Monday, October 22, 2012

Book 18: Q

I heard about this novel after reading another Cannonball review for it, and finally picked it up last week.  While I couldn't help asking myself a simple question regarding the unnamed narrator's dilemma, I still went with the story, and quite enjoyed where it went.  The narrator is basically living his idea of the perfect life - he is a college history professor, a published writer (though his first book has sold only 1500 copies), and lives in New York with his fiance, the beautiful, intelligent Q, short for Quentina Elizabeth Deveril.   Shortly after the engagement, the narrator receives a visit from his future self, or I-60 as he refers to him, warning him against marrying Q.  Time travel has been invented in the future, and I-60 has returned to the past to save himself and Q future misery. 
Naturally, the protagonist needs more of an explanation, and over the course of three dinners, I-60 explains his purpose and the reasoning behind his warning.  If Q and he get married, they will have a wonderful time together, and have an incredible child that will develop a genetic disease for which both his parents are carriers, and die, thus destroying Q and the protagonist.  Naturally, my first reaction to this was "don't have kids, adopt" but the protagonist never seems to consider the option and since he doesn't actually discuss this with Q prior to breaking off the engagement, she doesn't get to come up with a solution, either.  However, I feel like the author vaguely addressed this when he had his narrator discuss his favorite episode of The Twilight Zone - in a romantic gesture, the episode's hero avoids suspended animation during a space mission, thus coming back to Earth forty years later, aged forty year so he could be with the woman he loved.  She, on the other hand, had put herself in suspended animation so she would remain young.  As a result, one aged, one didn't; it was simply the reverse of the expected.  This novel's protagonist sees the gesture as incredibly romantic while Q simply responds by saying they should have talked before the mission.  Basically, we get the idea that the protagonist may be prone to large gestures rather than pragmatic solutions.  The closest he gets to approaching the topic with Q is asking if she would want to know when she was going to die (she doesn't) which is a far cry from "if you knew you were going to have a child, but that child would die, would you still have the child or what would you do?"  I think people may have completely different responses to something that would affect them vs someone they love.
However, that's one of the things I quite enjoyed about the novel - while I liked the protagonist, I also got the idea that he was rather full of himself on occasion, and that the author was poking fun at him.  After the narrator follows I-60's advice, he soon finds himself visited by another future version of himself, the version that didn't marry Q, who has other advice regarding what the narrator should do with his future.  However, basically, every time he changes his life, it ends up that his future self is unhappy with the results, and still has regrets.  At first they give him advice on love and relationships, then on his career, and finally just which hobbies he should choose to find fulfillment and develop relationships of any sort (he also spends less and less time on each new development as the visitors from the future just keep coming).  It is easy to feel pity for some of these future versions.  When one of his future versions tells him to stop writing alternative history stories about topics that no one finds interesting nor have any impact really (ie his first novel answered the question what would have happened if William Henry Harrison hadn't died 32 days into his term - answers: the abolition of slavery would have been slightly delayed), and to write funny stories instead, the reader gets to hear about how hilarious the protagonist is in the classroom setting but it is absolutely clear that he isn't and the author makes sure that the reader knows exactly how unaware the narrator is of this fact. 
While the novel is framed by the love story, much more of it deals with the repercussions of the narrator trying to change his life to fix the regrets of his future selves.  While there is a certainly a sense of something slightly tragic as the narrator goes from one endeavor to the other, only to find that none of them have improved his life, and possibly have only made his future more empty, Mandery also throws in some humor.  In fact he even makes fun of writing and writers.  The narrator has no idea what makes for a good story or premise, and the novel includes excerpts from his alternative history on Freud, asking the question that no one has ever asked: what if Freud had become a bioligist instead of a psychoanalyst.  Also, I'm pretty sure if anyone in the history of the world has ever contemplated that question, it was more out of curiosity regarding what would have happened to the world of psychology rather than what contributions he would have made to the other field.  I assume there are plenty of time authors in real life are gripped by an idea and invest a huge amount of time before realizing that no one else would be interested.  The narrator (and I assume the author) is a big sci-fi fan and makes references to various shows and novels, including The Twilight Zone and BSG.  In fact, even Q's actual name and initials seem to be taken from a shortlived 1980s sci-fi show.  Overall I would definitely recommend this, though it isn't the epic love story one might expect from the beginning or the description.  There is a certain amount of whimsy and while Q remains the love of the protagonist's life throughout everything, the story is just as much, if not more, about a life nearly wasted by the protagonist's constant quest to improve his future as it is about a love story.  Rather than gaining experiences or making his own decisions and failures, he keeps changing course beforehand.  As a result, he has no failure to look back on, but he has no true successes, either.

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