Thursday, September 9, 2010

Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog

**This guest post was contributed by The Supreme Arbitress of Taste, whose blog Seeing Sepia is one of my favorite resources for reviews of classic movies from Golden Age Hollywood, as well as reviews of film adaptations for classical literature.  Check out her blog, and enjoy this review.**

Connie Willis has long been acknowledged by literary critics as one of the premier writers in the science fiction genre, but her taste--while excellent and always worth reading--is not mainstream enough to make her a popular favorite. She is not sci-fi enough for typical readers in that audience nor can her books really be classified as regular fiction and thus draw on that considerable demographic for support. Thus despite wining multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, Ms. Willis remains generally unknown even to dedicated bibliophiles who would appreciate her genius the most.

Out of her impressive oeuvre, the three novels that really stand out to me are Doomsday Book (1992)Bellwether (1996), and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997)the last of these being my personal favorite and the subject of today's review. Any lover of 19th and Early 20th Century fiction will be delighted by the endless stream of thoughtful literary references in this book, and while the novel is mostly a fun romp through the romantic comedy genre, Willis still manages to add depth and urgency to the narrative, elevating it far beyond typical literary homages like Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books. Since this book ranks easily as one of my favorite books of all time and is fairly obscure despite winning Hugo and Locus Awards, I will necessarily be taking a lot of print to describe its considerable merits.

Perhaps one of the best features of the story is the witty, erstwhile narration by the protagonist Ned Henry. Ned is a time-traveler/historian at the Oxford University in the year 2057, when the whole program has been hijacked by their stentorian patron Lady Shrapnel for her project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral. With her mantra that "God is in the details," Lady Shrapnel has every historian in Oxford racing across the centuries checking to make sure every stone in the cathedral is laid exactly as it was before the Nazis destroyed it in the Blitz, but the most important piece of the restoration remains unaccounted for: the Bishop's Bird Stump. While to most people the Bird Stump would appear to be a hideously chintzy piece of Victorian crockery, viewing it changed the life of one of Lady Shrapnel's ancestors, and thus she is determined to have it at costs.

This, however, translates into no rest and little-to-no sleep for Ned as he hunts in vain for the Bishop's Bird Stump with Lady Shrapnel breathing down his neck. The story opens with Ned and his team searching the burned-out ruins of the original cathedral just after it was bombed in 1940. As the chapter progresses, an inappropriately sentimental comment from his partner Carruthers convinces Ned that the man is suffering from time-lag, a condition brought on from making too many trips to the past in a short period of time. The symptoms this malady are maudlin sentimentality, hallucinations, extreme fatigue, and impaired vision and hearing. By the end of the chapter, though, it's clear that Ned is the one suffering from time-lag, and Carruthers hauls him off to the infirmary.

Most of the humor in this style of narration comes in the disconnect between what Ned sees while time-lagged and what is actually happening along with the tangential manner of Ned's thoughts. Ms. Willis thus makes the first quarter of the book laugh-out-loud funny by using the time-lag device to establish the tone during the exposition, but her combination of Murphy's-law-induced irony, moments of biting satire on bureaucratic efficiency and the overabundance of stupid people in the world in addition to madcap situations inspired by Victorian plays like Charley's Aunt and The Importance of Being Ernest sustains the high level of comedic excellence through the rest of the book.

Back in the plot: despite being ill, Ned has no time to get the rest he needs because fellow historian Verity Kindle might have accidentally caused a chain reaction that could destroy the space-time continuum. What horrible crime did she commit? She pulled a drowning cat out of the Thames and brought it back to the 21st century from the Victorian Era. According to their temporal theory, live creatures cannot be brought back from the past because they are significant objects and their absence would rip apart the fabric of the universe. So while the research department tries to figure out what caused this anomaly, Ned and Verity must bring the cat back to the Victorian Era and attempt to return things to normal before everything is irrevocably altered. And in his time-lagged state, Ned thinks Verity the most beautiful women he's ever seen, an effect that remains even when he is in his right mind.

On his way to bring the cat home--a cat which, by the way, in Ned's time-lagged state he doesn't even realize he has--to its owner at Munching's End, Ned finds himself punting down the Thames with an eccentric Oxford don who quotes Latin and is obsessed with fish, a love-struck undergrad named Terrence who incessantly quotes Tennyson and Shakespeare, and Terrance's bulldog Cyril. Thus Ned realizes that he has Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) just like Jerome K. Jerome's comic Victorian memoir/travel book.

As Ned and Verity desperately try to set things right in the Victorian Era, they find themselves in the dilemma of of trying to figure out how to get the right people to the right places at the right time so that their destinies can be fulfilled, which takes a work of detection akin to what Verity recognizes in a mystery plot. Since her area of expertise is the 1930s, moreover, she is extremely knowledgeable about the mystery genre and goes on at length about the novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, wondering what Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey would do in these situations. She also finds herself irresistibly attracted to Ned because his boating costume and mustache remind her of the dashing Lord Peter--for which I can hardly blame the poor girl because Lord Peter, especially when he is courting Harriet Vane, is undoubtedly one of the most delightful characters ever written. Willis actually borrows two famous scenes from Lord Peter mysteries in this book: the seance scene from Strong Poison, and a role-reversal of the scene from Gaudy Night where an exhausted Lord Peter falls asleep in a boat on the Thames while Harriet Vane contemplates his slumbering countenance. Willis also treats us to a delightful scene in 1930s Oxford where two old ladies are gossiping about the plot of of Agatha Christie's famous mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

While this all makes for superb comedy, what elevates the narrative is the contemplation of free will and determinism that occurs as a result of Verity bringing the cat through to the 21st century, which according to temporal theory would be impossible because significant and living objects should not get past the safety parameters on their time machine. The historians and technicians must then ask themselves if one person can really destroy history or if there are forces beyond our contemplation that move things regardless of our consent. This idea is then then echoed in the Victorian Era with the conflict between Professor Peddick and his rival Professor Overforce. Peddick is convinced that history is determined by the actions of great men like Caesar and Napoleon while Overforce is equally sure that history is controlled by social forces beyond any individual's control. But Ned wonders if there can be a Both-And answer to the question (something similar to the chaos theory), and you'll have to read the book yourself to see what he concludes.

I will end by saying that if, after reading this book, you find that you like the concept of the Oxford Time Travel Department, consider reading the other books Willis wrote with them: Doomsday Book in which a historian accidentally gets stuck in the Black Plague, and her newest novel Blackout about the Second World War. Be warned, however: these books are not laugh-out-loud funny the way To Say Nothing of the Dog is because they deal with much more serious subjects, but they are both handled beautifully by Connie Willis, who is equally adept at tragedy and comedy.

** This was a guest post by the Supreme Arbitress of Taste. The Supreme Arbitress is the second-generation heir to the title, which was first held by her grandmother, a fashionista and interior decorator, and then by her mother, the most cultured woman in the world. The Supreme Arbitress is a San Francisco native with a degree in English from Seattle Pacific University. When she's not composing the next great American novel, she writes articles for her blog Seeing Sepia, which reviews the films of Golden Age Hollywood and film adaptations of classic literature. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, dancing, and long walks.

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