Monday, May 27, 2019

May's Book: Somewhere in Time

Somewhere in Time* by Richard Matheson
Speculative Fiction (1980** - 316 pp.)

Somewhere in Time stars Richard Collier (1935-1971), who bears a faint resemblance to the author, on a road trip in Southern California at the seeming end of his thirty-six-year-old life. At the Coronado Hotel, he discovers a picture on the wall, from 1896, of stage actress Elise McKenna (1867-1953) - and he instantly falls in love. Her mother and manager are understandably shocked by these events, although McKenna immediately tells Collier she was expecting him. Impossibly, can Collier and McKenna be together? The answer, as those familiar with Matheson might figure, is "sort of". The beginning and end are written by Collier's brother Robert, commenting on Collier's rushed manuscript, calling it a brain tumor-induced delusion and making editorial remarks along the way. Did this story even happen? Somewhere in Time is the first Richard Matheson book I've reviewed since I Am Legend in 2013

On the road in California in 1971, Somewhere in Time starts in an extremely choppy writing style. The first couple sentences of Collier's narrative are "Driving down Long Valley Road. Lovely day; bright sunshine, blue sky." (15) Matheson's writing flows better from approximately page 67 onward, which isn't a particularly important page. However, the writing is denser and more modernist in 1896, and verging on postmodern in 1971, as a general rule.

In preparation for 1896, Collier purchases a $20 gold certificate with a picture of James Garfield on it, and a $10 gold certificate with a picture of Thomas A. Hendricks on it. I had never seen a $20 gold certificate before, or a $10 gold certificate. There's irony here too: Richard Matheson clearly knew who Thomas A. Hendricks was, but Richard Collier does not.*** Matheson must have been prophetic. He states that "the man in the shop knew of an available twenty-dollar gold certificate that had never been circulated and I was tempted to buy it until he told me it would cost about six hundred dollars", (104) and, lo and behold, there is currently a $20 gold certificate from 1882 available for $595 USD on eBay. (stable link)

Matheson's penchant for one-liners is back in full force. When Collier is researching 1896, from clothing to currency, so he can be prepared for his journey, he notes: "Here's a contradiction. Research always turns them up, I guess." (53) When Collier wakes up in 1896 for the first time, the opening line is, "I opened my eyes to see the fire of sunset on the walls and ceiling." (117)

When 1896 arrives, the world is altered to a granular level, such as when he refers to the use of brandy to treat heart attacks. (122) Harvard still gives a highly limited endorsement of this practice, tying it to moderate drinking and heart health generally. Less surprising is how one of the first sights that sinks into Collier's mind is the lack of a parking lot. When Collier reads the newspaper, he is astonished by how little people change; one of the top stories, for example, is a murder. It's the lack of a parking lot that gets him, and I think, if I ever travel back to 1896, that sort of thing will get me too.

McKenna's manager William Fawcett Robinson emerges as an antagonist, whether due to his own designs on McKenna or due to his extreme dislike of Collier having simply appeared out of nowhere as McKenna's suitors. Collier and Robinson's conflict leads to another of Matheson's great one-liners: "For now, though, can we call a truce? I'm just not up to anything else." (179) Anyone who's worked a busy job and also had a social or family conflict can identify. Robinson will eventually die on the Lusitania, which Collier discovers in his research and then mentions frequently. (47) Imagine the look on Robinson's face when, in a bout of rage, Collier tells him this. In a reference Collier could make without muddling history, Collier reminds himself of Peyton Farquhart from Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", although Collier doesn't yet meet his fate. (141)

One sneaking suspicion I had throughout the book was: what happens in 1935? The year of Collier's birth hangs ominously over the story. Surely there can't be two simultaneous Colliers. Does the 1896 version have to assume a new identity? Or is he destined to perish before 1935, which inevitably also means predeceasing McKenna? Collier eventually considers exactly this and, understandably, considers it too horrible to ponder. (187)

As tempting as it is to say the plot is simply too melodramatic and far-fetched, Matheson plays it straight perfectly. McKenna's stage play is written as though Matheson had written the entire screenplay and then excerpted it. The play has an 1,001 Arabian Nights feel; Robert is relaying Collier to the reader, and then Collier relays the play. Only the abduction side plot in the main book is disappointing (I can't go into greater detail without spoiling a substantial portion of the book), and even then, only because it adds another layer of plot. Time travel, romance and performing arts are enough to carry Somewhere in Time, and for approximately 300 out of the book's 316 pages, they do. The abduction side plot, however well written, doesn't carry the book. It also has some numerical issues, like how Collier says he was born in 1936 (he was actually born in 1935) and was nineteen in 1953 (he was eighteen, and couldn't be nineteen whether he was born in 1935 or 1936). (258-259) Finally, Collier's unfortunate encounter with a blackjack (266) is simply not how unconsciousness works. Unconsciousness typically only lasts a few seconds, or else it becomes a full-blown coma. On the plus side, I may have to start using the phrase "deader than a mackerel" (262) in daily life.

Now that I've gone to such pains to avoid spoilers, here's an anti-spoiler. Somewhere in Time lacks a table of contents for a reason. The chapters are all named after their respective dates, The Sound and the Fury-style. Those dates include years. Please, dear reader, do not flip ahead to discover upcoming chapter names. It will not bode you well.

Yes, it's impossible to read this book without having the title track from Iron Maiden's Somewhere in Time (1986) stuck in your head the whole time. I can only imagine Iron Maiden was thinking of this book when they named the album. Fittingly, when McKenna worries about losing Collier, she says she feels "locked inside an iron maiden." (298)

Is there, somewhere back in time, a place where we can cheat death and fall in love? Richard Collier thought so.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 2

*This book was originally published as Bid Time Return (1975). It received an apparently immediate title change after the release of the 1980 movie starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. I haven't seen that movie, although now I feel like I should.

**Although Somewhere in Time came out in 1980 under that title, it can be considered finished far earlier due to Bid Time Return's 1975 release date. Bid Time Return's original 1975 cover shows Richard Collier, whereas the cover of the edition of Somewhere in Time I read shows Elise McKenna. Each cover shows a stopwatch.

***A note on tense, especially considering the book's time travel narrative: Richard Matheson can only know things in the past tense, sadly, whereas the fictional character Richard Collier can never die.