Everything Matters even at Cocktail Time

July 15, 2010

“First you need to understand this truth: Although to you we may seem quite knowledgeable, even omniscient, we in fact know only one thing for certain, which is this: thirty-six years, one hundred sixty-eight days, fourteen hours, and twenty-three seconds from now, a comet that has broken away from the Kuiper Belt will impact the Earth with the explosive energy of 283,824,000 Hiroshima bombs. … That’s it. We don’t know anything else. … All of which raises the question: Does Anything I Do Matter?”

This little speech, delivered by unseen voices directly into the cranium of a developing fetus who knows nothing of comets, the Earth, the passage of time, or atom bombs, provides the opening salvo to Everything Matters, a new novel by Ron Currie, Jr.. The story doesn’t dwell on whether a fetus can make sense of this kind of information because it expects the reader to overlook this. And we do. We want to know how this will turn out. Will global catastrophe be averted. And what about the Big Question?

Unfortunately for us, things turn out very badly, just as the voices warned us on page 8. Glen Weldon’s review for NPR (which is what encouraged me to give this book to my wife for Xmas) described the book as “beautiful, sad and haunting”. Well, he got “sad” right. It’s hard to accept “beautiful” and “haunting” given the intensely self-destructive behavior of nearly all of the characters, the many science fiction plot glitches (what does a fetus know about …, why doesn’t the 4th most intelligent human in all of history attend any institution of higher learning, um – multiverses don’t work at all like that, do they?), and the question that eventually looms over the entire story: why do these voices get involved in the first place? Are they voyeurs or are they sadists? It would seem they are a lot of both. (In fairness to the voices, we readers are voyeurs too.)

As I “turned the corner”* from spring into summer, my reading changed too. P.G. Wodehouse has been providing me with the first fiction of summer for several years, and this year I unearthed Cocktail Time out of the school library. This book belongs to the “Uncle Fred” series and not the “Bertie and Jeeves” series that I had been slowly absorbing.

Uncle Fred, aka the Earl of Ickenham, is an older fellow with considerable life experience, money, and a passion for getting away from the boring countryside so that he can spread “sweetness and light” to everyone he encounters. The plot springs into motion like an elaborate Rube Goldberg device when Uncle Fred uses a slingshot to unhat a well-known lawyer, stuff-shirt, and relative who is waiting across the street. A few pages on Fred tells the lawyer that he is incapable of writing a novel. The lawyer finds this challenge irresistible and writes a novel, “Cocktail Time”, that should be dropped into a waste can or recycling bin somewhere. Instead, it gets published, ignored, lambasted from the pulpit, popular, and a probable source of riches for its author. But who is the real author? Working all of this out provides Uncle Fred with innumerable opportunities to spread sweetness and light.

As usual, the book had several unintended effects. First, I found myself speaking in Wodehouse-inspired Britishisms for several days after I finished the book. Fortunately for my family, this habit dissipated a few days later when I began imitating the speech patterns of World Cup participants.

Second, I found myself ruminating on the stark differences between Everything Matters! and Cocktail Time when I came across this quote from Wodehouse on the inside cover, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right down into life and not caring a damn…”.

* “Turning the corner” refers to a phrase used by the old fellow who decides to publish Cocktail Time. He knits socks here and there throughout the book and proudly announces to anyone that he thinks is listening that he has “turned the corner” at the heel.

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One Response to “Everything Matters even at Cocktail Time”

  1. […] The daily drizzle has ceased. The sun is shining. There are no papers to grade. So what season of the year brings these delights? Why summer, of course, and that means it’s time once again to settle down with another installment of Bertie and Jeeves. […]

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