[6 November 2011]
If some of the hallmarks of a good novel are originality, clear narrative coherence, and a careful orchestration of plot and character that propel the reader toward a climactic moment Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time—the first novel by the Spanish author—is very bad indeed. First, there is very little, plot-wise at least, in The Map of Time that is original.
Rather, the novel is a mélange of, well, pretty much everything one can imagine and one of the joys or frustrations (more on that) of reading the novel is cataloguing its myriad references to other novels, films, poems, and epic literature from the ancient to the nearly immediately contemporary. Some works either referenced in passing or given more sustained attention are the second-century Greek satirical travelogue True Tales; the eighteenth-century German proto-romantic novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the early 1980’s classic science fiction films Blade Runner and The Terminator. This list is hardly exhaustive.
Moreover, the novel foregrounds its derivate nature: its main character is H.G. Wells and his seminal novel late nineteenth-century novel The Time Machine—or at least some of the ideas presented therein—provides the premise around which the novel’s pilfered storylines and ideas pursue their various eccentric orbits.
As for those storylines, the novel doesn’t so much have a plot with carefully subordinated subplots as host of subplots that are aligned to some overarching themes: time travel, of course, but also the nature of love, how individuals persist in the face of terrible regret, and the necessary delusions that sustain human lives. Digression and diversion are the very matter of the novel and the endless proliferation of episodes and incidents is both a narrative technique and a meditation on time, in its infinite complexity, as the central subject of the novel.
In fact, The Map of Time is really three inter-locking novellas (its tripartite structure is probably a distant echo of the 19th-century triple-decker format) over whose varied, strange, and half-historical / half-fictional interludes—the murders committed by “Jack the Ripper” and the figure’s true identity, an encounter with Joseph Merrick (better known as “the Elephant Man”) apocalyptic battles with automatons—hovers this question: is the human capacity for imagining alternative realities, and depicting them in various media, a legitimate form of time travel?
Given this underlying question The Map of Time is, of course, an exercise in meta-fiction, a meditation on whether fiction is essentially diversion or revelation, distraction or illumination—or somehow all of these at once. Various characters in the novel claim that attendant upon the possibility of time travel is the infinite production of universes; every action, however minute, has a ripple effect that changes the course of the world.
Doesn’t fiction constitute a vast canvass for sketching out the alternate possibilities born of human choices? Generally, Palma applies a light touch when it comes to the philosophical questions raised in The Map of Time, but it’s telling that the final third of the final revolves around three authors—the aforementioned Wells, Henry James, and Bram Stoker—and a plot involving the theft of manuscripts of some of their most significant works.
The Map of Time is, then, up to some serious business but is it an engaging read? The novel is not likely to elicit middling responses from readers. For this reviewer it’s immensely engaging, its more serious matter operating behind a curtain of often very fine prose (a corpse is described as “meticulously destroyed”), snarky humor (“If Wells recognized any merit in James, it was his undeniable talent for using very long sentences in order to say nothing at all”), and sheer delight in invention.
At 609 pages, though, the novel isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere and this can certainly be maddening (a letter passed between two lovers in the second section of the novel goes on for nearly five pages). At moments when the reader wonders, “What is the point of all this?” one can almost hear Palma—or his often archly intrusive narrator—asking the reader, “What’s your hurry? Do you have somewhere to be?”
How should the reader take the presumption that that he or she has nothing better to do than to read The Map of Time? Some readers with whom this reviewer has discussed the novel have spoken of throwing their hands in the air—and then the book across the room. Others, this one included, have found themselves lulled into a state of sometimes bemused, sometimes rapt, sometimes befuddled wonderment.