The Short Version: Something feels slightly off about the world Rebecca Wright is living in, as though things have shifted in some small way that she can’t define. Her husband is a scientist working on a causality violation device (NOT A TIME MACHINE) and her son is perhaps misunderstood by both of them. After a horrible accident, Rebecca’s life changes irrevocably – or… does it? What if her husband’s work is exactly what he thinks it isn’t?
The Review: Remember that Michael Crichton novel Timeline? My recollection of that novel (besides the delight that my seventh-grade self found in it) is that the ‘time travel’ in that book is not so much time travel as essentially faxing oneself between universes, in a sort of multiverse setting. A universe next to ours might still be in the 1400s, another might be somewhere ahead of us, etc etc. I thought of this delightfully dated metaphor – the faxing thing – while reading Version Control because Dexter Palmer has done his own twist on the multiverse story in a way that, for whatever reason, reminded me (while being utterly different and interested in far larger themes) of that book I read all those years ago.
Despite Philip Wright’s insistence that his device is not a time machine – it’s a causality violation device, there’s a difference – the reader is pretty aware from word one that this novel is going to swing on the idea of alternate/multiple universes. The opening is one of the more memorable and arresting openings I’ve read in some time and it sets a tone that the novel fitfully lives up to:
For months now, Rebecca had felt what she could only describe as a certain subtle wrongness – not within herself, but in the world. She found it impossible to place its source, for the fault in the nature of things seemed to reside both everywehre and nowhere. Countless things just felt a little off to her.
She goes on to describe things like maple syrup tasting slightly off, the sun setting in a color that felt just-a-little-wrong, and the President being “the wrong person in the wrong place, a misunderstood character in a misremembered history.” That last one, maybe, wasn’t supposed to seem so identifiable but it only adds, these days, to the feeling of immediate understanding and comprehension. Who among us hasn’t felt like something is off in our world? Maybe it’s little things, like being unable to find your slippers when you swear they were in the middle of the room or wondering if that shop has always been on that street corner, or maybe it’s larger things like the Berenstein/Berenstain Bears conundrum or people remembering Nelson Mandela’s death in prison in the 1990s (he died in 2013, long after his time in prison).
The tough thing about this novel, though, is that this immediate setting of the scene then quickly dissolves into a rather ordinary novel of a marriage in trouble in the modern suburbs. There’s some alcohol abuse, some infidelity, some simultaneously sad and harrowing moments involving the internet… but the novel seems to forget about its initial promise. Even the weird moments – like the President being somehow able to appear in front of every television program to introduce it or at your restaurant to announce that you’ve gotten a tax rebate – seem like flashes from… well, flashes from another timeline. It makes sense, of course, that even in an alternate and stranger universe from ours, there would be mundane behaviors that would continue unassailed by the strangeness of their circumstances. But the dissonance between the novel that seemed to lurk behind the scenes threatened to swamp what was happening on the page. How was I supposed to care about these people when I came to this novel for something stranger than a —
And then you start to pick up on it. I don’t want to give it away, the thing that tips you off – but you might not even notice it, at first. You might think it was a typo, even. The novel is a slow, slow build to be certain – but Dexter Palmer is a crafty author, one whose work probably deserves two or three reads and careful concentration. I know that this novel is being taught in a few writing & literature classes and I wonder what it would be like to tear the book apart from that level. If you don’t have that kind of time, I promise you that the initial going is worth pushing through – because when the novel does open up, it opens up rather magnificently.
The pivot, about halfway through, reminds me a bit of another classic time travel tale: Back to the Future. The brilliant thing about that movie is that the ripple effects are relatively tiny: thirty years of time travel might only shake a couple of things out of what we initially perceived them to be. Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder” takes the larger view – the ripple effect of something over millennia – but it’s a tricky thing to zoom way, way in. Imagine changing something about your life from just even a few years ago? Quite probably, most things would be the same – but the things that would be different would be jarring indeed.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I find that I don’t want to say too much more, because there are some joys to be found in the discovery with this novel. The second half of the novel is much more propulsive and engaging than the first half, although it also spins very quickly into a novel of much larger and more confounding speculative advances – that line about the President from the first page is worth keeping in the back of your mind – and I couldn’t help but wish that first half was brought more in line with the second half. But I understand why Palmer made the decisions that he did and once you’ve waded through the uneasy seas of this novel and let it sit for a spell, it resolves into a speculative lark that also encompasses beautiful sentiments about the nature of family and the bonds that pull us across time.