It has romance with pigeons, Nikola Tesla, time travel, and historic New York, so it can’t not be charming. And it’s playful. But it’s leaving me with the sense that it’s anemic, contrary to all expectations, which I think is because I was never able to get a fix on its tone.
The narration felt like reading a comic book or movie storyboards, especially early on. Partially this could be because there’s a talking statue of Goethe’s head in the first chapter, and a giant talking head sculpture in Jonathan Lethem’s Omega: The Unknown (which I read all the way through with a similar joy in the parts that never coalesced into an understanding of the whole). But also, the present tense makes the setting seem very framed: as people approach and recede or pay attention to a particular object, I could almost see the panels on the page. There are a couple chapters that pull that cinematic move of introducing you to some people you’ve never heard of who then are affected by or affect our heroes/villains. The poor lady is calling for her cat, which never appears because THOMAS EDISON IS ELECTROCUTING IT, that kind of thing. And there’re a gleeful number of “SQUISH”es and “AHHHGGGHG!”s in a transcript of a radio play–an imitation of radio, obviously, but you don’t see radio.
I loved that about it, but ultimately found it uneven. We start out with a talking Goethe head, an embodied question that sits on park benches, and a two-page-long list of words beginning with S, but when later Walter (our protagonist’s father) is said to have “stared down through sewer gratings looking for his friend, thinking, perhaps, that he might have slipped,” I’m still left wondering “really?” (63). This is literally what he did months after his friend’s disappearance? Or does it indicate how colorfully and completely he missed him? Or fit in with Walter’s understanding of the world as an improbable place? Here and at other points, I don’t know. Once you believe in time travel, is all logic up for grabs?
Of course, the fact versus fiction of the time traveling enterprise is a big part of the book. The excursions to/in the machine always matter, but their literalness doesn’t need to. This is sketched in miniature when Walter and Louisa (our protagonist) go up onto the roof to await the arrival of visitors from Mars, as foretold by a radio show. The Martians fail to appear, and then:
To Louisa’s surprise the following morning, Walter was not disappointed after learning that the invasion was a fiction. It had been an adventure. It didn’t matter to Walter if it wasn’t true right then, because someday, he told Louisa, it would be true, maybe even someday very soon. (21)
There’s still a lot I’ve left out. Tesla has a sort-of romance with this couple that’s maybe the most moving and sad thing in the book. And the book overall had me seeing New York as a magical kingdom (which, it doesn’t take that hard of a push for me to see any place that way, but it’s always welcome). But for a relatively story-driven book in which so much happens, it’s hard to latch on to. It’s a string of awesome scenes; it doesn’t feel smooth. This may be Hunt’s intention, but in the end I felt like I was missing something.
Next up is, emphatically, Into Thin Air.
There’s still time to enter the pennies contest until some to-be-determined time later this week.