When all the time in the world isn’t enough
By Stephen E. Smith
My review copy of Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time fell open to an insert from Variety magazine announcing that the “story selection and rights have been acquired by SunnyMarch and Studiocanal” and that the film adaptation of the novel will star Benedict Cumberbatch.
Review copies always arrive with baggage — blurbs, author interviews, questionable testimonials, all of which I ignore. But it’s difficult to overlook a printed warning, tucked between the title page and cover, stating that the novel is soon to be a major motion picture. Before I’ve read the first word, I assume I’m being pitched a puffed-up film treatment, or worse yet, a story intended as fodder for the movie industry. A novel worth reading stands on its own.
Haig is a British author with an impressive track record. He’s written umpteen novels for adults and children, and his memoir Reasons to Stay Alive was on the best-sellers list for 46 weeks. So his latest offering certainly deserves a critical read, Cumberbatch notwithstanding. But like a film treatment that leaves the heart and soul of the story to be fleshed out by the filmmaker, this yarn about a 400-year-old man who could live to be 1,000 never quite comes together as a rewarding work of fiction.
Tom Hazard, the narrator/protagonist, is living the uneventful life of a history teacher in present-day London, but his attitude toward humankind has been shaded by the trauma of witnessing his mother, a peasant woman accused of being a witch for raising a child (Tom) who hasn’t aged appropriately, executed by drowning in the 1600s. Tom is one of a small group of secretive humans who age at such a leisurely pace that they appear immortal to ordinary beings. They’re called Albatrosses, Albas for short, because the bird of that name is rumored to live a long life. Regular folks, those of us who usually expire before the age of 100, are called Mayflies. So what we have is a protagonist granted a long, disease-free life and a chance to observe the world with all its faults and favors who instead spends his time ruminating on the disadvantages of an existence that offers almost endless opportunity for pleasure. Which is the novel’s primary conceptual fault. Sure, Tom’s mother suffered an unfortunate end, and there’s the certainty of losing friends and loved ones who aren’t blessed with Tom’s affliction, and it’s likely Albas would be of interest to scientists studying longevity, but the blessings of a long and healthy life far outweigh these impediments. If fate offered us the chance to be an Alba, we’d probably rejoice.
Despite this obvious incongruity, the novel’s concept should allow the author to present the reader with complex and unfamiliar perspectives, and Tom’s longevity should have blessed him with insights into the mysteries of life that he can share with the reader. But none of this happens, although there is the occasional hackneyed rambling about the past and its relationship to the present: “There are things I have experienced that I will never again be able to experience for the first time: love, a kiss, Tchaikovsky, a Tahitian sunset, jazz, a hot dog, a Bloody Mary. That is the nature of things. History was — is — a one-way street. You have to keep walking forwards. But you don’t always need to look ahead. Sometimes you can just look around and be happy right where you are.” That’s as philosophical as Tom gets.
“The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,” Tom is told by a fellow Alba, introducing an intended unifying subplot that centers on Tom’s emotional attachment to a woman in the present. Thus we have a contemporary love story, albeit a slight one. And there’s a manipulative antagonist, Hendrich, the head guy with The Albatross Society, whose purpose is to ensure that Albas remain a mystery to Mayflies. The narrative alternates scenes set in the present with chapters that explicate Tom’s backstory. In his former existence, he loved a woman, Rose, who died of plague, and he has a daughter, Marion, also an Alba, who has disappeared and is the object of a half-hearted search that stretches into the novel’s melodramatic conclusion. But none of these characters is adequately realized, and they function merely as plot devices or foils.
During his passage through time, Tom meets Shakespeare, Captain Cook, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and others, but these historical characters appear to no particular purpose and only serve to tease the reader with subplots that never quite materialize. Tom is hired by Shakespeare to play lute at the Globe Theatre and finds himself in a minor dustup that does nothing to advance the plot, and he discusses The Great Gatsby and the fleeting nature of happiness with Fitzgerald: “‘If only we could find a way to stop time,’ said her husband [Scott]. ‘That’s what we need to work on. You know, for when a moment of happiness floats along. We could swing our net and catch it like a butterfly, and have that moment forever’” — a simplistic reading of Scott and Zelda’s story that will strike Fitzgerald aficionados as clichéd.
How to Stop Time has received positive reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kirkus, People and other media, but potential readers will have to part with hard-earned bucks for the book and, more importantly, they’d have to spend hours reading 330 pages that they’ll likely find less than satisfying. They’d be wiser to save their money for a theater ticket and popcorn. With Benedict Cumberbatch in the starring role, the movie might be worth the price of admission — and their valuable time. OH
Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.