I enjoy stories that are about passage of time or premised on alternate universe and “what if you could travel back in time.”
The opening paragraph in Cat’s Eye , a fiction written by Margaret Atwood reads:
‘ Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once.’
I have read Less written by Andrew Sean Greer and it is brilliant so when I came across The Impossible lives of Greta Wells and knew that the fiction by Andrew Sean Greer is about ‘what if ‘ and time travel, I had to read it. The concept is uniquely original as it is about time travel and yet it is not really about time travel as the character has not left 1985, she merely experiences the version of her in 1918 and 1941.
Greta Wells’ life is falling apart. Her charismatic twin brother, Felix, has just died of AIDS and Dr.Nathan Michelson, her lover of many years has also left her. Her aunt, Ruth is her sole companion in these months. Ruth is her father’s sister and her father ‘would not have approved of her visits; he always found his sister flighty, selfish, uncontrolled, the dangerous artist who had to be stopped.’ But Greta finds an ally and a comfort in Ruth. To heal her pains, everyone has advice. ‘ Try acupuncture, try acupressure, try yoga, try running, try pot, try oats , try bran try, try colonics, quit smoking, quit dairy, quit meat, quit drinking, quit TV, quit being self-centered. Finally she finds Dr Gilleo, a psychiatrist. She tries antidepressants from Ambinalon to zimelidine. She still mourns for the loss of her beloved brother. Then her psychiatrist recommends her to see Dr Cerletti for electroconvulsive therapy which process will be twice a week. Purpose of the therapy is to bring her back to herself. During these sessions, she finds herself being cut out of her current world in 1985 and transported to 1918 or 1941. During the treatment process that will take twenty-five procedures, Greta gets to travel back and forth between 1918, 1941 and 1985. When she goes back in time, she is fully aware that she is experiencing life as it might have been had she and Felix, Alan (Felix’s friend), Nathan and Ruth existed in those years as well. In tackling events of her life in those earlier years, Greta has the benefit of the wisdom that is acquired through her experience in 1985. She is definitely proactive in taking steps to gradually gain her present life back.
“ Just one part.”
She explains to her aunt.
“ Electroconvulsive. It’s a last resort. They tell me it’s a seizure to break a pattern in my mind, but I know what it really is. They think I should be someone else. This Greta isn’t working, obviously. She’s worked for over thirty years, but it’s time for an update. Replace all the parts.”
“ Just one part. Just me. I hate it, but I don’t know what else to do. I can’t…. I can hardly get up in the morning. And yet….”
Andrew Sean Greer’s writing is beautiful, acutely sensitive and funny. Here is another selection.
‘It is almost impossible to capture true sadness; it is a deep-sea creature that can never be brought into view. I say that I remember being sad, but in truth I only remember mornings when that person in the bed – the person in which I was contained – could not wake up, could not got to work, could not even do the things that she knew would save her, and instead did only what was bound to destroy her : alcohol, and forbidden cigarettes, and endless lost black hours of loneliness. I’m tempted to distance myself from her, to say, “ Oh, that wasn’t me.” But that was me, staring at the wall and longing to crayon-draw all over it and not even having the will for that. Not even the will for suicide. That was me in my room, looking out the window on Patchin Place s the maples turned yellow into autumn.’
It is a commendable book if you are a fan of stories about the character inhabiting alternate realities and alternate versions of how one’s life could go. I like reading stories that are premised on themes like ‘ what if’ as in what if there were a parallel timeline and there are different versions of us or that you can travel back and forth in time. The plot for The Impossible lives of Greta Wells is fascinating and the moral of the story suggests that no matter what circumstances we land ourselves in , we are the same person as our core remains the same and there is only one version of us in every individual. It is an interesting concept but I think we are all made up of more than one version and that we are not that dissimilar from each other because personality and identity somehow can be fluid.
Do you ever ask yourself if this is the person you dreamed of becoming when you were little? I think we are chameleons if we allow ourselves to be. Decades ago I watched the movie Being There and absolutely love it. In the movie, the character, Chance is a gardener to a rich recluse who lives in a townhouse. Chance has lived all of his life inside the townhouse and he has learnt everything from watching television. When his benefactor dies, he is evicted from the house and for the first time, he has to step into the outside world where he chances upon a rich man’s wife whose chauffeured driven car ran into him. He has been allowed by his benefactor to take the well-tailored clothes from the attic thus his attire is courtly and respectable. Chance is taken into the rich man’s home. When he introduces himself as ‘ Chance, the gardener ‘, he is mistaken as Chauncey Gardiner. The plot is hilarious and the moral of the story is : “Life is a state of mind.” Brilliant. Click