Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams is as good as his novel Reunion is bad. They share some superficial characteristics: both are meditations on the nature of time, both are short, and both strive for depth. The key differences are that Einstein’s Dreams achieves its depth, while Reunion does not; Einstein’s Dreams illuminates the character of Einstein, while Reunion skims Charles, illuminating only the fundamental banality of his existence; Einstein’s Dreams makes us ponder the nature of time, while Reunion makes us ponder why we’re reading this novel.

In buying it I made two mistakes: I didn’t read the first page and I relied solely on the author’s previous reputation. The first three sentences might’ve spared me the six bucks:

Sheila lies on top of me, snoring, her heavy breasts heavy on my chest, her stomach on my stomach, her hair damp in the afternoon heat, a shard of light through the white shutters she closes when we make love, the slow beat of the overhead fan, the tiny sound of a radio from the street. I too am falling asleep.
I fly above mountains, dizzy, frightened.

What isn’t wrong here? I’m not sure—maybe that the sentences are easily parsed. The wrongness piles up: the weird repetition of the word “heavy,” the mere description of breasts as “heavy,” which is as much a cliché as “pendulous,” the next several clichés (“damp in the afternoon heat” and a “shard of light”), the awkward time shift inherent in telling us of the “white shutters she closes when we make love,” indicating that the event happened previously, and a generic scene that’s been described in thousands of novels and filmed in thousands of movies. “Light” and “white” are jarring slant rhymes. The idea of flying in dreams or reveries is equally hackneyed, and as a metaphor for time passing it fails.

I’m willing to continue. But the clichés of thought and language continue too, as when Charles tells us:

Just the other day I was reading some article about the relativity of values. I mention this because it applies directly to the question of the Honduran hurricane victims on TV. Even if they are not mere electronic data points, those people are not nearly as bad off as they seem.

Right: the people are far away and only presented on TV, and therefore aren’t as real. See, e.g., The Matrix (link goes to a fascinating New Yorker essay), Philip K. Dick, and too many others. The theme continues a few pages later when a hippie turned general is described here:

The Nick on TV wasn’t any more real than the Gulf War itself, a made-for-TV war, a video game, another digitized disembodied nothingness like the Honduran hurricane victims, created to sell deodorants and premium beers and cellular phones. On my sixteen-inch television screen, red boxes neatly circumscribed bomb targets.

That’s an easy point of view to take if you’re living in the U.S., but I’m guessing that the soldiers who were there and the civilians living in Iraq didn’t consider themselves digitized disembodied nothingness. The sheer self-indulgence of this “what is reality?” idea is frustrating because it repeats without amplifying or altering one made earlier in the novel. It’s so bad that I almost miss the one bright spot, which is Lightman’s use of the verb “circumscribed” to describe bomb targets, which is both accurate and unusual. Its resonance with the word “circumcised” is also appropriate, given the men in charge of wars whose target is so often other men.

Those are the first few pages. It doesn’t get better.

Reunion is built around an older man going to a college reunion, where he chiefly feels uncomfortable and then slips into a reverie about the girl who slipped away. He remembers their love affair; she might have a tawdry affair with a person in a position of power; the reader wishes that some scenes weren’t worthy of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award. In novels, no sex is always preferable to bad sex. As for this novel, you’re better off with John Banville’s The Sea, or almost anything by Ian McEwan, or Proust’s Swann’s Way, or any of the other innumerable novels about an older person remembering his or her affairs. It’s a justly rich and weighty sub-genre, and with so much to choose from, you could do far better.

In short, Reunion serves two related purposes: to show through contrast how good Einstein’s Dreams is and to remind readers who haven’t otherwise heard of that novel to read it instead of and not in addition to Reunion.

The Wonderful Past

I’ve mentioned Grant Writing Confidential several times recently and will do so once more again, this time because I wrote a post that my father and co-writer there, Isaac Seliger, suggested would be well-suited here as well. He saw the many literary references in The Wonderful Past—to The Name of the Rose, My Name is Red, Plato, and traditional Romance. To be sure, the post focuses on grant writing, but it also illustrates a tendency in literature and culture: idealizing the past or recalling a golden time that may or may not have ever been. Novels like The Name of the Rose wink at this, especially because Adso of Melk lived in 1321 and “wrote” from the perspective of sometime around 1380 – 1400, and the eras he recalled appear ridiculous to modern readers and are distorted by the limits of knowledge then. Nonetheless, this theme is developed seriously in many novels, it’s one that The Lord of the Rings deals with explicitly: the passing of the Elves and their works of great beauty at the end of the Third Age are a time of necessary sorrow. There are many references to fading, passing, and parting, as much of what was fair is subject to one of those fates, but the strength of The Lord of the Rings comes from its mingled sense of hopefulness, necessity, and remembrance, which keep it from becoming morose or sentimental. Its tone is tempered and balanced, with hope present even as the past fades.

Perhaps the most obvious example of an entire book devoted to idealizing the past, especially in comparison to a lessened future, is John Banville in The Sea. I began my commentary on it by noting: “It is not clear what we should take from The Sea.” Almost a year later I’m still not sure what we should take, but its sense of wistfulness over the past is the primary feeling I’ve taken away. As such, I have no good explanation about it, though for a novel that I didn’t love it is often in my thoughts, and I perceive similar themes to lesser or, rarely, greater degrees in so many novels. Yet any explanation I give for it will, I feel, be uncertain or overly speculative at best, but such thoughts about the past remain, and remain noticeable.

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