And here’s why: life is confusing enough as it is.
Yet, obviously for some brainy writers it’s not enough for a novel to combine a plot, characterization and compelling narrative authority into a coherent whole. The challenge is to create a fictional world in which nothing is reliable – not the narrator, not the apparent setting, and certainly not what passes for a plot.
However, once you get used to the idea that you can’t trust anything to be what it seems, in this sort of novel – one which refuses to behave like a civilized, domesticated piece of fiction – it can be kind of thrilling to let go and see just how far out or in deep the author can go.
Charles Yu, in his brilliant, confounding, yet ultimately moving novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, provides an extraordinary journey outside the box of conventional narrative. His hero is not heroic. His quest may or may not be real. His experiences are simultaneously profound and mundane. The novel has moments of violence, tenderness and dry humor.
But Yu’s subject, ostensibly time travel, is explored with acute sensitivity to one of the great paradoxes of human life – our awareness of time and the effect this has on the way we live. Our attempts to beat the clock, to escape the consequences of being dependent on our ticking hearts, to somehow control time so that we can . . . live forever? Undo past mistakes? Fix the world, or at least our own small lives?
Yet make no mistake, while How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe does indeed include descriptions of time machine building, and a gauzy film of computer wizardry veils the suspension bridge of disbelief, Yu’s use of the concept of time travel has more in common with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than Wells’s The Time Machine.
Yu is most lyrical when reflecting on the experience of being human in a world of constant change. Early in the novel the hero says: “Time isn’t an orderly stream. Time isn’t a placid lake recording each of our ripples. Time is viscous. Time is a massive flow. It is a self-healing substance, which is to say, almost everything will be lost. We’re too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about. Time is an ocean of inertia, drowning out the small vibrations, absorbing the slosh and churn, the foam and wash, and we’re up here, flapping and slapping and just generally spazzing out, and sure, there’s a little bit of splashing on the surface, but that doesn’t even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us.”
Some like it deep.