The current mini-boom in novels of time travel, I believe, can be dated back to 2004, where the seed for the revival (for the theme is, of course, as old as science fiction itself) was cinematic in origin. Shane Carruth’s Primer was such a stunning, minimalist accomplishment, emotionally and dramatically powerful on a small budget, that it must have inspired many authors to rethink the possibilities of what had long been regarded as a played-out trope. Three years later, in 2007, Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes achieved similar resonance and status. The release this year of Predestination, based on a Robert Heinlein story that is a landmark in the subgenre, seems like the snake-biting-its-own-tail culmination — a symbolically fitting chicken-and-egg paradox. (Of the egregious Hot Tub Time Machine 1 & 2, the reviewer speaketh not.)
But whichever way or ways the current of inspiration flows, the past few years have seen the appearance of a number of outstanding SF novels involving chrononautical adventures. In 2007, we got Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine. Charles Yu’s witty and sparkling debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, saw print in 2010. Kage Baker’s Company series launched in 1997 with In the Garden of Iden, before the current boomlet, but the majority of the subsequent volumes appeared post-Primer. Finally, in one of their typical zeitgeist-seizing moves, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer compiled a mammoth overview of the whole mode in The Time Traveler’s Almanac.
Into this fertile literary matrix comes another debut novel, The Lost Boys Symphony, by Mark Andrew Ferguson, and it’s fully up to the delightfully mindbending level of recent peers. I will try to be journalistically straightforward about the basic scenario of Ferguson’s poignant, kismet-infused book without committing any spoilers. But the actual narrative evolves in a much more satisfying and organic and intellectually stimulating nonlinear fashion than any summary would indicate.
Consider three friends, now college age, but buddies since childhood. There is Henry, an oddball: musically precocious but given to strange moments of fugue. There’s his best friend, Gabe, a bit of a sidekick to Henry’s dominant presence, but easygoing and agreeable about his perceived role. He’s protective of his less worldly pal. Lastly there’s Val, a pretty, smart, empathetic girl who somehow, despite more conventional options, has fallen in love with Henry, the ugly duckling. Her presence in Henry’s life is an anchor of stability. And Gabe cherishes her friendship as well, with strong but tamped-down undercurrents of wishing she could be his girl.
The three young adults all enter Rutgers University together, a kind of safety school close to their New Jersey hometown. And that’s when things fall apart. Henry and Gabe become major potheads. Val leaves Henry, transferring to NYU. Most unsettlingly of all, though, Henry begins to lose his mind. In what is manifestly a case of adult-onset schizophrenia — plain to the reader, albeit not to Henry and Gabe and Val — Henry begins to hear voices and hallucinate, to experience paranoia and dread. Most alarmingly, his ears are continuously filled with an odd staticky music, a kind of subliminal hymn of the cosmos that portends unknown things.
Henry is eventually rescued from college immobility and deterioration by the intervention of his mother. But then one night he delusionally leaves his New Jersey home, intending to walk to Manhattan to see Val. Crossing the George Washington Bridge by foot at dawn, the universal symphony he hears becomes an overwhelming “bridge song.”
Soon the harmony was no longer simply audible. It extended over everything around him. . . . [The] whole world was singing-glowing and humming-looping and the joy and terror Henry felt were complete and total and utterly essential to his being and he felt sure that if they went away he would die. He let go. The boundaries of his body felt obliviously, inevitably meaningless, and he opened his mouth to scream but his voice was lost amid the din.
He was all sound.
He was pure light.
Henry’s fit renders him unconscious. When he awakes he is in a strange house and has been miraculously restored to sanity. He finds himself under the care of two men who are not totally friendly to each other. They refer to themselves as “41” and “80.” It soon becomes apparent that these men are avatars of Henry, plucked from the timestream at the respective ages that serve as their labels. (“Our” Henry is “19.”) They inform Henry that they are seeking to change the botched course of their shared life, and that he is essential to their schemes, which include a visit to Henry at age “29.” And thus begins a mad, paradox-strewn, ham-handed rampage through the decades, where Henry of various vintages will appear in the lives of Gabe and Val, haunting them like a specter of their old vanished friend.
In the hands of some writers, the device of Henry’s mental illness might be a rather predictable shortcut, but Ferguson’s depiction of Henry’s schizophrenia is achingly vivid and organic to the story. Inhabiting his crazed mind, the reader feels every twinge and morsel of anxiety, as well as the half-perceived loss of normality and the inchoate longing for sanity. Likewise, when we get to share the alternating mentalities of 41 and 80 and 29, we experience different stages of growth and knowledge, full of mixed regrets and wisdom and unslaked desires.
The depictions of Gabe and Val are similarly acute. Their confusion about Henry, their shock and awe at his chrono-intrusions, their gradual falling in love with each other, all strike the reader to the heart. So on this purely naturalistic level, the novel conveys a perceptive, tenderly told account of three friends warped by ineluctable forces.
But that doesn’t stop Ferguson from putting the reader through some brilliant mind games. The exact relationship among the avatars and the precise sequence of who did what first to whom is handled with authorial dexterity and a delicious amount of gradually dissolving mystery. If there remains a certain enigma about the exact causality, that is part and parcel of the essential conundrums of time travel.
Ferguson’s sense of time travel is hardly Wellsian or technophiliac. It is more mystical, more a disease of the soul, more as if Henry has become unanchored from reality and fallen through a rift in the Einsteinian fabric. This recalls most pivotally Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and in fact Ferguson gives an Afterword shout-out to Vonnegut, as well as to Paul Auster and Philip K. Dick. I would trot out two other allied books, the older one possibly formative, the newer too coterminous to be influential, but rather an additional expression of some bubbling-under cultural meme.
From 1973, David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself is too little read these days. In a remarkably compact space, Gerrold pushes the concept of meeting various instantiations of oneself just about as far as the notion can go.
Meanwhile, just a year or two old, Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an awesome romp along very similar lines to Ferguson’s novel, challenging the reader to imagine how one would alter one’s destiny if given the chance.
Henry’s ultimate fate is rather akin to that of Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow and carries a certain poetic inevitability. The drive to exit the stream of our days and “fix” their course leads in most stories to tragedy. Happily for readers, the delight we take in watching a great writer thread the loops of paradox is something else entirely.