Who among us hasn’t dreamed of waking up in an alternate universe (especially recently)?
“We all imagine futures for ourselves that we don’t get,” says Elan Mastai, author of the swirling, comic sci-fi novel All Our Wrong Todays. “This is the future you get. You have to figure out how to live in it—how to close the gap between the world you want to live in and the world you do live in.”
In Mastai’s world (Canada), he is a super successful screenwriter, best known for the rom-com smash hit The F Word (2013) starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. His exuberant literary debut contains multitudes: multiple realities, time travel, true romance, reversals of fortune, fish-out-of-water, and a world where every avocado is ripe and unblemished.
All Our Wrong Todays is narrated by Tom Barren, a young man from “the world we were supposed to have.”
“That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in this crappy world we do have,” Mastai writes. “But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault—well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.”
In Tom’s world, a deified scientist, the late Lionel Goettreider, invented a clean energy machine that’s been powering the world at no cost since 1965. This has led to “the absence of material want,” equality for all, and five decades’ worth of general Jetsonian fabulousness. By 2016, the majority of jobs are in laboratories researching technological advancements in entertainment.
Tom’s father, Victor Barren, is a prickly genius who’s just invented time travel. Penelope Weschler is the fearless woman poised to become the world’s first time traveler, aka “chrononaut.” Tom is a loser.
“Life is defined mostly by how you handle failure,” Mastai writes as Tom. “I’ve never succeeded at anything, so for me failure is pretty much synonymous with life itself. But for other people, people who more or less succeed at everything they attempt, people like my father and Penelope, their reactions to failure can be unpredictable.”
All Our Wrong Todays is told in the first person and presented as Tom’s memoir. This represents a big change for Mastai, who, as a screenwriter, is used to writing in the third person.
“Screenplays are always written in the third person,” Mastai says. “It’s a very laconic, lean present-tense writing form.When I had the idea [for the novel], I grappled a little bit with the best way to tell it—is it the comfort zone of the third person, or the much more nimble, nuanced first-person voice, which has a host of challenges but also opportunities?”
“Ultimately, I wanted to highlight that this is being presented as Tom’s memoir, so it’s coming from a certain perspective,” he says. “He’s upfront about his emotional confusions. At the same time, it’s written in a breezy way. Tom makes a lot of jokes, a lot of sharp observations—he’s very self-effacing, self-deprecating—he’s mad at himself a lot of the time because of his bad decisions.”
Bad decisions like eradicating the known world, for example. Early on in All Our Wrong Todays, Tom haplessly shatters the respective dreams of his father and Penelope—and eliminates their reality—by taking her place in the time travel experiment.
"I just became history’s first time traveler, but I’m not really feeling the grandeur of the moment because I’m trying so hard not to throw up 2016’s breakfast onto 1965’s floor,” he writes.
Tom winds up in the world as we know it: the one where Lionel Goettreider’s invention never succeeded (and the inventor is still alive). Instead of a loser, Tom is an architect of some renown named John Barren. His father is a sheepish professor who once wrote a book on time travel that is a source of mild shame. And Penelope—Penny—owns a bookstore and, as a true sci-fi-fantasy-fiction lover, may be the only one who will entertain John’s (Tom’s) wacky time travel tale—and help recover his lost world.
"If you strip out everything else,” Mastai says, “—all the bells and whistles, plot twists, technology, and big reveals—it’s a story about a young man who figures out how to live authentically, to take responsibility for his actions, to be honest with everyone around him and, fundamentally, to be honest with himself.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.