Time travel is a tricky theme for writers to tackle. It’s
difficult to make the events and reactions feel real and natural,
and to tie up all the loose ends of the plot. It’s even
harder to do all this and still explore other ideas in the story,
giving the fantastic aspects a foundation and relatability.
First-time novelist Selden Edwards's tale, THE LITTLE BOOK,
presents readers with the story of an amazing family, two members
of whom have become dislodged from linear time.
Beyond the incredible lives of three generations of the Burden
family, Edwards paints a picture of Europe on the brink of a new
age. In 1897 Vienna holds all the promise of a fully realized and
splendid civilization. But, as history has shown, collapse and
violence were on the horizon.
Wheeler Burden --- famous American college baseballl player,
rock star and author --- suddenly finds himself in Vienna. It is
the end of the 19th century, and the city is full of artists,
philosophers and musicians. It is the time of Mahler, Klimt and
Freud, and the youth of the city are part of a social, artistic and
intellectual revolution. Because of his prep school mentor, Arnauld
Esterhazy (known as The Haze), whose memoir he edited and
published, Wheeler knows all about Vienna. He steals some clothes
and money and sets off to see the city. But that theft leads to an
incredible chain of events that plays out over almost the next 100
years and then circles in on itself starting all over again.
In Vienna, Wheeler comes to meet his war-hero father who died
when he was just a small boy. The two, Wheeler and Dilly Burden,
agree not to interfere in history (as Dilly has time traveled to
Vienna as well), but Wheeler falls in love with the beautiful
Bostonian writer Eleanor Putnam. The biggest problem with their
affair is that she is his own grandmother.
This incest, though explained away by Edwards, is problematic.
Wheeler and Eleanor are supposed to be having a monumental love
affair, but the duality of their relationship is hard to get past.
This is not the only flaw in Edwards’s book. Full of big
ideas and interesting characters, a blend of fantasy and historical
fiction, THE LITTLE BOOK is often a victim of its own devices. The
loops of time are occasionally confusing (which relationship came
first: Wheeler and Eleanor as lovers, or as family?), the
characters are more heroic and perfect than is realistic and their
motivations are sometimes unclear. Whole sections of narration read
like Freudian therapy sessions, which isn’t surprising since
Freud (along with Mahler, Hitler and other famous Austrians) is an
important figure in the story. Edwards owes just as much to Joseph
Campbell and his theories on the hero's journey as he does to Freud
in telling this ambitious tale.
In the end, while much of what Edwards attempts in THE LITTLE
BOOK is compelling, the main characters, especially Wheeler, seem
to lack any real humanity: they are beautiful and talented,
brilliant and influential, and, for some reason, stuck in a time
warp moving from California in 1988 to Vienna in 1897, all using a
set of books (who wrote what first and inspired by whom? It gets
lost in the narrative shuffle) to navigate their way around.
Edwards is obviously a talented writer with a knack for history,
art, philosophy and even baseball. Here he tackles not only time
travel but also cultural change, anti-Semitism, the birth of
psychoanalysis, modern European history, the perfect baseball
pitch, the emergence of contemporary feminism and much more. Here's
hoping that his next book will be published with a firm editorial
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 30, 2010
The Little Book