Everyone knows to be careful when traveling through time because of the possibility of disastrously changing the past. One small misstep could ripple through history with a cataclysmic impact on the present. That’s the premise behind Elan Mastai’s amazing debut novel, “All Our Wrong Todays,” but it explores that old conundrum in fascinating new ways.
It all starts when Tom Barren wakes up one morning in 2016 and realizes that he’s in the wrong world. He remembers a much better place, “a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder” — the world of the Jetsons and all those pulp sci-fi paperbacks of the 1950s and ’60s. Hover cars should be zipping across the skies. Billboards should be tailored to your individual interests. People should be happier and healthier. After all, on July 11, 1965, the invention of the Goettreider Engine that harnesses the power of the Earth’s rotation, started a chain of events that solved all our problems.
Except that world doesn’t exist. It was disrupted by Barren’s impulsive decision to use his father’s time travel machine to go back to the summer of ’65 and witness the birth of utopia in Lionel Goettreider’s lab. When the inventor realizes Barren’s presence in the room, a series of catastrophes ensues. The Engine fails and with it every wonder of the age.
The rest of this dazzling and complex novel involves the protagonist’s awakening to his new life (reborn as John Barren) in an alternative present. Here he has a sister, a mother spared from the fatal accident that took her life in the old world, a more understanding father and a young woman to love. The story hinges on the tug between these two timelines. Given the chance to go back in time to the same spot, Barren causes yet another disruption, unleashing a much darker world, and the ingenuous plot circles and loops across these versions of reality. It is a tale told by an idiot, of sorts. Affable and witty, Barren has just enough scientific knowledge to be charmingly dangerous.
Mastai’s work as a screenwriter shows through the twists and turns and the relentless drive of the story. Most of these 137 chapters are short, some a single page, and a couple of times, a summary of the preceding action reorients the novel in a way reminiscent of Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds.” Mastai has that same penchant for exuberant plot, a quick dash of character and fearlessly funny storytelling.
One of the clever elements of “All Our Wrong Todays” is its self-reflexive speculation on what it takes to write a novel. Barren often breaks through the page, addresses the reader directly, almost plaintively asking for understanding. In his brave new world, people don’t read for fun. “Unless,” he explains, “you were constitutionally inclined to sublimate yourself to a stronger personality, in which case reading a book where every word is fixed in place by the deliberate choice of a controlling vision, surrendering agency over your own imagination to a stranger you’ll likely never meet, is some sort of masochistic pleasure.”
In the alternative reality of our own day when many long for the chance to turn back time, some solace might be found in the masochistic pleasures of this trippy and ultimately touching novel.
Keith Donohue is the author of five novels, including “The Motion of Puppets.”
By Elan Mastai
Dutton. 384 pp. $26