The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma
Reviewed by Nathaniel Katz
26 September 2012
After a 2008 debut in Spain, The Map of Time reached the Anglophone world in 2011, and the pages of blurbs that open my paperback copy more than show the warm reception that it has received. Finding reasons for its success is not difficult. Félix J. Palma writes a rich Victorian England and an exuberantly inventive future, and the giants of genre fiction's past grace his pages as allusions, inspirations, and even viewpoint characters. All of this promise is, however, rather let down by Palma's fondness for yanking the rug out from under the reader and by his horrific treatment of gender.
From the beginning, Palma and his self-aware narrator describe the book as a "melodrama" (p. 1), and its every event and character is indeed gleefully exaggerated. Palma does not attempt to subtly build atmosphere or suspension of disbelief. He paints in brilliant colors and laughs as he does it, and the reader cannot help but come along if only because coming along promises so much fun. His characters (or rather the male ones, as we'll come to realize before long) are larger than life, but he keeps them compelling with a mixture of manic drive and compassion. His adventures are audacious beyond belief, and it is almost impossible to not be dragged along with them.
Each of the book's three sections has a different story and main character. In the first, H. G. Wells, who also appears in the later segments, helps the aristocratic Andrew travel back in time to kill Jack the Ripper and save his lover. The second sees a nineteenth-century woman falling in love with the man who will save the human race from the automatons in the far future year 2000. In the last, a time traveler struggles to keep The Time Machine, Dracula, and The Turn of the Screw for himself and away from the rest of the world.
In his choice of scenes and his prose, Palma is as madcap as his big-picture ideas. Digressions are constant, and we often find ourselves spending dozens of pages learning about Wells's childhood, or hearing how he met the so-called Elephant Man. Though most of these interludes never really factor into the main plot, they are still compelling enough to feel worthwhile. Through it all, the narrator pops in and out of view and requests our permission to do things like "perform a little narrative juggling at this point, and recount the story Gilliam Murray told them in the third person instead of the first, as if it were an excerpt from an adventure story, which is the way Murray would ultimately have liked to see it" (p. 117).
All of this could have made for a thoroughly enjoyable Victorian romp, but Palma has an unfortunate taste for wrong-footing the reader. Part one ends with the revelation that Andrew did not, actually, travel back in time and slay the Ripper but that this was an elaborate plot by his friends to get him over his grief and guilt. I could point out how this is significantly less plausible than the idea of time travel. Andrew not being able to tell his lost love and an actor hired to play her apart, for one thing, is rather hard to swallow, as is the idea of an actor consenting to not only play the Ripper but get shot as part of the role.
But, even had the narrative fraud been believable, it would still have been a disaster, for, despite its common mischaracterization as one, "it did not happen" is not, in fact, a plot twist. It is the author taking their manuscript and throwing every page in the garbage. If I had wanted to know what would happen if someone did not travel back in time to shoot the Ripper, I would have no need to read a novel about it. We are living in that world. And don't think that this story's ending is an isolated incident. The trips to the year 2000 we see in part two? Just a group of actors.
One gets the sense that Palma was attempting, through these pseudo-twists, to make his narrative even more surprising. When the Ripper story pops like a forked balloon, Palma acts as if Andrew's friends acting behind his back to help him is the greatest revelation he's yet given us, complete with the warning just before that "things are not always what they seem" (pp. 260-1). But, in addition to shrinking rather than broadening the story, these twists misunderstand how a reader's credulity functions. When we invest in a gripping tale, we put our emotions in the teller's hands. When he dashes our trust to pieces, we are less likely to trust again. When the future lover's mask is taken off, I didn't let out a gasp but a sigh.
When I read the final section, I did it waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never did. Wells's quest to save himself, Henry James, and Bram Stoker from a malevolent time traveler might be a good story. Perhaps Palma intended the fantastic in this story, which is never grabbed back, to be the payoff for the preceding two. But by this point I was reading, as Palma had conditioned me to, with my eyes not on the actors but searching for the wires that let them fly.
Even without its own insistent nonexistence, though, The Map of Time would still be unforgivably stained by its sexism. In the Ripper tale, Marie Kelly, the woman Andrew loves, is a whore. Don't think that Palma whitewashes away the problems with a rich man wandering into Whitechapel for bought and paid for romance. Our first description of Marie Kelly tells us that she's "a dirty, foul-smelling draggle-tail from Whitechapel in whose ravaged vagina the wretched of the earth alleviate their misery for a few meager pennies" (p. 28). Before long, we have learned that her vagina is also "grubby" (p. 30). When Andrew comes to have his way with her every night, he evicts her husband from her room to do so. But while Palma is quick to make sure we see how troubling all of this is, he is quicker still to assure us that his protagonist will not grow, for his "inner life left little time for worrying about the outside world of the street" (p. 51).
If the two speak of any topic save one, we don't see it. But we do see Marie Kelly beg Andrew to save her from Jack the Ripper. We also see that he would quite like to, but she's such an embarrassment that it's hard for him to face his father—meanwhile, her friends are being slaughtered or simply starving. In the end, he waits too long, and the Ripper claims her as his final victim. But worry not! Though the man who could have saved her never does anything to help the rest of Whitechapel with his tremendous wealth, he does feel bad enough about her death that he, as we have covered, (doesn't) travel back in time to save her.
The story of the aristocrat and the whore is a marvel of modern feminism compared to part two's love affair. Our heroine, Claire, is not like the other, shallow Victorian ladies. She doesn't want to marry one of her suitors. She, a romantic to the core, wants to love. Claire goes on a fraudulent trip to the future and falls in love with Shackleton, savior of the human race. Not long after her depressing return to the Shackleton-less present, Claire sees—can it be?—Shackleton on the streets of London.
The actor is, at first, frightened that the gig is up. But then he realizes his opportunity: "He was going to take advantage of the girl being in love with his other self, the brave Captain Shackleton, to achieve an even greater goal" (p. 375). That greater goal is sex. Or, to be rather more particular, rape. Shackleton tells Claire that, in the future, they have an epistolary romance, and that she will describe to him in her first letter how they make love that very day. She goes along with this.
Don't think for a moment that Palma does not see how questionable all this is. He knows, and he makes sure that we do too. This is "something which under other circumstances she would never have conceded" (p. 380), something that makes her his "prey" (p. 397), and the product of a "despicable ploy" (p. 399). But worry not! "The conceited young woman was only getting what she deserved" (p. 399). She is, after all, "stuck-up" (p. 380), and we soon get to enjoy reading her lurid description of her "overpowering joy, torrent of fire, passionate cries, and awakening of my flesh" (p. 457). At the segment's end, the rapist and his somehow still deceived victim go off to live happily ever after together.
The Map of Time is disjointedly exuberant enough to sprint into all sorts of delightful places—and all sorts of awful ones, as well. By its end, it's managed to tear down just about every cool thing it's built up and has managed to either violate, murder, or sideline each of its female characters. It's enjoyable for a time, but, even if it didn't determinedly destroy its own sets before it was done, it makes itself too repulsive for that enjoyment to last.