In our wheels that roll around
As we move over the ground
And all day it seems we’ve been in between the past and future town
We are nowhere, and it’s now
—Bright Eyes “We Are Nowhere, And It’s Now”
As young women, Maude Flaherty and Anna Kreutzberg became the best of friends, as their fathers served in the diplomatic corps of their respective countries—the United States, and the USSR—at a time when much of the world was tipping toward the particular abyss conjured by that maniac of ferocious genius, Adolph Hitler. Maude and Anna had marveled at the delights of Geneva, then later the 1936 Berlin Olympics. And it was in Berlin where they parted—their fathers having been recalled due to the roil of events in Europe—giving each other gifts of books, and swearing their friendship would be eternal, their connection inseverable throughout time and space.
Fast-forward sixty, seventy years. Maude has birthed two children, now grown: Tom, a fifty-four year old physicist at Caltech who happens to be gay, (and entered seminary to become a priest, but opted for science instead; and buried a lover, Ken, ten years before); and Kate, a long-suffering daughter who is bitter toward both her brother and her mother. Kate is unable to refer to her mother as “Mom,” and, long ago, voluntarily cut herself off from her brother, Tom, who Kate’s now-dead husband, Bill, believed influenced their only son to become gay.
Maude’s diagnosis of dementia necessarily brings the small family together. But Maude’s dementia is clinically skewed: “Your mother,” [the doctor observes,] “has a very unusual case of dementia. In most cases, the ganglia die in bunches. But hers are more like a fine line of brain tissue along the out edges of the temporal lobes. To be honest with you, I have never seen or read of such a case as hers.”
Much of the conflict set, I must admit the next component of this novel was, at first, way, way beyond my knowledge or understanding. But Boyle’s placing Tom, the physicist, on a sabbatical from Caltech in order to be with his ailing mother and, coincidentally, being presented with the opportunity to conduct a public seminar on the advances in physics sponsored by the University of Washington provides the unschooled reader with a fascinating perspective on what this novel is essentially about. I’ll let Boyle, through Tom, explain: “Perhaps the strangest and most amazing discovery that has occurred in physics during the past ten years actually comes from quantum mechanics rather than string theory. It is the notion of quantum entanglement.
“Einstein—of course, who else?—was actually the first one to predict that if quantum mechanics was taken at face value, it implies that something way over on one side of the galaxy can be instantaneously linked to something on the other side of the galaxy. For example, if I kick up my heels and do an old soft-shoe, my entangled partner will do exactly the same thing instantly, even though he is ten light-years from me.
“Einstein brought this up to show how ridiculous quantum mechanics is.
“…And yet, we have learned that although this might seem ridiculous, it is true. It does in fact happen. Two particles can be quantum entangled so that they transcend time and space.” (The italics are mine.)
Quantum entangled. This, if I understand Boyle’s arguments via Tom, represents the essence of what is called String Theory: “…the magnificence of the possibility that a unified theory of the universe…might possibly have been discovered, that microscopic vibrating strings were the answer to everything in the universe, that many dimensions—eleven at last count—exist beyond space and time, that it is these strings that allow quantum mechanics and relativistic theory…to work together.”
Boyle masterfully connects the proverbial dots between such heady theories in physics and the temporal necessity to deal with his mother’s affliction and, indeed, with the strained dynamic of family. There is, too—(something that has demanded of me more than a few moments of fantastical fancy)—the utter fascination with that “…beyond space and time…” thing. Indeed, are Maude’s almost catatonic episodes of absence from the here and now reflective of her diagnosed dementia? Or, yes, is Maude entangled within a reality that the best of minds call theory? Is it just her memory that takes her back to such detailed, intimate, quite charming visitations with Einstein himself, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; her presence in Tennessee at the trial of John Scopes who had the audacity to give credence to another theory, that of evolution? Is Maude’s cognition of her best friend’s, Anna’s, death just a coincidence?
I must advise that Boyle demands the reader work with this book. Wonder is not a book that will allow the reader to find that particular nirvana of detachment many readers seek. No, if you read this book you must be engaged; you must set aside, as I did, any preconception that physics is just, oh, too out there to be interesting. Boyle makes it interesting, even captivating.
Yes, there are some rather abrupt changes of POV in this novel that were, at first, a little unsettling. But then—finally understanding what Boyle required of me—I found myself entangled in the possibilities of beingnowhere, and it’s now. Or, is it the possibility of being somewhere, and it’s then?
Reviewed by George Seaton