What happens if you take the classic noir detective story and put it into an American future characterized by perverse pleasure? You get this novel.
First the positive. If you like a traditional tough-guy detective story told in the first person, this has got that. It’s even set in the Bay Area and incorporates all of the necessary elements, damsels in distress, a seductress, tough guys jawing at one another, a morally flawed main character, etc. In fact, early on in the book I thought that I would rate it fairly high simply because Jonathan Lethem had done such a tremendous job of matching the trope. I was particularly taken with his deft touch on the snappy tough-guy repartee, if this were a movie there would be many quotable lines.
That said, I found it a little lacking at points. Frankly there were a few points where the book just lost my attention. These points seemed to be primarily where he left the main detective plot line and immersed the reader in world building. More importantly, I could never quite figure out how the world Lethem created served the story. For instance, you can expect the main character in this type of novel to hit the bottle or have an addiction, but everyone had an addiction and I’m still wondering how, other than occasionally making some people harder to question, that served the story. Another example of this was a series of genetically mutated animals. They were an interesting set of characters to play with and read about, but I can’t say that I felt like they added depth to the plot in anyway, which I see as a strong negative in a murder mystery. There was also a backdrop of Karma Points, which when it was first introduced I thought was an interesting concept, but it just never seemed to go anywhere intriguing.
As I think this through, it seems to me that the writer must have wanted to write a noir detective story, which is cool. Then he decided to place the story in a really funky world and the problem is that the world doesn’t end up facilitating the story, it came off to me as simply arbitrary.
Don’t get me wrong because of the strong first-person narration and appropriate incorporation of the genre’s tropes, it is an entertaining read. It just falls a little flat in the end. My official rating for this is 3.5 stars, but since most sites won’t let you do half a star I’ll click the three star button because I simply do not feel strongly enough about it to make it four stars.
A novel that almost becomes a story; A 3 star rating that doesn't quite make it to 4.
I picked this one because the premise intrigued me. "Things are going nowhere for lowly MIT research assistant Matt Fuller - especially not after his girlfriend drops him for another man. But then while working late one night, he inadvertently stumbles upon what may be the greatest scientific breakthrough ever. His luck, however, runs out when he finds himself wanted for murder - in the future."
The book doesn't waste any time getting to the discovery of the time machine or the conflict created by the murder accusation. At first I really appreciated this about the novel. Matt makes a discovery and true to a scientist's form he begins testing it. I was drawn in by his curiosity and I wanted to see what would happen.
Then his curiosity leads him to create a bigger test, the end result of which is a wrong place wrong time (no pun intended) scenario that made it look like he killed someone. At that point there was good tension and I wanted to see how it would be resolved as well.
But that's where the book started to let me down. The time machine essentially becomes just an easy way for him to escape. It was a let down, particularly when he lands in the future in a very ho-hum existence. The main tension there seems to be that between a dull comfortable life and the knowledge that he can escape it with the press of a button. Whoopdidoo.
The pattern of easy escape continues through a couple more episodes. I say episodes because the tension and attention to them is not quite full enough to call them adventures. Along the way Matt picks up a girl, so to speak, and she (Martha) somewhat easily becomes convinced that her whole system of beliefs is bogus; therefore, she would rather stay with him than return to her own time and place. That was particularly convenient. Their relationship is cute enough not to be completely irritating and undeveloped enough to be superficial.
Eventually, Matt picks up a powerful being who does not have the best of intentions for him and that has the potential for some tension or conflict. But . . . and you'll love this . . . the being is easily sent on its way by some just slightly more powerful beings from somewhere in time. The bad gal dispatched, the love interest no longer interested in her own time, the new powerful being with the ability to send them back in time, and we have the makings of a happy, if somewhat convenient, ending.
The end itself comes in a summary fashion. We are shown that the happy couple both have successful careers and a whole mess of well-adjusted and successful children.
If you're looking for something to listen to while you drive (as I was) or a beach book, then this is a decent fit. It is light on science, character, plot, tension, and theme. That said, it has just enough interesting bits to keep you reading/listening. I did, but I also came away with a ho-hum feeling.
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