I began my review of Looper with an introduction to Time Travel ™ narratives, to which the redoubtable Ivan replied that he was interested in my view on To Say Nothing of the Dog. Somewhat later, I have read, digested, and considered that novel.
The design of the novel is somewhere between a pastiche and a collage. It borrows elements from PG Wodehouse, from Agatha Christie, from the back-catalogue of Time Travel narratives, and other places. It uses this accumulation of material to gently explore the concept of self-determination verus determinism that is central to the Time Travel narrative.
The characters are attempting to find a lost item via time travel. They have some starting clues, which lead their investigation in a particular direction – the wrong direction. It provides an impetus for action, but the action is only minimally tied into the item or its mysterious disappearance. In much the manner of the classic detective novel, your attention is kept elsewhere, at matters that turn out to be, at best, peripheral. The real mystery is simple, simply explained, and fairly obvious once the real clues begin to emerge – and the fact they’re the real clues absolutely smacked me in the face.
Their adventures in time reminded me a lot of Harry Harrison’s Technicolour Time Machine, which is a similarly comical look at how Time Travel might be used by societies that have it. Where they differ is that Harrison’s narrative closes its loops nicely, but Willis’s ultimately relies on what amounts to divine intervention for everything to work out. Alterations to time/space are allowed, so long as they don’t affect key nexus points, which the time/space continuum automatically fixes by messing with time travellers. It is essentially the model of time travel used by the current iteration of Doctor Who?, where you can change whatever you like as long as you want to change something that doesn’t matter.
The circuitous route to the truth was very enjoyable. The bulk of the real action in the text reminded me strongly of a PG Wodehouse Comedy of Manners. Two likeable characters from the future trying to intervene in the lovelife of someone from the past, with hilarious complications of circumstances and miscommunications and misunderstandings. I laughed out loud many times.
But, there’s a slight problem. It includes meta-clues in the text. For example, one pair of quirky characters is a pair of Oxford history professors that disagree on the origin of historical events. One believes in the large-scale impersonal forces of history, while one believes in the primacy of individual character and action. Many of the events in the text are parsed through their rivalry. In a work about Time Travel, this isn’t so much the author winking at a savvy audience so much as a stage actor miming ignorance while the pantomime audience screams “he’s behind you!”
Ultimately, it seems to me that the design of the narrative yokes its nominal plot structures of the detective story and the time travel narrative together purely to provide impetus and structure to the romantic comedy of manners. As a comedy of manners, it’s first rate, and once you get into the literary pantomime mood, all the aping of other genres – the pastiching – just adds to the humour.