The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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JUL-AUG 2011 Issue

Palma’s Artful Web

Felix J. Palma
The Map of Time
(Atria, 2011)

Spanish author Felix J. Palma executes an extraordinary creative fusion with deft artistry in The Map of Time, a U.S. debut novel that reconstructs the ethos of Victorian London.  Teeming with details of popular culture, the book parodies diverse styles and genres as it seamlessly weaves together not only form and content but also fact and fiction.  Recognition is due the translator Nick Caistor, who manages a congruent language, translating the Spanish into period locutions that convey shades of meaning and avoid anachronism. 

In keeping with the title, time travel propels the action of the novel, which begins in 1896, flashes back briefly to 1888, and takes the characters twice to a bogus year 2000.  Above the hubbub, the omniscient narrator, a wry, intrusive persona, steps out of the fictive dream repeatedly, in the manner of Dickens and Thackeray, to address the reader with commentary.  He begins his story serio-comically with Andrew Harrington, heir to a toilet paper fortune, wallowing in suicidal guilt because eight years earlier he neglected to rescue his true love, the prostitute Mary Kelly, from the ravages of Jack the Ripper. Andrew’s cousin Charles thwarts the suicide with a plan to change the past. 

Enter Gilliam Murray, conman extraordinaire, who masterminds the monumental swindle on which the plot hinges.  Modeled on P. T. Barnum, who took his circus to London in 1881, this hoaxer is drawn in Dickensian caricature with “the enigmatic look of a person who holds a great many aces up his sleeve” and a head “more suited to a minotaur.” Wresting the story away from Murray, the narrator recounts the charlatan’s travails “in the third person instead of the first, as if it were an adventure story,” with resulting comic bathos: “He roamed the jungle for weeks, using his rifle for a crutch and some of the arrows still stuck in his flesh. . .exhausted, he collapsed. . .like a piece of flotsam washed up by the sea.” 

The myth of Murray culminates preposterously in the discovery of a time portal that he carried home in a box so he could offer public voyages to the year 2000.  Alas, however, Murray can move only forward in time.  For a trip to the past, he refers the cousins to H. G. Wells, whereupon they break into The Time Machine author’s home at gunpoint and board an improvised time machine for some sci-fi derring-do.  In collusion, Wells and Charles dupe Andrew into believing that he has traveled to November 7, 1888, when the Ripper slaughtered Mary Kelly (a real as well as fictional victim); that he killed the Ripper before the monster could murder Mary; and that he now lives a happy double life with his beloved in a parallel world, free to resume his original life without guilt. 

If Part I leads readers into a counterfeit past, Part II takes them on Murray’s sham excursion into a dystopian future, a kind of steampunk vision of a world overrun by evil mechanical computers.  In a burlesque battle fought on the set of a razed London, Captain Derek Shackleton, aka Tom Blunt (a dung shoveler’s son) takes on an army of automatons to save the earth from annihilation.  A romance begins to unfold in hilarious farce when the feminist Claire Haggerty happens upon Captain Shackleton urinating backstage, strikingly visible in the present but belonging to the future.  The comedy heightens in a seduction-of-the-innocent-maiden set piece in which Shackleton-Blunt contrives increasingly convoluted explanations to justify his urgency to bed her, persisting “like the lumberjack who sees the tree he has been hacking away at for hours begin to teeter.”  With his final axe blow—“We’ve got to make love. . .because in reality we already have!”— Claire crashes to the floor in a Victorian swoon. 

Segue into Part III, a detective story in which the Holmes-like Colin Garrett seeks an answer to the question:  Who killed Tom Blunt by blowing a hole through his chest?   Deducing that only Captain Shackleton’s ray gun could cause such a wound (a solution that would make Blunt dead by his own hand), Garrett must convince his superior to pay for an expensive ticket to the year 2000 so that he can arrest a man who has not yet been born in order to forestall a homicide in 1896. (Got it?)  This proposed pre-emptive action repeats in reverse Andrew’s return to the past to kill the Ripper. 

With a gothic flourish, the action then reverts to H. G. Wells, summoned to a haunted house in a “howling” wind by Marcus Rhys, who identifies himself as homo temporis, a development in Darwin’s evolutionary ladder.  Claiming himself the first example of spontaneous displacement in time (in fact, a distinction that belongs to Audrey Niffenegger’s time traveler), Rhys displays the titular map—a vast network of colored ropes diverging outward from a central line, marking the parallel realities that sprout from the original universe.  Not only is this image of the all-encompassing web mirrored in Palma’s design of intersecting narratives, returning characters and recurrent motifs, but the author also embeds in his novel the conceit of alternate realities. In the original universe of the reader, Jack the Ripper was never caught; in the world of Palma’s creation, the serial killer is brought to justice. 

The Map of Time consistently obscures the boundaries between art and reality, conspicuously throughout and subtly in its final pages.  At the end, Wells sets forth the actual conditions of Palma’s novel hypothetically, and character, narrator and author seem to merge.  “For something to become real, it only needs to be narrated,” the author tells a Publishers Weekly interviewer.  And if the artist creates the fictive reality, he can change it at will, a lesson learned from John Fowles’s Victorian metafiction, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in which the flip of a coin determines the ending among alternative possibilities, each equally plausible. 

While an intertextual reading unlocks the storehouse of allusions in Palma’s tour de force, we should look elsewhere for the key to its irresistible appeal.  This we must credit to the plain fact that The Map of Time delivers grand pastiche with great panache in a rollicking good read.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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