Book: Counterfactuals

Kate Hope Day, If, Then. 2019.

If, Then is another book I’m reading as I submit my own manuscript. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally read–that may mean it’s not a great analog of my own book, which means maybe I ought not to be pursuing this one. But this is beside the point.

If, Then follows three sets of characters, all of whom are neighbors. There are first Ginny, Mark, and their son Noah, Cass and her daughter Leah, and Samara and her father. They all begin to experience strange visions of themselves and of each other. Mark sees “Other Mark;” Ginny sees herself married to a coworker; Cass sees another self who is still pregnant with a different child; Samara sees her dead mother. The premise of the book (done quite well) is that these are “real” expressions of a multiverse. These realities have been blurred into each other by the activity of Broken Mountain, a nearby volcano.

As I say, I liked the premise and Day pulled it off well. I suppose I was disappointed that it didn’t go further. As I mentioned in my post about The Master and Margarita, the crazier and more magical it can get, the better as far as I’m concerned. This is just a taste thing, of course–Day isn’t obligated to write the kind of book I or anybody else would write. That’s our job.

This is still within the realm of my taste, but the book also doesn’t stray outside of a kind of “bourgeois existence.” This is to say that the multiverse that were exposed to is different in mundane ways, the kind of ways that affect only the, well, bourgeoisie. I’m not trying to be a Marxist (I’m not denying anything, either); I simply mean that the multiverse options we are exposed to are: did such and such a person die of cancer? Is such and such a person married to this or that so and so? Did such and such academic succeed in getting funding for his next project, having to do with so and so frog?

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. These kinds of books can exist and people can love them and that’s fine. Still, the book felt in that sense somehow disappointing. We have this fabulous premise in which worlds, choices, causes and effects are all cramming up against each other, bending and maybe even tearing each other’s fabrics, and yet the values and statuses at risk are nevertheless mundane. Though the premise has the potential to be earth-shattering, there is an underlying stability written into the narrative that blunts it.

Day’s 5-page memoir-postscript is a good illustration. She discusses how she met her husband in Rome. She had a headache, took some Excedrin and took a nap. When she woke up, two men were there. The sunburned one would become her husband. If she hadn’t had the headache, she’d have left the hostel alone before he got there and never met him. But that’s all. It’s not as though if she hadn’t had the headache, she’d be living somewhere in poverty, or that a regime would have collapsed or a war averted. It is not even that without the headache, she would never have met a husband. The book therefore emphasizes choices that, while they have consequences for the individuals involved, they do not threaten. Beneath all of the choices and possibilities of If, Then is the assumption that it will all basically work out. That, as I say, is a bourgeois assumption. In a novel, it’s a little dull.

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