Time Present and Time Past
(Europa Editions)Fintan Buckley and his wife Colette live in Ireland and are a normal family (two sons, one daughter) living in a normal house with everyone doing normal things (he's an attorney, she's what we used to call a 'housewife') with a singular exception: their universe is about as odd as it comes. Did they just descend from Ixneria? He's watching people talk to him and suddenly it's like a telescope backwards they withdraw into a tiny dot and stay that way for a while, and then the whole thing reverses and there he is talking to them normally only in that deja vu moment, no time passes.
And one of the sons, a veggie, Niall, wears a tee-shirt that says, "If a tree falls in the forest, do the other trees laugh?"
And Colette his wife sometimes thinks she is a furry lion.
There's even time-travel. Fintan is looking at his six-year-old daughter Lucy whom he loves beyond all belief and yet he knows --- he knows --- that when she's 20 - 25 years old, she's going to be tough, a no-nonsense woman who battles through life kicking aside any man who gets in her way.
The magician's touch here is how author Madden is able to introduce us to this regular, down-home family who (at the same time) are a cohort of fascinating nut-cases. The changes!
It's like you go home for Thanksgiving and sitting there at the table with these people you grew up with and you look around the room and your brother has turned into a beaver and your mother's a giraffe and your little sister an opossum and you don't say anything (what is there to be said at times like that?) until just as suddenly they turn back into the people you knew you thought they were all along.
At one point, Fintan offers to take daughter Lucy and her best friend Emma to the zoo, so they go to Emma's father's place (a slick apartment in the northern part of Dublin) and when they open the door, they meet Conor. When Fintan looks at him . . . he realizes that Conor is Fintan.
The father of his daughter's best friend is not only a man named Conor, but also Fintan.
It's a kind of shape-shift which authors might attempt, but is rare --- because so few can bring it off. How does Madden do it? Mostly: he does not overdo it.
Further: this one chapter --- a chance meeting with the father of his daughter's best friend --- is worth the whole book. In Conor's kitchen, in the new modern icy style, "Finan looks again around the kitchen. This is domestic chaos on an industrial scale. He can just about find space on the island for his Pooh mug amidst the wreckage of a week's worth of rushed breakfasts and lousy dinners."
The jacket of yesterday's suit hangs over the back of a chair; the silk snake of the tie lies coiled on the floor beneath it. The apartment is so cooly minimalist in its design, and yet so unrepentantly squalid, that Fintan cannot help but admire the other man for his sheer chutzpah in having comprehensibly trashed the place, as a revolt against being forced to live there. Fintan salutes his refusal to be reasonable, his rejection of this chilly box as his home.
And frosting on the reader's cake . . . when they finally get out of the apartment and make it to the zoo, the two girls are bored silly. Emma's family is rich, took her to Africa, and she says, "I saw lions last year. In Kenya, on safari with my mommy. Lions and zebras."
"They are not at all impressed by the animals here, they glance in the enclosures and pens and then hurry on,"
while Fintan stands transfixed by a snowy owl: an explosion of luxurious white feathers from which stares out an eerie, bad-tempered little face. So much for Stuart Little, he thinks.
The key to it is, I suspect, that Madden is able to conjure up someone like Fintan --- normal, a little overweight, a normal ho-hum daily job, and a normal, good family --- but when we get into their heads, we encounter madmen (or madwomen) that one hardly ever sees during your daily trip to the Piggly-Wiggly. Here is a normal working man taking a day off from the office to pass time with two girls at the zoo, and when he looks at the bongos, we are told, "He had not known until today that such a creature existed, and now here are three of them."
What must it be to be a bongo? A kind of antelope, its hide is a sensational golden toffee colour, like he has never seen on an animal before, offset by a tuft of coarse hair, like a short mohican, running the length of its spine, and cream stripes on its flanks.
"The bongos are ambling around on their neat hooves, seemingly indifferent to their own beauty."
There is a subtle rhythm to Time Present and Time Past --- starts out, nicely, slowly, Fintan going home early, and he's with his family and suddenly these (what are they, delusions? visions? explosions of fancy?) and we get to go on the roller-coaster with him, and when we get to the end, everything gracefully settles down and the author asks the reader (asks us!) how we think she should end the book.
She puts together this mini-masterpiece, and then she says, "so we should, perhaps, give some thought to the future."
Again, she will reaffirm the pain that will be coming to the girl Lucy when she grows up. "It is Lucy who will struggle most. It will be a shock to her to discover that the love of a man is not always unconditional, profound, and disinterested. No one will ever love her has much as her father."
I've seen several authors intrude this way on their readers (Fielding! Nabokov! Barth! Marías!). There are many others who try, but only one in a hundred who can pull it off, so that we buy into it, buy into it whole, let them get away with bloody murder because we want it to work.
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That isn't all. Here's Lucy again --- the young untroubled Lucy before she discovers trouble. Fintan at one point has gotten interested in the history of photography, and he says to his genius son, Niall: "It was Lucy who made me think about it."
He recounts her asking about the change from black-and-white photography to color, attributing it to a change in the world itself. For her --- and perhaps for the rest of us when we were that age --- the world in 1910 or 1925 or 1940 was pure black-and-white-and-gray, until sometime in the 50s it suddenly blazed forth, a rainbow, everything bursting into color!
"She's a philosopher, that kid," says Niall. and he laughs. "She's always saying saying things like: 'Where does the past go?'"
--- Richard Saturday