Keeping Time

Thomas Legendre

reviewed by

John McConnell

Where to start? Thomas Legendre’s novel Keeping Time, new from Acre Books, is a liquid-prosed, dual-narrated time-travel romance that’s at least as interested in, to give a sense of its expansive intellectual range, at-length digressions on prehistorical burial rites or J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor as it is the otherwise, or so you’d think anyway, pretty singular strangeness of jumping eighteen-or-so years into the past. This what husband Aaron (on page 1) accidentally accomplishes to kick the novel immediately into gear, almost just as quickly (by page 5) exploiting the what-happens-in-Vegas opportunity to commence an affair with a younger woman. The hook being that the woman he’s cheating on is the same as the woman he’s cheating with, the wife of his own youth. A somehow yet more reckless Marty McFly, after some cursory and subsequently sort of absurd precautions, Aaron breaks the one rule of time travel everybody knows and fucks with his own timeline. The universe declines to implode. A particularly asymmetrical, yet apparently stable ménage à quatre is thus established, the emotional and dramatic substance of the novel. It is not surprisingly one preoccupied with circles, and they recur on scales both personal and cosmic. If you’re beginning to suspect that all the stage dressing and even the stage itself, i.e. Keeping Time’s genre conceit, are literalized metaphors for their marriage, that is to say, that this novel’s true genre is allegory, then you’ve spied Legendre’s hand, but he doesn’t ever keep it particularly close to the chest. So for all its high-brow extemporizing (of which not a small amount), the question that haunts Keeping Time is less intellectual than personal, rooted in the specific character of Aaron and Violet and the troubled, passionate dynamic between them, because what kind of circle is this marriage, exactly, one floating serenely in stable orbit, one spiraling outwards into space—one circling the drain? Keeping Time succeeds as a novel by involving you into the contortionist pretzel that is a marriage in conflict. Who’s fault is any of this, anyway? Best to keep in mind Violet’s observation, the first line of the book, that if the shape you’re drawing is a circle, “it doesn’t matter where I start.”

     Still, high concept fiction needs to strategize about how to bring the reader “into the loop,” so to speak, the appropriately amenable frame of mind sometimes called, by bloggers and MFA students mainly, “the willing suspension of disbelief.” There’s a whole narrative toolkit for luring readers into such a state, and the tool the author uses tells you a lot about what kind of book it is that this book wants to be. A noticeably aged husband walks into the room from the future. Frequently, in the more technically-minded iterations of the genre, the narrative here lapses into theory and minutiae, the quibbling physics of it all, grabbing you by the lapels and screaming this is possible! Legendre, perhaps recognizing that the more you explain absurdity, the more absurd it seems, manages the moment by moving fast. Guess what, reader? Hubby’s got a time portal, and away we go. This fait accompli works well enough, leaving only a briefly lingering film of inhumanity on both characters. Shouldn’t they be screaming? Then you’re won over by the voice of the book, lyrical and elegiac; one finds oneself turning the pages.

     More telling than how Legendre pulls you into his novel is what Legendre pulls you to. Time travel’s all well and good, but note the detail Violet does get hanged up on. The night Aaron first goes back was (is? will be?) Halloween—anticipating themes of our only half-buried paganisms—and one of those blustery high-production-value Halloweens you just dreamed about as a kid, filled with dread portent, sweeping gusts of leaves, ghosts and bubblegum. Aaron, ex-pat American, wants to share with his kids this heady stew, and takes his elder daughter out for the night, leaving sick son home with Violet. Informed that they will fight over this unequal distribution of marital labors—Fun Time Dad, Responsibilities Mom—this, of all that she could conceivably find puzzling, is what sticks in her craw: “I can’t imagine myself protesting such a harmless thing, which is partly why it seems like a different woman in that time. An alternate self. The mother of two children,” then ending on a dangerously venomous note, “I’m already suspicious of her.” That disassociation, the trauma of choosing, all those imagined, possible selves that get murdered at every crossroads, when you do something like that for somebody else, marry them, say, or give birth to them, how can you keep bitterness from creeping in? And neither Aaron nor Violet are capable of fully comprehending the actual human being that is their partner; Aaron gratingly insists on calling Violet’s 1980s self “Ultra-Violet,” a kind of incarnated Glory Days memory, and you just know that before he ever found his way back to her in fact, that this “Ultra-Violet” already existed in fantasy. He knows neither women, really. Butt there’s also the subtler inverse of the dynamic, the younger Violet’s discovered preference for “his older vintage” (note again, the objectifying language) revealing a simmering, frankly justified, dissatisfaction with Aaron as he is.

     Keeping Time is told in alternating narration between Aaron and Violet, their intertwining, sometimes conflicting stories about their marriage rising to a kind of tidal push and pull. It helps that they both frequently seem so reasonable. If they have grievances they’re relatable ones. The big sin is Aaron’s, but it’s in the past and he sure does feel bad about it. Both are the more-educated-than-is-strictly-good-for-them type of characters that writers are always inventing out of having been educated more than is strictly good for them, the sort of person who might, as Violet does, off-handedly quip she can’t relate to clubbing in Berlin till 6 in the morning because she “fell out of German music with kabarett, and these days I don’t know my weltanschauung from my zeitgeist,” which, you know, cool. Both tend to organize their outlook according to a single, dominant metaphor—Aaron works as an aggrieved archaeologist of off-brand Scottish ritual sites, fighting the good fight against heritage-destroying industrialists and American tourists dismissive of every henge but the biggie, and everything for him is subterranean, rock and dirt and bone; Violet a once-promising pianist turned teacher who harbors an obsession bordering on the erotic with Bach—this to the point that you wonder if they’re capable of holding conversations on any other topic. I’m confident that Aaron, at least, cannot. You can see what they saw in each other. It helps also that Legendre is an unapologetic prose stylist. Aaron stays up late at night, pondering a trial separation with his wife; check out what his dark night of the soul produces:

          I turned onto my back and felt a troubling stillness, as if 

          the windstorm of the previous night had been reversed to 

          dead air. Inhale, exhale. Earth was still turning, after all.    

          The core was still boiling with iron and nickel, the mantle 

          still cracking and venting and shearing under all that 

          tectonic mass, the crust still ripping along fault lines, still   

          thrusting up mountains, still grinding plates. And the rains 

          and the winds and the oceans were still wearing it all 

          down. Earth was swelling and contracting. It had a pulse. 

          It had breath. It had a metabolism measured in deep time. 

          And with my eyes adjusted to the eons like a film at high 

          speed, it gave my life proportion and scale.

This is lovely; one feels all the “swelling and contracting” as the sentences breathe at a pace that’s dilated to the geological, and if such a far-flung tone is not strictly realistic, who cares? Even when these characters stretch just a little too far for the bon mot, or repeat their extended riffs with only slight variation, or the plot, such as it is, spins its wheels or heads down rabbit trails without ever quite catching the damn wascal, Keeping Time is never unpleasant to read. There’s a kind of dueling banjos vibe to the book, as each tries to outdo the other and sway you by the force of their voice to their own way of thinking. Those voices similarly could stand to be a little more differentiated at times—like banjos they can’t help but share a similar twang—but it’s a nice sound in any case. Virtuosity has an undeniable appeal, and Legendre can write a sentence. The reader succumbs.

     All this talk might make a true Sci-Fi devotee come away a little disappointed. Legendre seems aware of this. After hinting awful hard that the Time Portal, or Trap, or Slip-N-Slide, has at least some mechanical connection to Aaron’s work with all those ancient slabs—really, how could it not?—the actual gateway is hilariously, just maybe a little cheekily, random. There’s no government agencies trying to exploit the anomaly, no betentacled creature lurking in the void to snag Aaron, and although there’s danger involved, it’s the sort attendant upon anyone who can’t help doing what’s bad for them—here’s looking at you, you vaping millennials—because the real danger is getting in the habit. That said, Keeping Time isn’t devoid of some of the simpler pleasures of the genre, the weird plays of logic and causality, that will, like, totally blow your mind. There’s a nifty chicken-or-the-egg trick Legendre plays with a certain roll of film from the past that Aaron can’t ever seem to develop, and a building tension over what all this reality-bending will do to him that culminates in the reveal that on the periphery of this very interior, relationship-driven story are certain pulpier possibilities. Still, I didn’t find myself wishing this were that kind of book.

     Although Keeping Time is divvied out roughly in half between its two narrators, they crucially speak in different tenses. Aaron, always oriented towards the past, always speaks in it, while Violet prefers the present. William Gass once noted the inherent ambiguity of the present tense. John McConnell complains. Once? Frequently? (Always.) Here’s the old Gass-bag himself:

          What we deem to be the present is elastic, sometimes 

          approaching the instantaneous (it doesn't take long to 

          say, ''He waits''), often consisting of what William James 

          called ‘the specious present’ (which is that amount of 

          time and life felt to be immediately given in experience), 

          but occasionally extending itself through weeks and 

          months, depending on the frame of reference and the size 

          of events. The present can last an eternity. ‘The jig is up.’  

          For how long is this jig up? For Ever. Its overness is never 

          over.”

This from his essay “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense” the title of which should tell you, at least, that William Gass, like John McConnell, complains. But the quality Gass finds distasteful in present-tense narration, Legendre weaponizes to render his two narrators' differing psychologies in structural form; while Aaron wants to distance himself from his past, for Violet it recurs, forever now, as when a memory of an ill-fated cave tour and a tetchy French tour-guide—“Yes, her voice a confident alto. I remember it clearly now. At the time, though, I simply repeated her words in English, for Aaron’s sake”—slips as the memory progresses inevitably into the present, an interior monologue set at some indeterminate future point interrupted (“Ça va, madame?”) by the intrusion of the past: “The guide’s voice snaps me back. I blink at her and realise she has brought the proceedings to a halt.” The urgency of Violet’s narration is there both in the trauma and the joy, as when she senses future-Aaron in the garden, “everything glossed into bright presence, damp and alive. The instinct of birds scattering before an earthquake. I’m fumbling with my keys and a bag of groceries on the front stoop when I feel him next to me.”

     Late in the game of Keeping Time, Aaron, one among that ever-green species of flora of the literary landscape, the pedantic male, apologizes in the form of, what else?, a monologues, one about, what else?, the History of Man. He’s gotten himself all the way to agriculture, when human existence transitions from something “idyllic and hellish. It was raw and brutal and sharp and alive.” What changed everything was, you see, “we started to dig.” As Aaron tells it, agriculture ties us to the seasons, and time, and memory, in a new way. Aaron is, fundamentally, a digger. His arc is one of contrition, the archaeology of his own contradictions, and it's telling that while both the Violet of the past and the Violet of the present take turns narrating, lending her a unity of consciousness not available to Aaron—ultimately she overcomes that suspicion of “her,” the mother, “her” the youth who stole her husband—only one Aaron, the elder, is ever allowed to speak. His younger, troublemaking self remains inscrutable and voiceless, a surface only scraped at. In the end, Keeping Time recognizes and rejects its own fantasy; one of those “borne back ceaselessly” Americans, even time-travelling Aaron has to reconcile himself to the stubborn immutability of choices, that the dumb shit we’ve done stays shat. They are, to use Gass' phrase, "an overness that's never over." Keeping Time suggests that there are ways around, through, or under; but they’re always, only ever, forward.

Keeping Time

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