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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sometimes it's not good to revisit the past

Although re-reading In Cold Blood after perhaps 40 or so years was a wonderful experience, and restored my faith in my memories of much-loved books (and thank you, too, Franny and Zooey), sometimes it's better to leave good memories alone. Who said you can't go home again? Oh, yeah, this dude. I'm embarrassed to admit I've never read any of his work. Onto the list he goes.

But sometimes you really shouldn't revisit the past. Leave a good memory alone and it stays a good memory. But how do you know that until it's too late and you've re-visited a book you once loved and found out it's just...okay. Or, even worse, kinda lame. I don't think you can know, so watch out Hesse and Vonnegut and Fowles and Wouk and all the other writers I loved in my youth: I'm coming your way again. I'm choosing optimism -- the books I loved then, I will love now. I hope.

However, that doesn't change the fact that there will be bumps along the way. And this week's choice was exactly that: a rather slow, creaky, not very unexciting bump.

When I first read Time and Again (#20), back in the '70s, I loved it. New York in the 1880s is my favorite time and place, and the book let me vicariously travel back to 1882 along with the time-traveling hero Simon Morley. I thought it terrifically captured the time I was living in, as well as the time I longed to visit.

The Dakota in its early years
But reading the book now... it all just felt clumsy. Visiting 1970 -- the present-day setting of the book -- already felt like time traveling before Simon took his time-traveling journey. The language, the images, the attitudes towards African-Americans and women, all felt so dated. It almost made me laugh, when it wasn't making me appreciate how far we've come. The women are all secretaries, in stockings and heels, who are described as attractive or not. Even in 1970, was it appropriate for a boss to swipe his secretary on the "rump"? Maybe I've forgotten. And there are no people of color, except for the scary groups of young Negros that Simon crosses the street to avoid. And speaking of those streets, I found two geographical errors in just the first 50 pages. At one point, traveling east on the Upper West Side, he crosses Amsterdam, then Broadway, then stops for a light at Columbus. Which is, of course, geographically impossible, since Amsterdam is in between Broadway and Columbus.

A little later, he talks about how Central Park is exactly the same now as it was in 1882, even going into detail about it. But anyone familiar with Central Park history knows that what is now the Great Lawn, a giant oval of grass and baseball diamonds, was originally a reservoir. It remained that way until the early years of the 20th century, when it was filled in. But in 1882 it would have been a giant body of water. Not remotely the same! He also gets wrong the reason the famous Dakota apartment building (of Rosemary's Baby and John Lennon assassination fame) is called the Dakota, but I like that story (because it was so far north of the settlement of New York when it was constructed in the early 1880s that folks said it might as well have been in the Dakotas) better than the real story (the builder was fascinated by Western territories and liked the name), so I'm inclined to overlook that one. Perpetuating falsehoods that are cool is fine.

I could have gotten past all that if the book weren't, sin of all sins, boring. Not stupefyingly boring, not cant-read-another-word boring, but just somewhat boring. As in not very well written. Simon Morley is not a well drawn character, his emotions and affiliations seems to shift without much reason, and the book's action doesn't really get going until late in the tale. Once it does, it's fairly interesting. But it never rises to the heights that, for all these years, I held it in.

The arm and torch on display 1876-1892
One thing I did love unreservedly, was Simon stumbling across the forearm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, on view for all to see and enter (for just 50 cents), in Madison Square Park. The arm was displayed there as a fundraising effort, to obtain the costs necessary for constructing the pedestal of the Statue in New York Harbor. In the book, Simon climbs to the viewing balcony that circumnavigates the torch, and is able to see nearly all of the much smaller-scale New York from that perch. How wonderful to imagine a New York in which the height of just the Statue of Liberty's arm is the tallest thing in sight.

Time to re-read The Alienist, a much better visit to New York in the late 19th century. Or maybe not. Let sleeping books lie?

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