I once took a course in writing science fiction and fantasy from Canadian fantasy writer Ann Marston. In it, Ann warned against explaining oft-used concepts and tropes, as they no longer required explanation. She focused on post-apocalyptic literature that rambled on about how the world had ended, rather than advancing the story. Her point was that SFF readers have a vast intertextual repository of print and screen antecedents to fill in the gaps. A few hints are sufficient for the savvy speculative reader’s comprehension. Consider Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. How did the world become this burnt out husk? It doesn’t matter – the world burned, a father and son survived, and continue to survive. This is the story. We don’t really give a damn precisely how the world fell apart because we’re wrapped up in that story, no further explanation necessary.
While reading the third and final act of Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, I wondered if his target audience was someone who had never considered parallel universes, or alternate history, or time travel’s ripple effect. In short, someone who has never read Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. For anyone familiar with possible world theory or Schrödinger’s cat, it feels terribly contrived. It’s like reading the alt history version of The Celestine Prophecy: characters exist only to deliver philosophical exposition. When H.G. Wells utters the words, “Does this mean we are living in . . . a parallel universe?” I couldn’t help myself. I took a red pen and wrote, “Gasp!” in the margin.
The awkward third act of The Map of Time is unfortunate, because there’s some really good writing in the first two acts. The problem is, Palma tried too hard to connect the dots for the reader, instead of letting it be a fragmented narrative involving Jack the Ripper, H.G. Wells, time travel, John Merrick the Elephant Man, and the sudden appearance of Bram Stoker and Henry James. Oh, and there’s a romance or two as well.
To connect these disparate dots, Palma regularly breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader in a manner often affected by O. Henry: the difference being, O. Henry was writing quaint, sentimental tales that had nothing to do with the evisceration of a Whitechapel prostitute. If O. Henry had written, “let’s be blunt about it,” he might have been referring to a woman selling her beautiful waist-length hair to buy her husband a Christmas present. When Palma writes, “let’s be blunt about it,” he’s about to describe Mary Kelly’s mutilated corpse, as focalized by her lover. There’s no need for such a disclaimer: the very name of Jack the Ripper conjures a mental picture of a knife dripping blood. All you need to do is tell the reader the characters are involved in that story and they’ll be steeling themselves for that moment.
There are writers who can break the fourth wall and get away with it. Palma simply isn’t one of them. Perhaps this is the translator’s fault. Maybe breaking the fourth wall is all the rage in Spain. Whatever drove him to it, his editor ought to have suggested its omission. The passages where Palma speaks to the reader are clunky and contrived. I was far too aware I was reading a book. Granted, fictionality is one of the themes of The Map of Time, and there are passages deserving of HarperCollins’ comparison to Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. But taken as a whole, The Map of Time is a disjointed mess that uses self-reflexivity to plug up the gaps. It’s like reading a book by the God from Time Bandits, making excuses for the holes in His map of time. Lee Ann Farruga of Steampunk Canada aptly described Palma’s novel as “a storyteller in a local pub spinning a tale for his drink, but as the evening wears on and the brew flows, his tale gets more wild and ad-libbed until the drink stops flowing or the storyteller passes out.” By the third act, time travel will explain all prior inconsistencies, despite the first two acts being smoke and mirrors tales where what seemed wondrous is rendered banal, while still retaining its beauty. It’s like having a Deus ex Machina sans Deus.
That said, I think there are people who will enjoy The Map of Time and wonder what the hell I’m going on about. To ensure they get around to picking it up, here is the sort of person I expect will think the book is brilliant: someone who has read the barest modicum of time travel literature, never studied Borges, and certainly never read Karen Hellekson’s scholarly work, The Alternate History; someone who digs neo-Victorian literature, and is interested in getting into the kind that involves speculative elements; someone who enjoys puzzle boxes masquerading as stories, such as The DaVinci Code; someone who doesn’t mind being given the impression they’re moving through a labyrinthine plot, when really the author is playing at the same sort of double-double-double agents the later seasons of Alias spawned. I know this sounds supercilious, but I’m serious. Obviously, there are people out there who enjoy this sort of book. It has the appearance of being clever, but lacks the internal glue one finds in a really brilliant work of this nature, like Umberto Eco’s Il pendolo di Foucault (Foucault’s Pendulum).
Instead of looking to connect all the dots, Palma should have reveled in the holes in his own map. Lose the master of exposition and explanation and let the reader fill in the gaps. As disjointed messes go, I enjoyed the scattered vignettes more than the attempt at coherence. Perhaps an adjustment of expectations would be all that was needed. Aside from that shattered fourth wall, it’s the third act I take umbrage with. After 442 pages of having the time traveling rug pulled out from under my feet, I was frustrated to suddenly have it thrust back under. The conclusion of Act II, all fourth wall monologues notwithstanding, was a lovely contemplation of love, and the fictions we create to sustain it. If, in some parallel universe, there is a version of The Map of Time that only contains Acts I and II, then that is the book I’d prefer to own. I’d be recommending it (though still harping on that fourth wall), telling you about how pages 137-189 would make an excellent stand-alone short story, or how Act II reads like a novella. Maybe that’s all you need to do to enjoy it. Is The Map of Time worth reading? Yes. Should it be top of your 2011 list or books to read? No. If I were to read The Map of Time again, this is how I would approach it, revisiting certain passages and hopefully driving the third act from my mind. Potentially, I’d be creating an alternate history where I’m sitting somewhere reading that two part version of The Map of Time, and thinking it’s a lovely little book—if only the writer would stop addressing me directly.