The Short Version: While driving back from a yearly pilgrimage to her dead son’s grave, everything changes for Elisa Brown. Literally: her clothes are different, her car is different, and the timeline of her life is different – but she still has the memories of this other life. As she tries to find her way in this alternate universe, she begins to question whether or not the old life was real at all.
The Review: John Warner, a few years ago, proclaimed that (I think it was John who proclaimed it – if it was someone else, please correct me) the “White Male Fuck-Up Novel” was a burgeoning sub-genre of literature. I’d like to propose another sub-genre, although it’s slightly more nebulous than that one: the “Detached Indie Fantastic Novel”. It gathers the ennui of so many “indie” novels and publishers and blends it with just a bit of a sci-fi or at least a surreal twist, teetering on the line between ‘genre’ and just plain ‘fiction’. Miles Klee’s Ivyland would definitely top-line the category – but it would also include the last few novels from Scarlett Thomas and maybe even Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. Although I’d probably say that Egan’s novel falls just outside the bounds of this sub-genre. But anyway.
Perhaps its because our world – and the knowledge available to us – has expanded at such an impressive clip over the last half-century, but we are no longer so wildly impressed at the thought of epic fantastic stuff. Alien invasions, time travel, even just the (comparatively simple) concept of traveling to other planets… no one seems to care about it anymore. Oh, sure, if any of things happened tomorrow, the whole world would be excited – but we’ve internalized those ideas into our culture. They no longer seem exotic – and so our novelists are turning towards more abstract notions of time, space, and the universe to attempt to bend our brains. And in that respect, Lennon’s novel succeeds: the book’s raison d’etre is to track out this concept of what might happen if, one day quite suddenly, a person were to pop into an alternate timeline. Where one thing was different – but as a result, a whole tectonic shift had occurred. It’s not an unused trope in sci-fi – Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” pioneered the ‘butterfly effect’ concept – but Lennon really digs into what it would mean to a single person to have their life so utterly changed.
Because it isn’t anything HUGE that has changed here. It’s not as though one thing shifted and Germany won World War II or Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been shot – the world is still completely the same as it was… but Elisa’s part in it has shifted. And the disconnect between her internal understanding – coming from that ‘other’ world – and the world around her is a fascinating thing to explore. I can’t tell you exactly when it happens, but at some point she starts to consider the world she’s living in (the one she has come to) as “this” world and the old world, the one she came from, as “the other” – despite having begun thinking the opposite.
This multiverse theory is explored in several ways in the novel, either obliquely (a skipping record) or directly (a video game, actual conversations with [supposed] theoretical physicists) – but we’re also looking at one woman’s psyche. The novel doesn’t take a stand on it, not particularly, but one thought cannot be ignored: that all of this was manufactured and that Elisa has, in fact, had some sort of psychotic break. It’s implied that she’d previously had some sort of breakdown and the end of the novel, with its nearly hallucinogenic swirl, would seem to imply that she’s having another. But what, then, caused it? Can we trust our own minds – or can they truly trick us into so firmly believing that something else is real, despite what we believe?
Unfortunately, there’s one other facet that colors too many of this sub-genre: an overwhelming sense of… well, I said it earlier. Ennui. Depression. Bleakness. Drabness. It’s rare that you put down one of these books and feel anything remotely approaching “good”; the best you can hope for is probably a solid middle-of-the-road. (This is part of why I would exclude Egan’s book, by the way.) And that’s how I feel here. Whether or not the book resolves, whether or not there is a happy or sad or any kind of ending, you feel a little empty inside when you finish one of these books. Not the emptiness of “oh, that was so amazing” but the emptiness of “what does my life mean?” It’s an existential emptiness but the sort of existential emptiness that makes people hate existentialism (or that could be written by those who don’t fully understand existentialism – I’ve read books by those people): it doesn’t include the affirmation that comes out of existentialist beliefs. And when I finished this book – one that I’d have to say is moderately ethereal, one that will probably only register vaguely in my mind a year from now – I just felt that vague sadness creeping around the edges of this beautiful Saturday. That’s not something I seek out and while it is also not something I’m opposed to in my literature… it feels too often like taking the easy way out, instead of forcing yourself (the author, that is) to really grapple with the issue and come to some sort of understanding with it.
Rating: 3 out of 5. All in all, I think the book’s slight size is a major benefit. The fact that you can read it in 24 hours makes it something that you can dive into and escape from without it knocking your world out of whack. The issues raised are interesting and thought-provoking and Lennon writes in an engaging and smooth style. But the slightness also negatively effects the book, because it doesn’t really add up to much. It just sort of is.