What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mission: Stop the "Hags!"

If you're at all interested in time travel and dystopian novels, this is a book that you will not want to miss. "Zed", aka Z, lives an unspecified number of centuries in the future, when a Conflagration of some kind (the reader never really can nail down the details) has dramatically reshaped the world, forcing survivors to work cooperatively in order to survive, and for the government authorities to severely restrict their access to historic knowledge, in case it causes them to focus on all those pesky things that we let divide us, from religious conflicts and family vendettas to race and national pride. That kind of stuff is banned in Zed's "Perfect Present", and his job is to travel back in time to our imperfect era to make sure it stays perfect. You see, historical agitators (aka "hags") have figured out time travel as well, and are using it to try and change humanity's fate, whether by killing off Hitler in his cradle or -- most significant -- preventing the Conflagration itself. In Zed's era, they can be detected by their relatively pale skins -- they haven't allowed family members to mingle much with others, so have become a tiny minority in a dark-skinned homogeneous world. But they believe they are on a mission for humanity's good, and are so determined that the only way Zed can stop them is to terminate them.

To ensure that the Conflagration happens on schedule, Zed has to protect a series of events that involves some nasty regimes and their shenanigans, and some events surrounding that in Washington DC. He's a bit out of his comfort zone -- his usual stomping grounds are the 1930s and 1940s -- but nonetheless finds some things about "contemp" society to enjoy, like the fresh air and sunshine -- but his real problems are only beginning. The latest assignment has left him with his GeneScan out of whack, and he struggles to do his job and increasingly finds himself confused by what he's been told to do -- it doesn't seem to make sense. Zed -- known in this strange world of today's Washington as Troy Jones -- ends up interacting in one way or another with contemps who inadvertently leave him still more muddled. Tasha has lost her brother in an overseas war, and is angry enough to ponder leaking "smoking gun" documents to WikiLeaks-style rebels; Leo, an ex-CIA agent, is told to stop her but complicates his mission by stumbling across Sari, a young Indonesian girl who is virtually enslaved by her Korean diplomat employer and his wife, but who may be the key to the secret that Zed has to protect.

Got that?? If you don't, don't worry... Unlike Connie Willis's  time travel narratives, All Clear and Blackout, I found most of the important plot elements are simple to follow. (I enjoyed the two Willis books a great deal, but had to shut off that voice in my head that said, but the time travel element is really confusing me, and if I think about it too much, my brain will explode.) This isn't really a sci-fi novel about time travel, but rather a book about politics vs human beings, in both the present and the future, aka the Perfect Present. What kind of freedoms will people relinquish to live comfortably and quietly? What causes someone to muse, as one character in this riveting drama does, that "maybe it was good to live under a dictator"? What are the triggers that cause them to look at the world around them with fresh eyes and realize that they have become dupes, agreeing blindly to things to which, if they stopped and thought about them, they would have profound moral objections.

The narrative jumps among the four main characters, so we see the same events through each of their eyes. The "contemps" are reacting in ways that all of us might: we can't know the future, so we can do only what seems best to us in the present moment. Zed, in contrast, knows what is to come, is increasingly uncertain of what would change that future and whether it's a good or bad thing and of his mission, and has an utterly different kind of moral dilemma to resolve, one that depends on the kind of omniscience he has and that's he increasingly ambivalent about. There are some holes in this story, and a few heavy-handed and improbable moments (such as the one when Zed realizes that his cover story has an uncomfortable parallel with his own "real" life in the far distant future). And yes, The Revisionists owes a lot to other classic dystopian books, such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (only this time around, it's history rather than books per se that are banned in order to keep people happy in some future world.) Don't expect this novel to break fresh literary ground -- but then, that's not its mission. It's a "thumping good read" that ties with Lev Grossman's The Magician King for my favorite rollercoaster ride of the year. Perhaps it's not as accomplished or purely imaginative as Grossman's novel, but in my opinion that was offset by the fun I had imagining what it might be like to return to our 'civilization' from the far distant future, or musing what kinds of events might cause me to re-examine my priorities as Tasha does hers.

So if you're looking for a "thumping good read" to keep you thoroughly engrossed and to block out your own ugly realities one rainy weekend, look no further! 4.3 stars, recommended.

I obtained an electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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