Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Alma Alexander - 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens

Five friends meet at the Spanish Gardens after decades out of touch. There, they drink Irish Coffees and talk about the past. One by one, they leave the table to go to the bathroom, to take a call, or to snap a photo of their Jaguar tattoo for their friends without disrobing in public. But their trip to the restaurant's backrooms ends up accomplishing rather more than that. Each of them is approached by Ariel, and he, the messenger, shows them a different version of their lives, a different path they might have taken. And they must choose.

The idea of getting to tweak your life is not an uncommon one in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Generally, its pleasure comes from examining key choices and contrasting the new reality with the old. 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens does not succeed in that regard. The main reason why is that we simply don't know enough for such a comparison. The only scenes we see outside of the novel's five alternate realities are the friends' conversations in the restaurant. Those conversations are for more enjoyable to read than dense biographies of each character would have been, and they do reveal a fair bit about each's past, but they do not cover nearly enough to allow us to spot the differences, let alone the moment of divergence, in the alternative stories. Therefore, save the ones that are so dramatically different as to be impossible not to notice (of which there are a fair few), the reader does not really know what specifically is new and what is not and has still less of an idea of how the two realities compare.

Furthermore, while the idea of a choice between realities is central to the novel, it's rather interesting that the realities themselves seem to have little of choice in them. Admittedly, I did wonder going in how a person, brought back to their pivotal decision but not told that this was not the first time, would not simply make the same choice they had previously. The answer is that Ariel does not give them a chance to repeat their choices – or, really, to make new ones. The first alternative reality is accomplished by a woman surviving a car crash she would otherwise not have; another is made by a parent's revelation or the lack thereof. These are not so much choices as they are events, drastic changes that are not so much wrought by the protagonists as wrought upon them.

Then there's how the novel's central choice, that between the old reality or the new, is fatally undercut because these characters do not live in a vacuum. If they take the new reality, the old will be forever shifted, and the people they love shifted with it. Again and again Ariel makes statement like: "Not your responsibility. […] You are only responsible for your own [choices]." (p. 89) But that is obviously ridiculous, especially in the case of parents, to one of whom Ariel admits that, if she changes her reality, her children "Will never have been born." (p. 177) In those circumstances, choosing anything but the established world would be incredibly selfish, and that's one of the reasons why it's not so surprising that four of the novel's five choose to remain.

As the novel progresses, Ariel and his role do come through more strongly. In each of the last two stories, Ariel steps beyond his proscribed role as impartial messenger and interacts with the characters. In both of them, something more of Ariel is seen and an otherworldly feel is definitely conveyed. The first, Ellen's tale, manages this without sacrificing anything of what makes the others work (more on that in a moment) and somehow manages to make the convoluted structure of scenes within a frame story within a frame story not only workable but engaging. The last piece and the Coda didn't work quite as well for me in terms of character (in part because, by the time we get to them, Olivia has been defined and redefined again and again in different incarnations so many times that it's hard to get any sense of the "real" Olivia) but made up for that with more of that ethereal feel and an excellent ending.

Despite the problems in its central conceit, 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens is a powerful read. This is chiefly because Alexander is an excellent character writer. The five alternate realities that we witness may not be gripping because they are alternate realities, but they are gripping because they are stories about people that we quickly come to care about. Alexander throws us into each new life in a few words, convincingly builds relationships between characters, and keeps a strong sense of pace and purpose in what are, essentially, life stories without any strong guiding plot to shape them. The fact that there are five of these life stories, and that they are all talking at once when we begin the book, makes for a slightly difficult opening, but that is made up for by how the table grows in the reader's mind, how the reader gradually comes to know each of the speakers until they, too, are at a gathering of old friends.

All of this is certainly not hindered by Alexander's prose. Though never flashy, it is always comprehensible and good at conveying the emotion of the moment, such as the off-beat way in which a character's first reaction to a disaster is conveyed: The information made no sense, as though he had asked what time of day it was and got a response that it was Wednesday (p. 44).

Alexander also possesses quite a bit of skill at encompassing characters and situations in metaphors, such as one of Simon's girlfriends saying he goes through life watching it through the windows of a train […] You never step off the train. Now and again you allow somebody else to step on, share a compartment for a little while, and then they get put off at the next station and you go on – sitting by the window, looking out at the scenery, knowing always and precisely where you are and what lies around you but never staying long enough to get to know any of it, or to truly love it (p. 70). Reading that for the first time, I was positively reminded of Murakami describing a character's lovers as having come and gone, like vividly colored birds perching momentarily on a branch before flying off somewhere (p. 360) in 1Q84, and a comparison to Murakami, needless to say, is not something that I do lightly.

Essentially, 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens is five life stories wrapped around a conversation. Its Fantasy element and choices did not wholly work for me, but the characters within its pages most certainly did. The experience of reading it is rather like heading over to the Spanish Gardens, getting an Irish Coffee of your own, and meeting some new best friends.

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