Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
Brendan Mathews's debut novel, The World of Tomorrow, hides everything about itself right there in the title. It is that rarest of historical novels, a book that catches a moment in a jar, holds it aloft and displays it for what it really is: Somebody else's day before tomorrow, the instant right before the future comes.
Too often (read: almost always), historical novels bend over backwards to present the charming folkways and rustic bewitchery of the past. Or to paint everything with a big brush full of soot and grime and crud. Or to imbue everything with savagery or sweetness. What they forget (or deliberately neglect) is that, just like today, every single person in history has lived facing forward. Has seen tomorrow like a magic trick — unsure of what will come, but watching with equal amounts of skepticism and wonder. And in The World of Tomorrow, Mathews takes a swing at the biggest, ripest, bordering-on-overused symbol of that bold futurism of the past: The 1939 New York World's Fair.
His entire novel takes place over the course of one week in June of that year, culminating at the Fair itself, in a fast-paced finale worthy of a Scorcese long-take. And I love this about the book. I love the bright-eyed joy of it. The meticulous attention to detail that isn't just a 1,000-word digression on mittens or taxi cabs but actually serves the plot. The sense that every single character in it seems somehow infected with this sense that the past is a curse that must be borne only until tomorrow comes.
And I like that Mathews made this big book so intimate. That he focused it (more or less) on the adventures of three Irish brothers having what might be either the best or worst week of their lives. Martin is a jazz musician already living in New York, making nightly tours of the scene and trying very hard to put a band together that will vault him out of obscurity. Francis is a small-time crook who begins the novel in jail in Ireland for distributing pornographic postcards and banned luxury items. Released on furlough for his father's funeral, he meets the third brother Michael (studying at seminary and similarly freed for the day) then, in rapid succession, the two of them escape the funeral, run from the cops, get in a fight, accidentally blow up an IRA bomb-making factory, make off with a small fortune in cash meant for the cause, pretend to be Scottish, book passage to New York and woo the daughters of some New York elite. Well, Francis does, anyhow. Michael, in the meantime, was shell-shocked during that whole bomb-factory thing and has gone deaf, mute and a little bit bonkers. He spends most of his time having amusing conversations with the ghost of W.B. Yeats.
Okay, breathe. It's not as ... I don't know. It's not quite as antic as it sounds. The oddest thing about The World of Tomorrow is how, when you're down in it — glasses on, pages flipping — it seems perfectly reasonable. Like a serious literary novel about the weight of history and the promise of tomorrow made by America to all those who made it to her shores back in the day. But when you look up and try to take the measure of the thing, there's just something about it that makes you feel like Mathews almost wanted to write a comedy. Like he made it deliberately broad and deliberately strange and deliberately full of slamming doors and mistaken identities in a way that walks right up to the edge of silly before stepping back and putting its serious face back on. Tighten the pacing a little, add a couple one-liners and a Benny Hill soundtrack, and the whole thing could work as a madcap road-trip story.
And Mathews knows it, because he counterweights the adventures of the Dempsey brothers with Cronin, the reluctant IRA assassin haunted by his past and tasked with putting two in Francis and getting the money back. He does it with Lilly, the Czech artist and photographer fighting deportation back to Prague which, in 1939, is not a place anyone without a tiny mustache wants to be. And to a certain extent with Rosemary, Martin's long-suffering wife. Whose sister, Peggy, is about to get married — an event paid for by her powerful, politically-connected father, at which Martin's new band will be playing their debut gig.
And on and on and on like this. One of the strengths of Mathews's story is the way it sprawls and loops. It finds odd little corners of time and place and character to get into and, in those corners, it finds both a balancing seriousness and a wideness of vision that makes it somehow all okay. Because tomorrow, in Mathews's world, isn't owned by any one viewpoint and it doesn't offer only one promise. It looks different depending on who's doing the looking.
And what they're looking for.