Friday, June 5, 2015

A Chronodiegetic Schematic of the Elastic Present

Enter the following data:

META (search for definition)
SCIENCE FICTION (search for definition)
TIME TRAVEL (search for definition)

Computing...
Trajectory locked.

To find the only way to exit a time loop, please refer to Appendix A of this manual (How To Live Safely Inside a Science Fictional Universe)


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When it happens, this is what happens: By reading Charles Yu's incomparably original work of fiction, I'm realizing, have realized and will have realized that I've lived and I am still living inside a box that travels backwards in time when I'm supposed to propel myself forward into the unknown future of my own makings. We are all time machines, he claims, but most people's machines are broken that they get stuck or get looped or get trapped. Our greatest anxiety is the box we live inside of--everyone's personal TARDIS, if you may--and it's something we use to evade the present, re-create the past, and deal with the future. We are required to move ahead and yet more often than not we stay in a standstill, reliving memories and regret as if their tune is all we are and what we can only afford to look forward to.

In this inexhaustibly consistent yet still beguilingly self-referential novel is where we meet Charles Yu--a character you may or may not interchange with the author--who is a thirty-something time machine repairman working in Minor Universe 31 whose inhabitants tend to get a little loose with time traveling and get themselves in a pickle all the time. Yu only has two sustainable personal relationships with: TAMMY (his vehicle to travel in time), and Ed (a fictional space-dog of a sidekick). One day he encounters a future version of himself and shoots it dead. Literally running in a loop where all points in his timeline converse and diverse before his eyes, Charles also has to find his father, a failed time-travel theorist who might as well fell in a black hole after he just disappeared with no rhyme or reason, and only a book which Yu himself has written in the future entitled How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the key to unravel it all.

With both unyielding clarity and stupendous lack of linear direction, this book serves more as a commentary of the science fiction genre and its conventions, particularly the literary approach to the time paradox, as well as the rudimentary themes of existential crisis, quest for autonomy, and both the illusion and victory of choice. Most critics have even compared it to Douglas Thomas' Hitchhiker series fused with Philip K. Dick's emphatic literary sensibilities, and yet Charles Yu's scintillating book stands apart and all on its own. 

"Most people I know live their lives in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward."

I will attempt to explain why this book can possibly change your life if you're willing to see past through the heavy-laden self-referential flow of the narrative because underneath that seemingly impenetrable exterior is a story so rife with meaningful insights on human connections and the pursuit of happiness all the while paying respects to what the science fiction genre as a whole contributes to our goals of self-fulfillment and progression. I would caution, though, that this is never going to be for everyone; its writing is eloquently paradoxical, and unmistakably a taste only a few might acquire; and those that would will delight in its essence.

I've recommended this book to a close friend of mine who shares my affinity with the NBC-now-Yahoo-sponsored show, Community. Created by Dan Harmon, a showrunner as equally kooky as his own creation, Community is a tremendously meta and experimental basketcase of a situational comedy series that continues to push even its own envelope and has just wrapped up its sixth season earlier this week. Its unique approach to comedy and storytelling is what made it endearing to its fans that the show acquired a cult following whose passion an outsider can never truly understand unless he joins the circle for himself. Much like said show, Charles Yu's novel operates in the same level of manic disregard for what is conventional and safe in telling a story. This two-hundred and thirty-nine paged paperback is INSANE. 

Even though it's fairly written in an understandable contemporary language and style, the conceptual narrative framework can still be alienating to a certain extent since it's mostly an open discussion on the theorems and mechanics through philosophical ramblings of the character as the author, and the author as the character. This novel essentially reads like the kind of conversation you will have with yourself if you're someone who is too self-aware for your own good. It breaks itself apart. It questions even the act of asking a question. It carves itself a special place in the universe where only it can make sense both its own state of being and non-existence. It's quite difficult to get across just how incredibly complex and frustratingly clever this book is. Whatever I type in the review will forever pale in comparison of what the novel itself actually offers the readers, and that is a chance to interrogate oneself in a manner that I can only akin to not only breaking the fourth wall of the plane of reality but hammering it into a shape both familiar and unrecognizable.


"Time isn't a placid lake, recording our ripples...we are too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about..sure, there's a little bit of splashing up the surface but that doesn't even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us."

As a self-referential ode to science fiction conventions, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a self-sustaining metaphor of the genre and formula of writing science fiction itself while also making snide or glib commentary upon itself while it's busy outlining the time paradox via a bittersweet personal experience of the lead character he succinctly and quite pitifully termed as the 'father-son-axis'. In a shallow surface, this is an autobiographical search for family and identity; on another level it's a pastiche of humanity's fascination for the concept of time travel; and resting on another layer of that is a symphonic composition that poignantly captures how human beings are their own time machines after all. We are  highly intelligent species with an acute sense of time and therefore we are always able to create and define what is past and future while also simultaneouslylaughably and heart-breakingly unable to LIVE IN THE PRESENT which is more elastic than we ever realize. We mourn the past; we are eager to discover the future. But we never really enjoy what we are and who we are in the present.

As Charles Yu's insightful manual claims: "Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine." What is about time travel that a lot of us are so smitten by and curious of? Isn't it the uncanny ability to be able to pass through our lives as observers, to re-live our moments of defeat and regret, hoping we can somehow change what happened so it can dictate what will happen next? Being able to time-travel means we might be able to rewrite what has already been read and discarded; worn-out stories that we've desperately clung to because we believe they're the only truths we must preserve in order to live another day. Yu's novel forces us to examine these beliefs, to really dissect why we remain stuck in our time machines, going over events as oppose to creating new ones. On the other end of the spectrum, some of us--like me--would rather SKIP AHEAD.

Right after finishing the book, I realized that I've been caught in a time loop myself. We all have been everytime we get caught somewhere between mourning of what was behind us and daydreaming about what lies ahead. And I for one have this tendency to wish I can fast-forward to my life--ten or twenty years to the future. That's why I like reading science fiction. It appeals to my wish fulfillment of envisioning a made-up future without having to do the work in the present. Hell, while midway through a good book, I would cheat and LOOK AT THE LAST PAGE. And I did the same thing with Yu's novel and you know what I got in the end?

An empty page with this note: [This page is intentionally left blank]

I didn't get its significance until I finished the entire novel itself. That's when it hit me--this self-annihilating habit of mine to try and hurry up the steady pace of my life just so I can get over both the small and the big stuff--it's how I keep getting trapped. Upon having that very epiphany now that I'm staring at that said last page of this book for the second time, I actually teared up a little bit. It seemed inconsequential at the moment but contextualizing it with the overall pattern in how I live my life, I realized what a damaged fool I have been.

So this is what Charles Yu, ultimately, wants to say to himself and to us with his book: 

"Find the book you wrote, and read it until the end, but don't turn the last page yet, keep stalling, see how long you can keep expanding the infinitely expandable moment. Enjoy the elastic present, which can accommodate as little as much as you want to put in there. Stretch it out, LIVE INSIDE IT."

RECOMMENDED: 10/10

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