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Evan Mandery – Q

August 14, 2013

59. Q by Evan Mandery (2011)

Length: 359 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; technically Science Fiction based on the presence of time-travel, but not really in spirit.

Started: 25 July 2013
Finished: 28 July 2013

Where did it come from? Bought it from Amazon.
Why do I have it? It’s my bookclub’s pick this month.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 14 June 2013.

Is there a nice way
to tell your future self to
butt out of your life?

Summary: The unnamed narrator of this book is very much in love with his intelligent, vivacious, passionate fiancé, Q (short for Quentina). Which is why he’s very much surprised when he receives a note – in his own handwriting – telling him to meet for dinner, and when he arrives at dinner, his future self informs him that he’s traveled through time in order to give him one very critical piece of advice: “You must not marry Q.” Our narrator is reluctant to heed this advice, of course, but he does… and no sooner has the dust settled when he runs into another future self, with a new piece of advice. This pattern continues, with the pieces of advice becoming more and more trivial, until our narrator ultimately reaches the age at which time travel becomes possible.

Review: I read this book for book club, and I have to say, I’m glad someone picked it. Not because I particularly enjoyed it, because I didn’t really, but because it made for a very, very interesting discussion about the nature of time, and of the choices we make, and whether we would change things in our own past if we could, and what the repercussions would be if we did. So this book had a lot of fodder for discussion, and a lot of food for thought, and as I said at the discussion, “I wouldn’t go back in time and tell myself not to read it.” But as much as I enjoyed talking about it, I didn’t particularly care for the book itself. It did have some good parts apart from the concept; Mandery can turn a phrase, and there are lines and passages that are very insightful, and some that are very funny, including a particularly nice Douglas Adams reference. But these things in and of themselves were not enough to save the rest of the book for me.

Let me explain why not. I thought the idea for the story was interesting, and certainly had a lot of potential, and gods know I love me a good time travel story. But to qualify as a “good” time travel story, the quantum mechanics of time travel need to be well-worked-out, or at least internally consistent with their approach to the “if you change the past, you obviate the need for future you to go back and change the past in the first place” paradox. And in that respect, although this book is teccccchnically sci-fi (it does involve time-travel, after all), it is very clearly written for a contemporary, “literary” audience, and although it makes a half-hearted attempt to talk about the ways that changing the past affect the future, it’s not internally consistent with its underpinning mechanics at all. And while I get that the time travel was a literary device rather than a true sci-fi element, I still found the vagueness as to how it actually worked to be really unsatisfying.

However, my main problem with the story was that I just did not like any of the characters. I found Q to be annoying (and much less charming and wonderful than the narrator claims), and I found the future versions of the narrator to be just as obnoxious as the narrator himself, and therefore never really understood what he and Q saw in each other, or bought into the love story. This is also one of those cases where, since it is written in the first person, and since the narrator bears a number of biographical similarities to the author, I had a hard time distinguishing whether the things that bothered me about the writing were part of the narrator’s voice, or the author’s, or both. In either case, I found the narrator and the book to be overly self-satisfied with their own cleverness. There’s name-dropping and cultural references galore, and a layer of meta-ness that just rubbed me the wrong way. (Very similar to How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, actually; another book that used time travel as a literary device.) For example, the narrator is a history professor who writes unsuccessful alternate-history novels about the changing of one trivial detail from history, while having his own history changed by himself from the future. So that’s one level of meta-ness, right there. And there are excerpts of some of his novels included within the text… followed by a rant (from one of the future versions of the narrator) about novelists that include a story within a story. DO YOU GET IT, THE META-NESS? And the book is full of things like that. I’m not opposed to metafiction as a whole, but there are ways of utilizing it that work for me, and this was not one of them. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Overall, this book was a quick read with some nice writing, and it fueled a very interesting discussion, but on its own merits, I mostly found it kind of annoying, and was left somewhat unclear on what the author was actually trying to say. Might be worth considering if you’ve got someone to talk about it with, or if you liked How to Live Safely…, but otherwise, I’d say you can probably pass.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: A Musing Reviews, Devourer of Books, Iris on Books, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Q, Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, is the love of my life.

Pre-Q, I would simply have said “Bob is annoying” or something analogously direct, but post-Q I recognize the gross difference between the putatively objective claim that someone is something and a more humble, affirmation-of-the-subjective-experience-of-reality-type assertion, such as, “I percieve Bob as having certain characteristics that any reasonable person would find excruciatingly annoying.” –p. 71

I am donning my waders on the short of a stream in the wilderness of Maine when I-74 wanders up beside me.
“Why are you doing this?” It is difficult to hear him over the running water.
“Because I was told to!”
“Does it make any sense?”
“No!” I say. “But I like beavers!”
“Have you learned anything?”
“Do you know what six times nine is?”
“Fifty-four,” I say hopefully.
“I mean in base-thirteen” –p. 310

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 4: ““What about you? Do you just hang out in movie theaters with jossers all day or do you have a job?”” – a simpleton; fool.
  • p. 14: “Here are apple trees, pullulating with swollen fruit.” – To put forth sprouts or buds; germinate.
  • p. 100: “Between the eleven thirty Abrahamson service and the McCallister funeral at one o’clock, a worker sprinkles the hall with an aromatic powder, which smells of frankincense and myrrh, overpowering the faint odor of Mandelbread which had permeated the room.” – a dessert associated with Eastern European Jews, literally meaning almond bread.
  • p. 112: “During one of the Saturday afternoon sessions, I question whether an acronym should include its own name or use the same word twice, but I am quickly hushed by Ina Levenson, prolocutor of the non-profit organization that overseas the garden’s operation.” – A presiding officer or chairperson, especially of the lower house of a convocation in the Anglican Church.
  • p. 142: “The napery is hand-embroidered with the letters JJQD; each place is set with a silver service plate, three sterling silver forks, two knives, a soup spoon, a lace serviette, a pewter water goblet, and two wine glasses.” – Household linen, especially table linen.
  • p. 165: “She is helping Professor Fernthrop with the construction of the east side metopes, depicting the mythical battle between the Olympian gods and the giants.” – Any of the spaces between two triglyphs on a Doric frieze.
  • p. 168: ““I would rather live for forty years in a real community where people socialize and communicate than for seventy years in a fragmented, anomic society.”” – Alienation and purposelessness experienced by a person or a class as a result of a lack of standards, values, or ideals.
  • p. 185: “It seems beyond peradventure that it would have been the launching point for a very different career.” – Chance or uncertainty; doubt.
  • p. 228: “We visit the matzo-forming machines (which are unsatisfyingly named “matzo-forming machines”) and the ovens and the bins where the shmurah matzo is stored.” – Shmurah means “watched,” and it is an apt description of this matzah, the ingredients of which (the flour and water) are watched from the moment of harvesting and drawing.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2013 9:19 am

    How nice that you’re in a book club that likes to pick some quirky books, though! I hadn’t heard of this one before. It sounds like one I might want to try, although I thought that about How to Live Safely etc. and I haven’t gotten to that one yet either.

    • September 1, 2013 8:35 pm

      Laurie – It’s true, my book club does pick a really wide range of books. A lot have been ones I’ve read before, but some have been new, and some (like this one) have been ones I’d never even heard of.

  2. August 14, 2013 10:55 am

    I’m glad y’all had a good discussion but I probably won’t pick it up unless my book club picks it.

  3. August 14, 2013 10:10 pm

    Internal consistency is so crucial when you’re writing a book with any kind of speculative fiction elements. I was just talking to my brother-in-law about this — I’m happy as a clam to accept whatever rules you put in front of me in a book (like, within reason), but the rules just need to be clearly laid out and then adhered to consistently. It’s extra important with time travel, and it seems very hard to steer between the pitfall of getting bogged down in technical details on one hand, and handwaving the whole thing on the other.

    • September 1, 2013 8:37 pm

      Jenny – And even with time travel, it’s not like you have to pick all that many rules. Do you want your characters to be able to change the past or not? And if so, what happens to the you who went back to change the past in the first place? And that’s basically it.

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