Thanksgiving, you know, that wearisome holiday where everyone gets together, they engage in loads of idle chit chat, they gorge on customary food, then they wander off to nap or play cards. On the trip back home you attempt to reconcile your tug of obligation for the same old bring with the question, “Why did I do that…again.” Strangely enough, Thanksgiving day is what I felt Hypocritic Days was most like, even with its nicely designed retro cover.
Douglass, yes two esses, meets Dorothea, a physicist who has invented a wristwatch time machine. Both characters are cinephiles of early movies. They meet, Douglass steals the watch, and he transports himself back to 1929. Here he meets his grandparents who are part of the theatrical scene of the age. This opens into a long main story about Douglass and his grandmother, done once and subject to a retake when the first version goes wrong (time travel can allow this). Dorothea now basically disappears for most of the book although she does have second time travel watch so she appears now and then. Douglass gets smitten and has an affair with Helen Chandler, the actress who played Mina in the great 1931 Dracula also starring Bela Lugosi. There are some minor points in that plot related to Douglass’ work at Corking Tales, a pulp story magazine probably modeled on the real Weird Tales that ran from 1923–1954; revived in 1988, his platonic relationship with his grandmother Eileen, a touch of Marty McFly here, the birth of his mother, and there’s a moneymaker show called Chorines in Arms, but they all hold little weight. A chorine by the way is an archaic term for chorus line girl.
The book is billed to be more than it is. The blurb says sci fi, it involves time travel about as much as the “time travel” features the in Wizard of Oz. It is sci fi with respect to multiple identities about as much as looking into a mirror is about multiple identities. That said there is the potential to raise questions about time travel, identities over time, and parallel worlds/timelines, there really is, but nah, the book doesn’t go there. I found no hard science here nor any hard thinking on the possible philosophical questions. Likewise, the blurb speaks to Douglass’ caustic view of late capitalism. I was looking forward to pursuing theis idea in detail but the whole theme is so minor that I think I’ll skip it as an anomaly. Credit may be given in that HD is no worse than Connie Willis’ book To Say Nothing of the Dog, (which I reviewed on Medium) although she has more experience writing so her sentences are more fluid. The plots, by which I mean just some events lumped between front and back covers, can wrestle it out and I think we’ll have a tie.
As Douglass travels, versions of himself remain or are created, unbeknownst to him. Whitman, “I contain multitudes,” that I don’t know about? By the end of the book Douglass is up to 4 versions of himself and Dorothea is up to 3 (although it seems she would have created more by her time travel prior to our story). Dont’ worry the versions generally don’t spend much time together thus avoiding any philosophizing that might occur as a result. If you’re wondering, yes this plot idea is an awful lot like the 1973 book The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold that I read as a kid and reread about two years ago when I verified that it remained poorly writtten. In TMWFH Daniel Eakins is given a belt that allows him to time travel, each time jump creates a version of himself. At one point he lives in a house with many versions of himself, ultimately falling in love and having sex with a version of himself. I grant that TMWFA bests HD for taking the idea of multiple selves to an extreme, but both remain far from real discussions of multiple identities and parallel worlds, which is a shame. Opportunities for depth are everywhere, for example, “You don’t appreciate the drama until you start created divergent realities.” The same with this line, “Nothing suited me better than backing out of a backstory that I couldn’t possibly have corroborated.” But as these are not explored we end up where we started with what I consider a riff composed of Back to the Future meets TMWFH meets Groundhog Day.
The main plots are these, in order of time spent on them and significance:
- Douglass and his grandmother.
- Douglass’ relationship to Helen Chandler.
- Douglass working at the magazine.
- Douglass and Dorothea.
But I found it all backwards. I wanted the main story to be about Douglass and Dorothea, both as “limited deities,” which is probably the best phrase in the book. I wanted more about his work at the magazine. These were the aspects and characters that began to take off. The work of Charles Stross in Accelerando might provide some guidance here. There are ideas awaiting exploration, such as “It had finally dawned on me that Dorothea was, for all intents and purposes, my creator” but it sits unexplored, odd in light of the fact that Frankenstein, the movie was 1931 so that Douglass would have had a framework for consideration.
Mainly the book feels like so many books today, a faddish tic perhaps, in which a series of plot points are tied together by dialog, not great dialogue but dialog that is like us viewing someone in an old movie who listens in on a party line, meaning the conversation goes nowhere in particular, seems to have no other purpose than to fill time and space, and does little for us as readers. Here’s what I mean:
“I know, I know.” I checked the oven. The turkey was still raring to go. “Can we wait just a few more minutes?”
“All right,” she sighed. “But a few doesn’t mean twenty, Douglass. I haven’t had a decent meal since this movie started shooting….I need this.”
“Ah, poor baby.” Nadine squeezed Eileen’s shoulders, visibly wringing tension from the actress’ eyes.
I started settling the mashed potatoes, corn, chestnut stuffing, turnips, cranberry sauce, and gravy into serving dishes.
“We’ll eat in ten minutes,” I promise. “No matter what.”
“All right,” Eileen sighed. “Want me to carve the turkey? You two did everything else….”
“And we’re going to finish the job.” Nadine darted into the kitchen. “If you want to carve a turkey, cook one yourself.”
Maybe authors think dialogue is the key to a good book for lazy readers, or their publishers tell them to show not tell and dialogue becomes of form of showing dialogue they think is not telling, or maybe they think that dialogue is the best way to set up an option for a script. But dialogue like this becomes turkey stuffing. When not engaged in such mundane chat, Douglass spends a lot of time eating, playing cards, and he’s tired and sleeps a lot. Here we are again at Thanksgiving.
This is Fiore’s first novel apparently and HD is the stuff of first novel writers. They repeat (in the section quoted above: ellipses, dialogue tags) the dont’ see all the problems clearly for example here their characters end up in different places at once (in the section quoted above in and out of the kitchen simultaneously) and the repetition of similar length sentences gets ka-thunky. These are not huge crimes and for some beginning authors some patient highly analytic analysis from the hypercritic in them will get them somewhere better. From another lens, for someone who writes (at the pulp magazine) and who is a huge fan of old movies, Douglass (who’se story we hear) oddly seems to miss two main elements of those works: A story must be compelling (he is the one who speaks of bordellos on Venus and a plot to blow up the moon to stop werewolves) and dialogue must move action forward. I’m thinking of stories by Ray Bradbury (a bit later than the 30’s but in the same genre as the pulp magazine articles) and Ring Larder who really was great, and I’m thinking of movies that came later like It Happened on Fifth Avenue or Dicken’s A Christmas Carol or My Man Godfrey or even that classic pulp of 1939 people use to teach creative writing via two steps forward one step back, The Wizard of Oz.
At one point while Douglass is dating the married Helen Chandler, the writing becomes something like Raymond Chandler light, very light: “Everything was cold by the time we got to it, but the scones tasted fine at any temperature.” For some people cold may be fine but I’m going to snuggle up to Chandler, Raymond that is, who wrote, “When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.” (1) And that’s what I wanted more of. Intensity anda perfection of control.
(1) Chandler in a letter to Earle Stanley Gardner, Jaunary 29, 1946. Reprinted in Popova, M. (n.d.). Raymond Chandler on Writing: A Lifetime of Wisdom on the Craft from His Private Letters. brain pickings. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/08/raymond-chandler-on-writing/