Review: ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai (Doubleday)

MastaiE-AllOurWrongTodaysUSAn excellent debut novel, one of the first must reads of 2017

There’s no such thing as the life you’re “supposed” to have.

You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed… because it wasn’t necessary.

Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career and — maybe, just maybe — his soulmate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future — our future — is supposed to be.

Elan Mastai is the writer of, among other things, The F Word — a movie set in Toronto that I found utterly charming and amusing. When I discovered that he’d written a novel, I immediately tried to get a review copy. I eventually did (thank you, Doubleday!), and I am delighted to report that the novel did not disappoint. All Our Wrong Todays is an endearing, amusing, thought-provoking novel. Certainly, it is one of the year’s first must-reads.

The premise is pretty interesting. The rather long synopsis above gives you most of what you need to know, but there’s more to the story than the dangerous of time travel. It is a story about how situation can help or hinder people’s growth. It is a story of how we conceive ourselves — in relation to friends and family, societal expectations, and our own insecurities.

Lionel Goettreider read Cat’s Cradle and had a crucial realization, what he called the ‘Accident’ — when you invent a new technology, you also invent the accident of that technology.

When you invent the car, you also invent the car accident… I have a theory too: The Accident doesn’t just apply to technology, it also applies to people. Every person you meet introduces the accident of that person to you. What can go right and what can go wrong. There is no intimacy without consequence.

mastaie-allourwrongtodaysukWe follow Tom for some time in his original reality (which I was a little surprised by, but not disappointed). He’s not particularly accomplished: living in the shadow of his genius father, still not over the death of his mother, and crushed by a seemingly-endless ennui. He’s a nerd, a bit of a loser. After he is rudely dropped into our reality, though, he quickly reassesses himself. His family is different. His life is considerably different, and proves to be a massive adjustment. At the same time, he becomes distracted and obsessed with the possibility of a second chance… (won’t spoil what). The time travel stuff, and the paradoxes that can arise, were interestingly presented and written. It also sounds pretty plausible, and Mastai does a great job of highlighting the many downsides of its use — especially when it comes to obsessions. (One aspect of time travelling, late in the novel, is actually horrifying.)

All the while, Tom indulges in a fair amount of introspection and self-analysis. As someone who has spent not a little time trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing, I thought Mastai did a great job of writing a character that was interesting and sympathetic, without moving into self-indulgence. He’s particularly interesting when it comes to comparing our reality to his own, or analyzing our state of mind.

The current state of the world isn’t because we stopped believing in an optimistic spirit of wonder and discovery, the current state of the world is the consequence of that belief. People are despondent about the future because they’re increasingly aware that we, as a species, chased an inspiring dream that led us to ruin. We told ourselves the world is here for us to control, so the better our technology, the better our control, the better our world will be. The fact that for every leap in technology the world gets more sour and chaotic is deeply confusing. The better things we build keep making it worse. The belief that the world is here for humans to control is the philosophical bedrock of our civilization, but it’s a mistaken belief. Optimism is the pyre on which we’ve been setting ourselves aflame.

Aside from an engaging protagonist, I was impressed and interested in all of his characters. They are all three-dimensional individuals. At no point, I think, did I feel any acted our of character. The novel is filled with small moments and touches that suggest an author who is a fantastic observer of human nature and relationships. One chapter in particular, 90, is one of the best interactions I’ve ever read — it’s framed so simply, yet brilliantly; you get a wonderful insight and picture of a character. Superb. (Chapter 97, a single paragraph, is also a fantastic achievement.) I’m not someone who usually picks up on the craft of writing, but this novel is packed with brilliant examples of great writing. Whether a scene of dialogue, description, or action — Mastai seems to be able to write it all.

All Our Wrong Todays is a fantastic novel, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend. Brilliantly written, populated by sympathetic and engaging characters, and thought-provoking. I can’t wait to read what Mastai writes next (or see, if it’s a movie).

*

All Our Wrong Todays is published in February by Doubleday in Canada, Penguin in the UK, and Dutton in the US.

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