Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The History of Now by Daniel Klein

Daniel Klein's novel, The History of Now, is an ingenious philosophical examination of cause and effect and, at the same time, an engaging story of a small-town family. That Klein manages to execute both premises successfully is impressive indeed. The New England village of Grandville has been the home of generations of the deVries family; Wendell, who never wanted to leave the projection booth of the theater-turned-cinema, his daughter Franny, a doubt-ridden artist, and his granddaughter Lila, whose lack of ambition is truly impressive. Klein dips far into the family's past (as far back as the 1600s in The Netherlands) to examine the causes of the current situation and to ask the question, "What is now?" If events are shaped by causes and produce effects, which are in turn causes to other effects (and so on), then is 'now' the current moment or does it encompass all the causes that came before and the effects that will come after?

For those less interested in the philosophical bent, the small-town/family drama that unfolds has more than enough to hold the reader's attention. Wendell, whose disastrous marriage has left him alone (except for his dog, a charming character) and clinging to the movie house of his childhood, begins to open up and find love again. At the same time, his daughter, Franny, is headed toward a breakdown as she obsesses over the unjustness of the war in Iraq and struggles to bring meaning to a vapid community theater production. As if that weren't enough, his granddaughter, Lila, is smoking pot and seems to have lost direction. When Lila shows interest in her roots (by way of a revelation that Grandville was once home to a black family named deVries), Wendell is delighted to investigate. An unrelated (for the moment) storyline brings Hector, a young Colombian, closer to Grandville. Klein has woven these plots (and subplots involving other Grandville residents) into a graceful picture of a small town, the past that has shaped it, and the events that continue to unfold with glimpses into its future.

A couple of jarring notes: Hector's story pulled me out of Grandville. It's obvious that he will be important in shaping Grandville events, but since his perspective is left out once he reaches Grandville, I really felt the payoff for being pulled out of the story wasn't worth it. In addition, the war in Iraq was a bit intrusive. I think it's very difficult to work current events into a novel, and while some references (Franny's protest group) are central to the plot, the references became a bit too much. And since the war isn't even over, they are already outdated (with criticism of a former President). However, neither of these is enough to lower my rating by more than a half-star. This is an excellent read that combines philosophy with small-town quirks and the search for meaning.

Available in hardcover March 1. Pre-order it from Amazon here.
Published by The Permanent Press.

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