Time’s Up

By Alan Lightman
Knopf Canada, 179 pp.

My, my, and what do we have here? A pretty little bauble, and finely gilt to be sure.

Make no mistake: this is an artifact first, a manuscript second; an object as delicately crafted as a Fabergé egg and as craftily packaged as Faberge shampoo.

Simply by its dimensions – the size and heft of a pocket diary – Einstein’s Dreams announces its slender elegance. Its contents are punctuated by fine line drawings of turn-of-the-century Berne, Switzerland. The refined dust jacket sports the heavyweight endorsement of Salman Rushdie (“at once intellectually provocative and touching and comic and so beautifully written”) along with the equally daunting credentials of the author, Alan Lightman, physicist and head of the humanities writing program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Let no one doubt that this is a book leveraged to the hilt with cultural capital.

And what of the novel within? Well, “novel” is something of a misnomer, at least in the familiar sense. The classical realist novel occurs in unfolding time, detailing the experiences of realized characters. Or, in the phrase of Benedict Anderson, it is one complex gloss on the word “meanwhile . . .”

In Einstein’s Dreams, however, it’s the very concept of “meanwhile” – so ordinary, so normally invisible – that is conspicuous by its absence. The premise is that Albert Einstein, patent clerk, has just put the final touches to his theory of special relativity and is troubled by a series of dreams in which temporality itself is variously unhinged. In brief, staccato chapters, Lightman sketches imaginary worlds in which time flows otherwise.

What if time flowed backwards, for example? What if one came into consciousness at the moment of death, with a fully-formed knowledge of what life would entail? As time unraveled, one would become less physically infirm but more and more memory deficient, until there was no past to remember and consciousness extinguished itself at the moment of birth.

Alternatively, what if time repeated itself, like a scratched record or a bad Bill Murray film? Or what if there were no sense of the past, every amnesiac moment being lost forever?

Intriguing as this might seem, it means that there is no narrative to Einstein’s Dreams, just a series of deadpan scenarios bound together as an elaborate thought experiment, as though Robert Musil (The Man Without Qualities) had collaborated with Jorge Luis Borges (Labyrinths) on a mathematics setbook. Mr. Rushdie notwithstanding, the result is as touching and comic as a quadratic equation.

The intent, one supposes, is to illuminate the true strangeness of time by positing fictional strangeness. But even then the book misleads rather than informs. In one scenario, for example, there is a centre to time: the closer one approaches it, the slower time moves. Lightman suggests that in such a world, lovers, parents and children would be drawn inexorably to the centre, so as to prolong their embraces.

Quite apart from the fact that the same idea was explored first and better by Keats (“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness … Thou foster-child of silence and slow time”), the physics is not a fiction of Lightman’s creation. It is precisely what relativity theory predicts will occur as one approaches an object as gravitationally massive as a black hole. Relative to a distant observer, one’s internal clock will slow down. But only relative to a distant observer. One will not actually experience the elongation of time’s passage, and hence it makes no difference whether the lovers caress near to the centre of time or distant from it.

There is something similarly wonky about the writing, which is supposed to be spare and poetic but comes across as simultaneously spare and overwrought. Replace all those romantic German-Swiss references – the chemist who strolls through the Brunngasshalde, the women looking into the shops on Marktgasse – with more mundane co-ordinates (say, the kids swigging down Big Gulps at the 7-11, the guy behind the muffin counter at the mall) and the novel’s essential affectation is instantly exposed.

Even the artful jacket design is flawed. Front and back, it features a black-on-black impression of a circular watchface. Alas, it makes it look as though the book has been used more than once as a coaster for a wet beer glass.

In the end, Einstein’s Dreams inhabits the worst of both worlds: too clever by half, and yet not half clever enough.eg

  • Globe and Mail February 20, 1993