A Mobius strip of a novel in which time is more a loop than a path and various possibilities seem to exist simultaneously.
Science fiction provides a literary launching pad for this audacious sophomore novel by Palmer (The Dream of Perpetual Motion, 2010). It offers some of the same pleasures as one of those state-of-the-union (domestic and national) epics by Jonathan Franzen, yet its speculative nature becomes increasingly apparent as the novel progresses (while its characters apparently don’t). From the first page, protagonist Rebecca Wright, who works at a computer dating service, feels a "weird, persistent unease"; she thinks the world around her suffers from “a certain subtle wrongness.” Her physicist husband, Philip Steiner, heads a team that's working on what others would call a time machine, though the scientists avoid that label; they don't think their project will create a true time machine, but their research (and even their mistakes) might provide useful discoveries along the way. Rebecca and Philip's son, Sean, who's in second grade, has been an artistic prodigy since preschool, according to his mother, but his father doesn’t understand him at all. As Palmer’s narrative offers sleight-of-hand revelations with absolute command, it becomes apparent that the time they are living in, which often seems to be a comment on the present, is in fact the near future, one in which automobiles drive themselves and the president is capable of appearing on anyone’s home TV to address them personally. It's also increasingly obvious that Rebecca is an alcoholic, in deep denial. The plot pivots on a climactic car crash, a malfunction of the automatic automobile, after Sean has been unfairly disciplined with a detention at school, Rebecca is too inebriated to leave the house, and Philip is too busy at work to intercede, leaving the question of who is behind the wheel and who survives subject to revision. The novel circles back to this pivotal incident time and again; as this plot writes and then overwrites itself, each member of the nuclear family might possibly die, yet all remain crucial to the denouement. Muses Philip, “Ulysses is not a story, so much as a system of the world. A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
A novel brimming with ideas, ambition, imagination, and possibility yet one in which the characters remain richly engaging for the reader.