Entanglement by Bryan Walpert (Mākaro Press, 2021), 268pp, $35
When I was fifteen I discovered the joys of mathematics. The experience was a Damascene moment that confirmed me on a path to study science despite my love of language and story. I found, however, that when I got to university all my friends were arts students. Many of them felt that science was an arcane business somehow inimical to the things they cared about. How could I want to write poetry and short stories while at the same time attending lectures in maths and physics? For my part, I was mystified by their mystification. The pleasure I found in an elegant piece of logic was aesthetic and the ideas of science seemed a fertile field of metaphor. For example, the paradoxical square root of minus one, represented by the symbol i and the basis for the system of imaginary numbers, called to my mind the I of personal consciousness and identity, which seemed equally strange and inexplicable.
Bryan Walpert’s Entanglement occupies this kind of literary space. It differs from the conventional notion of science fiction in that the ideas around which the story is built are not used primarily as determinants of a fictional world but rather are central to both the form of the novel and the emotional landscape of its characters who are engaged in a heart-rending drama.
The story’s protagonist is Paul, an American writer who is on a residency at Sydney University’s Centre for Time. He is gathering material on the physics and metaphysics of time, hoping that it will somehow gel to form a novel. In the course of his inquiries, he meets Anise, a New Zealand philosopher. They have an affair and she becomes pregnant whereupon they get married and move to Baltimore, his hometown. Paul’s relationship with Anise and their daughter, Ella, constitutes the first entanglement.
The second involves Paul’s relationship with his identical twin brother, Daniel. When the pair were children, they were set upon by a gang of bullies. Paul ran away but Daniel was severely beaten. He suffered brain damage and partial paralysis that left him unable to lead an independent life. The guilt Paul feels at abandoning Daniel ties the two together, forcing on Paul an overwhelming obligation to meet Daniel’s demands for company and attention. This entanglement eventually leads to a failure in his duty to his family that has disastrous consequences.
Walpert handles this domestic drama with insight and compassion. Paul’s love for his daughter and his beautiful and ferociously intelligent wife forms an agonising tension with the irresistible guilt he feels over his brother. His fate seems inescapable and gives the story the inevitability of classic tragedy.
Science and philosophy provide metaphors for this situation. In one of its meanings, entanglement refers to a strange phenomena of quantum physics according to which two fundamental particles—electrons, say—remain somehow linked to one another after they have been separated so that the investigation of one seems to determine what will happen in the investigation of the other. This phenomenon, which Paul learns about during his time in Sydney, parallels the action-at-a-distance of his relationship with Daniel, suggesting the inexorability of a physical law.
Paul’s studies in the philosophy of time are even more central to the book. Two theories predominate in this area of metaphysics: eternalism and presentism. The first draws its plausibility from Einstein’s theory of relativity according to which time is no more than a dimension of the physical world no different in principle from distance. Such a view looks at the world objectively—from the outside, as it were. From this perspective there is no singular now. It makes no more sense to point to the world and say that there is now than it does to say that there is here. If there is no unique now, then the present is an illusion and so are the past and the future. We might say, for example, that a human life is a physical object in which the eleven-year-old and the sixty-year-old are just two of many possible cross-sections. Or, as Anise points out to Paul, we can consider an object such as a violin or a round of cheese or even a rock as an event with a beginning and an end.
Presentism takes the opposite approach. It claims that only present things exist. The future is no more than possibilities or the inevitable results of causes that are already in operation. The past exists as memories or artefacts and their interpretation. In a sense, this is not an objective view of the world but the subjective perspective of ordinary experience. One of its attractions is that it allows the possibility of free will, which is hard to justify from an eternalist perspective.
Paul approaches this stuff as a writer of fiction. He is planning a novel that involves time travel. It is not, he says, sci-fi but a literary work. In one of those self-referential tropes common to novels about writers, his book bears a strong resemblance to the story in which it occurs, although it prefigures the most dramatic event of that story—an instance of eternalism perhaps. Is time travel possible? From a presentist perspective, no—you can’t go somewhere that does not exist. From an eternalist perspective, maybe you can, although the possibility raises the problem of those strange loops in which someone goes back in time and kills their grandfather thus preventing their own birth. Entanglement explores this paradox. If Paul could go back and ensure that his younger self did not abandon his brother, he might be freed from the guilt that burdens him and its terrible consequences. Is the universe so constructed that this is possible?
The mysteries of time underpin not only the metaphorical dimension of the book but also its narrative structure. There are three main storylines presented in alternating chapters. The first consists of a series of writing exercises produced during a writers’ retreat at Lake Lyndon in 2019. Each is introduced by an instruction such as ‘Begin by putting the following words in a passage: bacon, horoscope, fox, conductor, lips, onion, brightly coloured bird.’ This device fragments what might otherwise have been a continuous narrative, giving the pieces the characteristics of a stream of memories and anchoring them in a particular time and place. The second storyline concerns a memory-impaired time traveller who has gone back to intervene in his own past. It is written in the second person present tense. This direct address draws the reader into the story, creating a flow of experience that is at once the present but also paradoxically the past. A third storyline consists of Paul’s entries in a journal during his residency in Sydney. It is thus a first-person narrative but one presented in a reverse chronological order. It begins with Anise’s revelation that she is pregnant and works back through their relationship until the point he first notices her among the scholars at the Centre for Time. This storyline also provides the intellectual substance of the book and the basic framework for Paul’s history. It represents the notion of time as a narrative stretching back into the past. Gradually, as these strands interweave, Paul’s predicament and its awful consequence becomes clear.
In many ways the book is a virtuoso performance, from its narrative and figurative structure to its intellectual heft and its stylistic precision. There is, for example, a section of a page or two that consists of dialogue between its two main characters without paragraphing, quotation marks or attributions. It takes considerable skill to make such an exercise even remotely comprehensible. What stops this book from being no more than an impressive tour de force is the skill of its storytelling and its profound humanity. Its primary theme is the crippling effects of guilt and the possibility of redemption.
These days our literary novels often get called brilliant. Entanglement—shortlisted for the 2022 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in the Ockham Book Awards—is a rare example where the epithet is deserved.
CHRIS ELSE is a writer and reviewer. His most recent novel is Waterline (Quentin Wilson Publishing 2019). He lives in Dunedin.
pam henson says
Absolutely agree with this review. I read the book twice in order to catch up with bits I had missed the first time, to enjoy the language, to appreciate the skilled interweaving of narratives. As a scientist Chris Else is in a position to understand the scientific concepts that underlie the novel, and personally I had a struggle to comprehend them. But then there was the excitement of recognising in the story the scientific principles just discussed. Brilliant book, great review.