Blackout and All Clear.

Connie Willis’ time-travel novels are a marvel; she’s created an alternate universe where time travel isn’t just possible, but plausible, because it’s intrinsic to her plots but not to the characters or the setting. The first full-length novel, The Doomsday Book, sent a character back to the period of the Black Death at the same time that a pandemic hit Oxford in 2060, where the time-traveling historians reside. The second, To Say Nothing of the Dog, was a comedy of manners that parodied a Brit Lit classic. Her 2010 diptych Blackout/All Clear is a magnum opus in scope and length, a single novel published in two parts because the combination runs over 1100 pages, sending three historians back into World War II only to have everything go awry for them. The duo swept the major sci-fi novel awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus) despite some reviews that criticized the books’ length. I adore Willis’ writing and character development, so while the books are long – it took me just over two weeks to finish the pair – my only regret at their length was that I was dying to get to the resolution.

Willis’ time-travel universe keeps that physical impossibility to something of a minimum. Historians travel backwards in time for research purposes, and of course are charged with staying out of the way of history lest they find they alter it. Spacetime itself has a defense mechanism, however; it won’t allow time travelers to land at a point in history where their mere presence may change its course – so, no, you can’t go back and kill baby Hitler, even in fiction. Those who try end up displaced in time or location from their target, and the gap is called “slippage.” Meanwhile, returning through a portal, called a drop, to 2060 is also complicated – the drops must not be seen by “contemps” from that time period, and if the location isn’t secure, the drop won’t open and the historian can’t return home until the next rendezvous. It’s an elegant, concise way to introduce time travel and all of its attendant problems into serious literature that would otherwise collapse under the weight of the details.

Unlike Willis’ previous two novels in this setting, nearly all of Blackout/All Clear takes place in the past. Once the historians start to step through the portal into World War II at the start of the first book, we don’t get back to Oxford until well into All Clear; this is a novel of three historians stuck in World War II, simultaneously trying to find a way back to their present and to avoid doing anything that might alter history … which could in turn mean that time travel is never invented, creating a paradox with unforeseeable consequences (none of them good, though). Michael Davies wants to research heroes, but ends up in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Polly Churchill wants to research the conditions and behavior of people who sheltered in Tube (subway) stations during the Blitz, but ends up in a shelter below a church and falls into an amateur theatrical troupe. Merope Ward wants to research the lives of evacuated children in the English countryside, only to find herself saving one of her ward’s lives and bringing some of the children back to London to an uncertain fate during the bombings. The three all realize soon enough that something’s amiss, between the slippage and the failure of their drops to reopen, and start to look for each other in London to seek a way out before the paradoxes of time travel overtake them.

Willis’ prose captures the cadence and flow of great British authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though she’s an American author writing today, with the clarity and wit of a Wodehouse and a bit of the descriptiveness of Dickens (but not too much). She also creates wonderful characters, a few of whom, like department head Mr. Dunworthy or young Colin Templer, we’ve seen before. Merope, who goes by Eileen in the past, and Polly are a little bit too similar to each other, although some slight personality distinctions emerge in the second book, but the characters around the core trio are wonderfully diverse and well filled-out, from the actor Sir Godfrey to the aging fisherman Commander Harold to the imps Alf and Binnie who plague Merope’s existence. Willis has given her world depth and texture by populating it with believable, three-dimensional characters, even unlikable ones, so that reading her novels, especially this two-part tome, becomes an immersive experience. I was very much reminded of watching the Foyle’s War TV series, which is set almost entirely in World War II and even has one episode that occurs in part in a bomb shelter; Willis recreated that setting in words to the point where I could lose myself in the story.

Blackout itself isn’t much of a standalone novel because it ends mid-story; there is absolutely zero resolution at its end, not even so much as an answer to the question of why these historians have gotten stuck when their colleagues had gone to other points in history and returned without major incident. If you’re going to read one, you’re committing to read both, and that does mean that you’ll be in the past with the trio of trapped heroes for a long time. I’m completely comfortable with that – I will happily spend all day in Connie Willis’ words if my schedule permits.

Next up: I’ve read a few books since this pairing, but just started another Hugo winner, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which definitely sounds like something other than a critically acclaimed sci-fi novel.

Dragon’s Teeth.

Upton Sinclair is best remembered today for two of his early novels, the expose The Jungle and the novel Oil!, the latter of which was the basis for the movie There Will Be Blood. (Little-known fact: when Sinclair was on his deathbed, he had a clause put in his will that the movie version had to star Daniel Day-Lewis, who was just 11 years old at the time.) Sinclair later penned a series of eleven novels starring the charismatic socialist Lanny Budd, and the third one, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943. It was out of print for years before the entire Budd series reappeared last year in ebook form, which is how I picked up Dragon’s Teeth (on sale one day for $2).

The novel is very much a product of its time, a blend of wartime patriotism and unrealistic action, with Lanny almost too good to be real and yet surrounded by many flawed characters, including his shallow socialite wife. (There isn’t a female character worth a damn in the book.) The story is the real driver here, as Budd, who’s living abroad in Europe for most of the novel, becomes an early prophet of doom as Hitler begins his rise to power in the late 1920s, even as those around him continue to try to do business with the German government or claim that the worst won’t come to pass. The novel’s second half becomes more action-oriented, where Budd has to rescue two Jewish friends, first a father then the son, from imprisonment by the Nazis, where Sinclair also provides a window into what’s really happening in Nazi Germany – perhaps a bit late by the time it was published, but certainly a reaction to the belief by some Americans that stories of Nazi atrocities were exaggerated or false.

There’s a lot more story than I just gave you – in 600+ pages, there had better be – but much of it is window dressing, or weak criticism. Sinclair appeared to have little or no use for the idle rich, and his depictions of their total indifference to the suffering of the poor and of the Jews in Germany are hard to take – although I concede they may have been very real. (We’re certainly seeing lots of indifference to the poor in our country today.) Sinclair ratchets up the tempo by raising the stakes – there’s really no reason to believe either or both of the Jews Lanny is trying to rescue will be found alive, or come out of the camps intact. But he doesn’t give a ton of depth to most of his characters; it’s a serious novel, but breezes along in parts like a comedy of manners.

What did surprise me, however, was Sinclair’s treatment of the two Jews at the heart of the story. American authors prior to 1950 or so tended to depict Jewish characters using hackneyed stereotypes, if they depicted them at all. Sinclair has Lanny related to the family by marriage, which I imagine would have been scandalous in polite society of the time, and his desire to rescue his friends/relatives is both philosophical and personal. The father Johannas is a businessman, but the Germans are the ones obsessed with money here – the price of freedom in both cases is money, everything Johannas has in the first case, then another exorbitant sum to free his son.

Throughout the Lanny Budd series, Sinclair puts the protagonist into major world events, here having Lanny meet with Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler multiple times, putting Lanny right in the middle of The Night of Long Knives, and sending Johannas’ son (and thus Lanny) to Dachau. Other real-world events appear via news reports so that Lanny can react to them (or expound his socialist views) and scold the Pollyannas who take Hitler at his word or try to continue to do business with Germany after the Nazis took over. In the moment, it probably felt like an important book that captured a time that was eight years in the past but also relevant to ongoing current events. Today, though, it seems heavy and dated, saved by brisk writing and plenty of action in the book’s second half, but not enough to make it stand up like Sinclair’s better-known works.

Next up: I’ve been reading Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear diptych, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel, and have about 350 pages to go in the second book.

Waverley.

Yesterday’s Klawchat transcript is up. Next post from me will be a projection of the first round of this year’s Rule 4 Draft, going up Tuesday.

Walter Scott’s Waverley has earned praise from a diverse group of writers from Jane Austen to the Marxist philosopher György Lukács and was 84th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, all based on its status as one of the first historical novels as well as a major social document about the second-class status of Scottish people within the United Kingdom during the 1700s. Perhaps it’s my modern sensibilities or merely my age showing, but I found Waverley‘s dated prose an incredibly slow read, for the language itself, for the bland story, and for Scott’s circuitous route to every point, no matter how minor.

The novel revolves around the title character, a sort of latter-day Tom Jones whose adventures are less bawdy and more political, as he becomes wrapped up in the Jacobite rebellion and ends up fighting for Charles the Pretender in his failed attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne. Edward Waverley is more or less cast aside by his ambitious biological father and reared instead by a Jacobite-leaning uncle who gives his ward a cursory education and encourages him to join the army to find a vocation befitting his birth. On leave from the army, he finds himself introduced first to a band of Highland bandits and then to the chieftain Fergus Mac-Ivor, who leads one of the units in the ragtag revolutionary army seeking to install the young Charles as king. It’s all a hell of a lot less interesting than this sounds, though, as the title character has very little personality of his own and is as much witness as participant in the major historical events within the book.

Waverley, fundamentally a work of historical fiction (the subtitle is “’Tis Sixty Years Since”), incorporates elements of the picaresque through side characters, from Miss Nosebag, all up in everybody’s business, to the fatuous Baron Bradwardine, who peppers his speech with bons mots from sundry foreign tongues. That makes the book a little lighter, but it’s never actually funny, and the funny-name characters (according to Roger Ebert, funny names themselves are never funny) delivery some pretty obvious jokes. The book needed some levity amidst all the grandstanding about English oppression in ol’ Caledonia and a rather uninteresting love triangle, but one-joke side characters don’t cut it.

Scott strongly emphasizes Scottish history, culture, and even dialects, sprinkling the book with Scottish-English vernacular and rendering many characters’ speech phonetically, which served as yet another obstacle to working through his sentences. He originally published the novel anonymously despite his established reputation as a poet, likely because he didn’t want to be associated with the work of verbal quicksand he’d produced. (He failed, as writers and critics apparently recognized his voice immediately.) I understand that the subject matter and his even-handed treatment of both peasants and gentry would have seemed novel at the time, but 200 years later it’s unremarkable and didn’t do anything to sustain my interest.

Perhaps I’m the last person to criticize an author for long sentences, but I imagine Scott served as an inspiration for Proust, or perhaps an excuse (“Well, if Wally Scott could go 60 words between periods, why can’t I go 80?”). The length of the sentences, the heavy use of dialect and phonetic spellings, and the fact that long stretches of the book go by with nothing happening made it a tough slog – in fact, I started reading it in the fall of 2010, put it back on the shelf, and started over last week. If it wasn’t on the Novel 100 I probably would have given up a second time, this one for good.

Next up: I just finished Graham Greene’s tragicomic spy novel The Honorary Consul this morning.

The Known World.

Edward Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World combines techniques or themes from some seriously great novels of the last fifty years, including Beloved, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a faux-historical writing style I’ve seen before but whose origin I can’t place. Unfortunately, it ended up less satisfying than the great novels it emulates, so while a solid novel in its own right, it suffers from the inevitable comparisons the reader will make while moving through the book.

The center of the book is the estate of the slaveowner Henry Townsend, a black man who became free around age 20 but who chose to purchase slaves for himself and build his fortune on the backs of members of his own race. Townsend dies at the beginning of the novel, although we see large chunks of his life through flashbacks, and the bulk of the plot revolves around the gradual decaying of the tight order of things – the business operations and the formal and informal hierarchies – of the tiny empire he’s built on that estate. The wide cast of characters includes slaves, freed blacks, and whites whose lives intersected with the Townsends, often with disastrous results.

While whites are largely depicted as forces of evil in the book, whether directly bringing evil on the black characters or simply by opening the door for ill fortunate, Jones targets black slaveowners and even highlights black slaves who exercised formal or informal authority over others for their moral culpability in the suffering of slaves. Using a black slaveowner and his family at the story’s center allows him to remove the facile white-bad-black-good dichotomy that could obscure the greater themes of morality he’s trying to explore, and the resulting moral ambiguity suffuses the novel, such as the question of whether a “fair” slaveowner is any better than a cruel one, or what the value of a law is when men charged with enforcing it fail to do so or even openly flout it. Jones mentions other outrages of the time like anti-miscegenation laws, but brushes past them because they’re not worth his time – his interest, beyond just telling a story, seems to lie in exploring situations that lack right or obvious answers, and thus he ignores those where modern sensibilities will lead all readers to the same horror or repulsion.

Where The Known World fell a little short for me was in narrative greed – it’s obvious from the start that the plantation will crumble without Henry Townsend, and it was evident to me early in the book that Caldonia, his widow, wasn’t up to the task of managing it, which presaged, at a high level, what was going to happen with the slaves and the estate. The interest of the plot, for me, was largely in finding out the fates of the various central characters, particularly the slaves, although Henry’s parents do figure into the last major plot strand, one that I thought had a strong symbolic significance and was the only area where Jones took square aim at whites, even non-slaveowners, for their role in the great cultural tragedy of slavery. And Jones remains true to life – some characters find positive, if not actually happy, endings, while others meet tragic ends and some just end up in the great grey middle.

The faux-historical trick I mentioned in the intro merits a mention. Jones intersperses fake historical facts, written in the dry manner of a history text or even a census register, throughout the book, whether to tell us the fate of a minor character or to give shape or color to a place or a county or a period of time. I found it very effective, and it gave the book the feel of a longer one because of its level of detail, without requiring the time an 800-page book demands.

Next up: Since finishing this, I read Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, the last published Christie novel, a solid but unspectacular Miss Marple novel that, as always, had me second-guessing my instincts (which turned out to be right, although I can hardly take credit after doubting myself so heavily) after I thought I’d picked out the culprit. After finishing that this morning, I’ve started Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year before Jones won with The Known World.