Back to the Future

Reviewed by James Morrow
Sunday, September 3, 2006

THREE DAYS TO NEVER

A Novel

By Tim Powers

Morrow. 420 pp. $25.95

In 1990, Karen Joy Fowler published "Lieserl," a piquant and moving tribute to Albert Einstein's daughter, a woman largely neglected by history and, sad to say, the great scientist himself. As the story unfolds, the young Einstein, ensconced in a space-time bubble, receives a series of letters from his first wife, Mileva Maric, recounting Lieserl's birth, preschool years, adolescence and death. In the final scene, a quiet indictment of Einstein's passive parenting, the scientist imagines sketching a valentine and then writing his daughter's name within its borders: "He loved Lieserl. He cut the word in half, down the S with the stroke of his nail. The two halves of the heart opened and closed, beating against each other, faster and faster, like wings, until they split apart and vanished from his mind."

"Lieserl" is a tough act to follow, but in Three Days to Never Tim Powers has done so with brio, bravado and a salutary measure of lunacy. The author imagines Lieserl Einstein-Maric maturing into a New Age eccentric with a talent for elementary particle physics. Not only does this quantum-mechanical witch contribute to her father's most momentous discovery, a maschinchen ("little machine") capable of considerable metaphysical mischief -- traveling through time, tampering with the past -- she also single-handedly raises the two offspring of her ne'er-do-well son.

When the story begins, Lieserl's grandson is now a parent himself, and so Powers gives us a second father-daughter pairing: widower Frank Marrity -- the name is a variation on Maric -- and 12-year-old Daphne. Much of the novel's labyrinthine plot concerns Frank and Daphne's efforts to survive three deliriously eventful days in 1987, right after the Harmonic Convergence of hippie lore, when various political, religious and eschatological factions try to steal Einstein's maschinchen along with other components possessed by his hapless descendants.

Although I've never visited Powers's house, I wouldn't be surprised to find a strange vehicle in his basement, equine in appearance and festooned with brass knobs and crystalline levers, that allows him to travel among all known modalities of fiction. Three Days to Never is a beguiling genre omelet, a mélange of forms ranging from alternate history to science fiction, urban fantasy to occult cliffhanger, espionage adventure to Ross Macdonald-style Southern California hardboiled detective thriller.

This magical mystery tour de force offers up one MacGuffin after another. Consider the moldering, disembodied human head through which the Vespers cult receives broadcasts from the dead. Not to mention the VHS cassette of "A Woman of the Sea," a lost 1926 Josef von Sternberg film, produced and edited by Charlie Chaplin, that somehow augments the maschinchen 's power. And then there's the famous, and famously missing, cement slab bearing Chaplin's handprints and footprints, which the actor once created in the Grauman's Chinese Theatre forecourt, likewise crucial to upgrading Einstein's bizarre device.

At first blush, Three Days to Never looks like the sort of fast-paced confection that reviewers routinely compare to roller-coaster rides, but Powers's novel is more like a ride on a roller coaster affixed to a centrifuge plummeting from the top of Mt. Shasta. Nearly every page introduces yet another crypto-supernatural trope: poltergeists, astral bodies, Aeons, dybbuks, holographic talismans, electronic Ouija boards, clairvoyance, pyrokinesis. Before too long I found myself saying, with apologies to my favorite physicist, "Surely you're joking, Mr. Powers!" And yet despite this surfeit of conceits, or perhaps because of it, the book won me over. With its exuberant genre-scrambling, to say nothing of its philosophical hijinks, low-jinks and nether-jinks, it's a postmodern work par excellence that will have you counting the days -- far more than three, alas -- until the next Tim Powers valentine appears. ·

James Morrow is the author, most recently, of "The Last Witchfinder."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company