Dickens takes a cultural diversion to the USA in this one (in order to boost flagging sales of the installments the book was released in) and it’s a plot diversion in what is otherwise a difficult tale to keep up with as characters come and go throughout. It wasn’t his most popular work and was removed from the first edition of the 1001 books list. I can see why on both accounts.
The first issue that threw me was that there are two Martin Chuzzlewits. Whereas the eponymous one is the younger and protagonist, he is the namesake of his wealthy grandfather who disinherits him. Thus, he stumbles into an acquaintance with the arch duplicitor Pecksniff who wheedles his way into Martin senior’s good books to the detriment of Martin junior. Pecksniff also has two daughters who are spoiled upstarts and then there’s Joseph Chuzzlewit (nephew to Martin Sr. and cousin to Martin Jr.) who is an absolute rogue.
With it so far?
Well, just as you are about settled, off goes Martin to the USA with the stalwart dependable Mark Tapley who he’s picked up from nowhere. There doesn’t seem to be any real rationale for this geographical tangent, but at least it does provide an interlude of sorts. While Dickens does get credit in his wider work for the sheer diversity of his characters, he didn’t see fit to bother displaying this talent for this American escapade. Everyone in the US is a shyster with a personality you’d not wish to be stranded on a desert island with and views that are as abhorrent as possible to the British public. It’s almost as if Dickens had a window in time through which to study Trump for inspiration.
Martin Jr nearly dies from an illness picked up in a swamp settlement that the two of them spend all their money to reach deceived into thinking it will resemble Eden simply because it’s named after it. A benefactor pops up to get them their fare home at just the right moment.
Meanwhile Joseph has got himself embroiled in some nefarious dealings which drive him to murder (I really couldn’t fathom why he would have needed to resort to such extreme measures) and Dickens channels the ghost of Jane Austen and the yet-to-be-present spirit of Agatha Christie in a couple of closing chapters that see rogues exposed and everyone married off bar one as the sun sets on the closing scene. Ugh.
So, of the 10 Dickens that were included in the first edition of the 1001 books list, only Bleak House awaits me. I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a lot better than this.