by Evan Mandery
Q: If you could find out how your life will look in the future, would you want to know?
Q2: If you could change that future, would you?
Q3: What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness? For your career? For the person you love?
Evan Mandery's latest offering, Q, is a rather unusual book. I hesitate to use the word "quirky," since the word implies a cuteness not present, and the questions it poses are not so odd. However, not too many literary fiction books dealing with such themes introduce the element of time travel.
Still, I am getting ahead of myself. Our unnamed protagonist is madly in love with a woman named Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, otherwise known as Q. They meet at a NYC movie theater, during the double feature of Casablanca and Play It Again, Sam. Their first conversation goes, in part, like this:
"[...]I have no pressure to speak of, and even still I cannot sleep on Sunday nights."
"Perhaps it is something universal about Mondays, because the same thing is true for me too. I have nothing to make me nervous about the week. I love my job, and furthermore, I have Mondays off."
"Maybe it is just ingrained in us when we're kids," I say.
"Or maybe there are tiny tears in the fabric of the universe that rupture on Sunday evenings and the weight of time and existence presses down on the head of every sleeping boy and girl. And then these benevolent creatures, which resemble tiny kangaroos, like the ones from that island off the coast of Australia, work diligently overnight to repair the ruptures, and in the morning, everything is okay."
"You mean like wallabies?"
"Like wallabies, only smaller and a million times better."
They fall face first into a relationship and engagement, happily living together while he writes and teaches, and while she works at the Union Square farmer's market and tends to a rather impressive urban garden. However, small things eat at the man — such as his less-than-successful novel, an alternate history in which the presidency of William Henry Harrison goes to full term (instead of the President dying from pneumonia 32 days after inauguration). Q's garden is in danger of being sold to developers under eminent domain. Also, he and Q's father do not exactly get along, even though she adores both men. Unfortunately, the two have to spend some time together while they plan the wedding.
"How is your work going?" He pauses briefly after "your" and places a subtle derisive emphasis on "work" to make it clear he does not think either my job as an assistant professor at City University or my gig writing novels satisfies the definition of the word.
I tell him anyway. "I am writing a short story for 9PM Magazine. It's sort of a sequel to my novel. It begins after William Henry Harrison leaves office. He is minister to Gran Colombia and while there joins a backgammon club where he meets Simon Bolivar. They develop a friendship and over time engage in an erudite debate about democracy and the proper use of the doubling cube."
"What's 9PM Magazine?" asks John.
"Oh, it's a mixed-media online journal."
"Sounds great," he says. "I'm sure both people who read your story will love it."
"Have you considered turning it into a movie no one will see?"
"No," I say quietly, and think to myself that John Deveril is a hateful man.
The narrator's writing sounds absolutely dreary, the stuff of theoretical history enthusiasts to ponder over drinks, and not the makings of a novel. Yes, John Deveril's comments are mean-spirited, but they're also very funny. Similar comments are comic relief in a novel that's rife with formal dialogue.
In the midst of the wedding plans, the narrator receives a note, in his own handwriting, requesting that he make a lunch reservation at a five-star restaurant. There, he meets a very familiar face who insists, "You must not marry Q."
What happens then is a series of decisions and corrections that threaten the narrator's sanity and make him question everything that he's ever done. I don't want to spoil things further except to say it's both interesting and frustrating.
Reading this book, I did not fall headlong like the narrator does with Q, or like he does in describing his latest plans for a book. The man is, of course, preoccupied with alternate histories, and he spends considerable time working on a novel in which Freud becomes a widely known biologist that makes a breakthrough regarding eel testes.
Yeah. Eel testes.
It's a bit funny, but it also made me think, "Oh good lord, would we just get to how this resolves instead of watching him flail?" Still, that need to know what happens never goes away, and for that reason, I kept going. I read it while on vacation, and for airplane/hotel reading, it's a worthy distraction. Yes, it's a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism, but part of me suspects that it's done in a farcical way. Not being able to tell was annoying, even though I wanted to keep reading. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book. Was I more patient with its faults because I was on vacation?
Would I feel differently if I were able to go back and read it under different circumstances?
Oh, I see what you did there, Mandery. Everything comes back the nagging concept of Choice.
Now, would I want to know how my life turns out? In some ways, yes, it would be handy to know if certain things pan out, but I suspect I am too neurotic to really be trusted with this information. I'd dwell. I'd get all existential and moody, and the act of knowing would thereby alter my existence because I would cease my current path and divert to Crazy Town. Nobody needs me to reside in Crazy Town. Even if things theoretically turn out well, I'll still find a way to drive myself nuts, and I do fine enough there without knowing the future. Hell, I can't even tell you if I'll sleep okay tonight, and I've had a pretty good day.
If our narrator's case is any indication, we are all better off not knowing.
Edited to add: I had the feeling they might try to make a movie out of this. To be honest, it might make a better movie than book, if done right.
Full Disclosure: I received this as an uncorrected proof from Harper, in which the title was Q: A (Timeless) Love Story. So, much like the title, elements of the story may have changed. You know, after they considered the book's FUTURE and all. *ahem* Still, I thank Harper for sending me the book, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.