta, thank you so much for talking to us about this book. It was really intriguing.

VYLETA: Thank you for taking the time.

CORNISH: Dan Vyleta's new novel "Smoke" is out today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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