Drowning in a Shallow Sea
A promising debut novel ultimately could have done with more development
By Samantha Toh
An Ocean of Minutes
I have, for some time, been a believer in Susan Sontag's call for artists to elude their interpreters, "by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the world can be… just what it is." This call pleases me less as a creator of art (since it is so darn tough to achieve), as it does as a spectator. Some of the best art I have read, seen, listened to, and watched falls into this category. The experience is so immediately sensory -- and in writing, the characters and place so real -- that there is no time, space or will to step back, analyse.
It is most challenging for a science fiction author, then, to meet these demands. Science fiction requires the creation of a brand-new universe, whose departure from our own takes significant work to make believable. Information must be well-paced. Too much detail, all at once, could be overwhelming, tough to decipher, and boring. Too little, confusing. The facts must also be congruent; they should add up. And above the foundation of this world, the placement of real, emotionally relatable characters whom we can root for, fear for, and know, is what makes the story come alive.
Thea Lim's An Ocean of Minutes takes on this challenge. It is a romance based in a dystopian universe, marrying the premises of Emily St. John Mandel's masterpiece Station Eleven with Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. In 1981, a devastating flu has spread across the world after a lab accident in Atlanta, Georgia. Polly Nader, 23, must time-travel to the future to save the sick boyfriend she's in love with, Frank Marino. They agree to meet at a time and place in 1993, near where they currently are, in Texas. In exchange for the opportunity, she bonds her labour to amoral private company TimeRaiser… but an administrative error causes her to land in 1998. The book, from that moment on, becomes a frantic and single-minded search for Frank.
Lim starts well. She builds an interesting, vivid world. She turns sci-fi tropes -- pandemics and time-travelling -- into meaty, emotional writing. Within 20 pages, Lim has animated the confusion and desperation of those trying to escape the flu-ridden 1981. Things break, powerful TimeRaiser personnel verge on violence, people are hauled away. She adds original twists to our modern systems, endowing Polly with a superior O-1 visa status for her furniture restoration skills, a sharp contrast to the masses of H-1 immigrants, whom Lim describes as "small and black haired… not the same race as [Polly]". The creepy eugenicist overtones are unmistakable, and these raise the stakes.
We then time-travel to the past, to flu-free Buffalo in 1978, where we understand Polly's background a bit better -- essentially orphaned, just robbed of her dead mother's furniture by a very odd ex-boyfriend, raised by a quirky, independent aunt… We are also introduced to Polly and Frank's initial courtship. All very well. Frank is clearly the saviour figure. For Polly, he is a ray of redeeming hope to make up for all the disappointing men in her life, and a rare source of love after Polly's mother's passing. How we get from 1978 to 1981, from Buffalo to Texas, from a nascent relationship to Polly's sacrificial act for Frank, is the set-up that Lim must, in the coming pages, bridge.
She does not manage it. The plot very quickly starts to sag, fuelled by scenes that should have been cut completely, or shortened. Lim takes us through a good ten pages of Polly boarding the wrong bus on her first day of work, mistakenly ending up in a facility for H-1 visa holders. The scene, which includes Polly's overwrought attempt to find a bathroom (why is this detail being written in?), serves little point except to describe the H-1 workers' appalling working conditions. Then, some ways on, comes a chapter that describes all the romantic things that Polly and Frank would do on pre-pandemic Sunday mornings, but in the form of a laundry list.
The fat should have been trimmed. But these examples are mere loose skin compared to the book's flabby core: Polly and Frank's relationship, which -- though bookended by some excellent scenes -- alternates between tedious and unrealistically saccharine. Granted, I am a curmudgeon, in whose hands romance tropes already begin with a severe disadvantage. But my allergy here is not to the multiple, effusive declarations of love, but to the lack of substance that justifies these declarations. I want to be emotionally invested in the Polly-Frank pair.
If I were to hazard a guess, the problem lies in that only three real scenes detail the development of Polly and Frank's relationship, between their first meeting in 1978 and their separation three years later, and these are not impactful enough. In the first of the three, for example, Frank takes Polly's deceased mother's furniture back by force from the aforementioned odd ex-boyfriend. We understand why this is monumental for Polly, who has little else to remember her mother by. But Frank wins the furniture back far too easily. Despite writing in a high-potential physical scuffle, Lim cuts the scene before the climax, resolving it quickly with a bribe exchange of furniture-for-drinks. The scene ends with Frank shouting that he will marry Polly. But very few reasons have thus far been given to show why he's so set on the lady. We only know that they have been on a few dates, and have had a few great conversations. So what? The relationship hasn't even been tested. Frank comes across as merely infatuated, a slickly perfect fairytale hero, a narrative device.
There is little growth from there. Lim writes in a wonderfully humorous scene, with Polly and Frank scheming to prevent Frank's mother from setting Polly's aunt up with Frank's sad uncle. It's well-written. But it's not what the book needs. Less tautly penned is the fraught holiday from 1980, planted about four-fifths of the way through the book. Polly and her beau disagree on almost everything, from where to go, to how to spend it (Frank prefers a packed, fully booked day, while Polly just wants to relax). While some of their arguments' topics cut through to deeper themes, like the debatable need for material objects to prop up our memories, we are shown too much petty bickering to sustain interest in their conversation. By the end, I was uncertain how either character had developed as a result of what I'd just read. What was I supposed to feel about Polly or Frank? Was I supposed to understand that, because their relationship's initial fun and games had deteriorated into argument, this somehow made their partnership realistic? Perhaps so, but I wasn't invested enough to truly care.
There are still partially redeeming moments in the book, and in fact, many relationships that could have given the novel a resounding emotional depth: Polly's relationship with her aunt Donna, Polly's relationship with her second manager Norberto, Polly's relationship with H-1 visa status co-worker Cookie…There are, too, many astute observations about human society in all its dystopian lack of glory: now H-1, stripped of her O-1 visa and corresponding privileges of privacy, rest days, and freedom, Polly asks with touching naivete why everyone now speaks to her in Spanish.
Cookie, her fellow H-1, observes: "You looked white until you went broke."
But these moments, though worthwhile, cannot stand alone with a weak raison d'etre: Frank. An Ocean of Minutes is a search for a shallow idol, and though Lim tries to adorn this idol with human character at the very end of the book, it is, by then, far too late. The novel's momentum drags, its motives unclear, such that I'm always one foot out of the novel's world. I do feel sorry for Polly, but as sorry that the novel was not worked on more before publication. That reading Lim's tale felt like drowning in an ocean of minutes is, by far, the bigger tragedy.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 1 Jan 2019