27 December 2022
On This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub
Well, I did it again. It seems an inescapable pattern, for me, to dismiss off-hand fiction writers my age – to read a book by its cover. It’s an ego problem I’m painfully aware of. My ego is bruised to see authors my age being successful because I want it so badly, myself. At least I’m aware of it. At least I came around for Emma Straub, even if I did spend a dark thirty minutes being snarky that she was only published because she was a legacy writer after her father (really despicably mean).
To be fair to myself, though, Straub’s main character, Alice, was painfully dull in the first third of this book. She was never excited about anything, had a degree in art but never painted, couldn’t make a solid decision to save (or even marginally improve) her life, and had few, if any, meaningful connections. She was so tapioca I almost put the book down. Really, she wasn’t living. Made me nauseous.
So to spill the beans early on, I’ll say that everything changed, obviously, when Alice found out she could time-travel. Then, suddenly, all of this opportunity made itself available to her – and it was as if she was knocked out of a torpid dream-state and back into the act of living. It did frustrate me, a little, that it took her time travel to realize that her life was an utter bore. I could’ve told her that on page one.
Ok so, to the time travel business. It was at this point, before my ego-check, that I was still sort of rolling my eyes: so it’s gonna be that kind of book. But quickly the time travel concept got interesting, in particular through the ways she and her father sort of broke the fourth wall in conversation about time travel. Like, yea, there were all these time-travel nerds at the Sci-Fi Con they attended together (over and over), but none of those guys realized that both Alice and her dad could actually time travel. That dimension gave the story a fun little sizzly twist.
For anyone who knows what’s going on in my life just now, you’ll understand why my Dad gifted me this book for Christmas. It’s a book about a daughter rekindling her relationship with her father, at its core. It’s a love story – but not romantic love, the kind of love the Greeks called Storge (familial, long-lasting love), the love of a father for daughter and daughter for father.
My Dad has terminal brain cancer. He is doing really well at the moment, but we can’t possibly know how long he has to live. Existing in the shadow of death forces us to really live doesn’t it? That is the case for Alice in this book; her father’s imminent death prompts her to go back in time, over and over, to relive a single day with him (the day she turned 16) so that she can remember him. Here is my favorite quote about Alice’s desires regarding her dad:
All they had done was this – talk. Be in their neighborhood, their tiny kingdom. That was the stuff that Alice wanted to soak up, to absorb, as much as she possibly could. What did it feel like, to have their strides match, to both hurry in the face of an oncoming taxi? What did it feel like to have her father next to her, to hear him grumble and hum, make the noises just beneath language? What did it feel like to see him and not worry if it would be the last time? (92)
My most recent visit home, I felt many of these questions (or similar) within me, regarding my own Dad. I watched him in conversation with his wife, my stepmom Debbie, and noted his micro-expressions, his gestures, his breath. I paid attention to his manners of speech, the way he walked on his fractured ankle, his desire to repark his car although the cancer had altered his vision.
Another one of my favorite moments between Alice and her Dad was this one, where Alice asks her Dad questions about herself:
Alice put her hand on top of her dad’s. She didn’t remember him ever being younger than this. “What age do you think I was best at?” Alice took her hand back and stared at the ground. “Like, if you had to pick me being one age forever, what age would you pick?”
Leonard chuckled. “Okay, let’s think. You were a terrible baby. Screamed one hundred percent of the time. Your mother and I used to worry that the neighbors were going to call the police. You were very cute after that, to make up for it – say, three to five. Those were good years. But no, I’d say now. I can swear as much as I want to, and you don’t need babysitters anymore. And plus, you’re good company.” (93)
I realized at this moment that I had a lot of questions for Dad that I haven’t yet asked…and to ask him his thoughts about me as a child – that really interested me.
There are a few philosophical moments throughout this, and for that I was grateful. Here’s a snippet on mindfulness and gratitude:
Maybe that was the trick to life: to notice all the tiny moments in the day when everything else fell away and, for a split second, or maybe even a few seconds, you had no worries, only pleasure, only appreciation of what was right in front of you. (130)
How very Buddhist, eh?
More than anything, though, I got annoyed with Emma. Of course this is fiction, so of course anything is possible, but generally, I dislike the idea of infinite chances to alter your life for the best outcome; such an idea steals the weight of the only-extant now. This came to the forefront – and made me nearly yell at Straub – here:
Debbie on her voicemail – Come home. There isn’t much time. Alice almost wanted to laugh. There is always more time, just look at all the time I have, she thought, but still she got on a plane and flew through an entire day – backward through a day – arriving before she’d left. (252)
Just like Puss in Boots, which we watched at the theater together last night: in the real world, you only get one chance at this life, so if you fuck it up, you gotta own it and fix it. There truly isn’t much time.
I kept waiting and waiting for Straub to reconcile this in her book. How can she bring her reader to terms with the idea that unlike Alice, they will not have infinite chances to shape their perfect life? Straub gives us a partial solution in Leonard, the father, who is dying of some indeterminate ailment (we learn later that the illness is simply a side-effect of having time traveled too often).
Nevertheless, both Leonard and Alice had dozens of opportunities to go back and fix things. Even if there is a limit with hard consequences, that’s dozens more changes than you and I will ever have – we only have one chance. Where is the reality here, Straub? What will readers take from it?
Then it hit me: we’re learning vicariously via Leonard and Alice, duh. We may not have real-life opportunities to go back and start again, but we have imaginations and we have this story as a guide. Okay, I can buy that, I guess.
Ultimately, to my relief, Alice realizes that she’s resolving nothing by going back over and over. This realization comes via Sam, who, when asked about how she knew she wanted to marry her husband says,
“I don’t know. We were so young. I did, of course I wanted to, here we are, it wasn’t against my will or anything. I love him. But I think that I was too young to really know what my choices were going to mean – that’s not really any way to find out what you need to find out, you know? Like, if someone is going to be a good parent, or they have some weird, fucked-up patriarchal bullshit that won’t surface until they’re forty, or if they’re terrible with money, or if they refuse to go to therapy. There should be an app for that…but it’s a choice – still. We’ve been married for fifteen years. But I still have to choose it. That doesn’t stop.” (270)
It's interesting how closely this excerpt mirrors the message of my final essay for my last memoir class: I have agency. I don’t have agency insofar as I can travel back and undo decisions I’ve made, but I do have agency now to act in ways that will improve my future. There is nothing I regret from my past because nothing in my past was meaningless. Even the worst of my past has shaped the person that I am, today – because I’ve made sure it is so. In truth, given the chance, I don’t think I’d go back to 16 and change anything whatsoever.
Maybe that’s Straub’s whole point.