March 15, 2018


All Our Wrong Todays. By Elan Mastai. Dutton. $16.

     Yes, it is somewhat too clever for its own good and somewhat too proud of its cleverness. And yes, its multiplicity of very short chapters, some only a page long, betrays its author’s background as a screenwriter and makes it clear that it was written at least in part with the intention of turning it into a movie, which it will inevitably become. And yes, its title is certainly not its strong suit. Yet Elan Mastai’s debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays, is a success both because of and in spite of itself, thanks in large part to Mastai’s willingness to combine genuine speculative fiction with some really funny writing – still rare in SF, at least in non-sarcastic form. Oh, and yes, Mastai’s protagonist’s name, Barren, is right up there on the obviousness scale to an irritating degree, and in fact Mastai makes him doubly barren by having him named Tom Barren in one reality and John Barren in another. He is also doubly, maybe quadruply irritating, a boring, snotty, self-centered twit, and equally self-indulgent under both names. Until he isn’t, or at least isn’t to the same extent – his progress is what keeps him from being totally insufferable, but it is a near thing.

     All Mastai’s creational flaws, though, are little more than nitpicking, because All Our Wrong Todays really works, really engages readers and really deserves a great deal of the praise that was heaped on it when it was published last year (it is now available in a new paperback edition). It is part romantic comedy, part alternative-reality exploration, and part – well, part of it is a meta-novel, with Mastai having Barren step outside the memoir form in which he is generally narrating to address readers directly and make comments on, among other things, the “masochistic pleasure” of “reading a book where every word is fixed in place by the deliberate choice of a controlling vision,” that vision coming from “a stranger you’ll likely never meet.”

     Barren, as a character, is much given to self-deprecation early in the book and only gradually becomes more self-aware, perceptive and out-and-out interesting. Mastai manages to convince readers that this happens because of the alternative-time (or alternative-world) experiences that Barren has. Barren himself is the proximate cause of what happens to him, which in a sense is true for what happens to everyone in life, but is particularly so for Barren and the entire world that he changes. Yes, All Our Wrong Todays is based on the familiar trope and time-travel paradox in which changing even something minor in the past can have a ripple effect that changes everything in the future, including whatever the word “future” turns out to mean. Ray Bradbury’s brilliant 1952 short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” encapsulates the concept to perfection, and no one since then has done it better. Mastai does not even try – he simply does it differently. Barren originally lives in a world in which 2016 is everything imagined by pulp-SF writers in the so-called Golden Age, “a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder,” complete with hovercars and personalized billboards and joy and happiness unbounded. This world is traceable to a single day: July 11, 1965, when physicist Lionel Goettreider (yes, “god rider” – the names here are a pretty good indication not to take the novel too seriously) turns on the Goettreider Engine, which uses the power of Earth’s rotation in the usual pseudo-scientific, semi-mystical way of old-fashioned SF to produce unlimited clean energy, thereby making Barren’s world possible.

     That is, it would make Barren’s world possible if Barren didn’t spoil the whole thing. But he does – for romantic reasons. Barren is the son of the foremost scientist studying time travel, and he is the understudy of an intense, driven would-be chrononaut (time traveler, that is) named Penelope Weschler. He is also in love with her, but alas, things do not go well, so Barren, the very core of his being undermined in a way that makes perfect sense in bad SF and bad romantic-comedy movies made from it, makes an unauthorized time-travel trip to the very moment at which the Goettreider Engine made his world possible. And Goettreider notices him watching, which is not supposed to happen, and so the engine does not work, and the whole future made possible by it does not occur, and now Barren is trapped in a world very much of his own making and thoroughly unsatisfactory by the standards of the world where he belongs.

     Except for one thing: the rom-com element. Barren is now in a world where he has  a sister and a mother who is alive (in his original world, she died in an accident). He also has a less driven and more understanding father. And, most important of all, he has, maybe, a soul mate, who comes complete with the obligatory “meet cute” moment (on page 175 in the paperback). So now what? Stay in the decidedly non-utopian world that all the readers of All Our Wrong Todays inhabit, or find a way to re-create and return to the utopian “original” Barren world even though it means abandoning what could be lasting love and a far better family life? Barren is about as inept a time traveler as can be imagined, or as has been imagined, and it would be easy to dislike him – for instance, when he goes through another time loop and creates a world that is a great deal darker. Although he is certainly charming, Barren is also a bumbler and is confirmation of Alexander Pope’s famously epigrammatic utterance, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Barren knows just enough to mess things up, repeatedly.

     But what keeps the book interesting is that there is so much going on, at such a breakneck pace, as events wind back and forth and through the various times and places and Barren, rather surprisingly, actually learns a great deal about who he is and where he belongs. There is nothing new about a novel whose protagonist develops that sort of self-understanding and self-awareness, but here it seems to happen in a natural, unforced way despite Barren’s periodic direct-to-the-reader comments. Mastai’s authorial hand is everywhere in All Our Wrong Todays, in the pacing and plotting and pushing around of the characters, in the manipulation of events and people and settings – but this omnipresence is managed with such a light, even elegant touch that readers will be intrigued rather than put off by the convolutions of the story and the palpable amusement that Mastai brings to it. The novel turns out to be one that readers can take seriously for a level of thoughtfulness that seems to come through almost offhandedly – but that in fact develops from a surprisingly subtle undercurrent beneath the madcap pace of the events. All Our Wrong Todays is, in the end, simply fun. Which is not, however, to say it is simple fun: there is enough complexity here to keep readers dazzled throughout a thrill ride that proves to be, surprisingly and delightfully, not only clever but also rather sweet.

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