The Boston Phoenix October 26 - November 2, 2000

[Book Reviews]

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Time traveler

Glyn Maxwell’s flying epic

by Mike Miliard

Time’s Fool, by Glyn Maxwell. Houghton Mifflin, 396 pages, $27.

Glyn Maxwell

The Kingston Trio’s “(Charlie on) The M.T.A.” put into terza rima and writ large over 400 pages? There are less accurate descriptions. But Glyn Maxwell’s astonishing new “tale in verse” does much more than tell the story of a 17-year-old who is suddenly and mysteriously imprisoned in a train, ageless, for 49 years. Melding the formal considerations of medićval Italian verse to the speech patterns and cultural touchstones of the late 20th century, Time’s Fool links the traditional and the contemporary, the proper and the mundane. Perhaps most important, it’s a modern 400-page poem you’d actually want to read.

Maxwell had trouble bringing this mammoth project to fruition: his long-time publisher, Faber and Faber, balked at the manuscript’s length, demanding extensive cuts. He refused, jumping ship instead to Houghton Mifflin. Which is a good thing. Time’s Fool justifies its length, extending slowly and deliberately; it’s by turns funny, terrifying, and fantastic as it depicts a boy trapped in time and the increasingly dystopian world he inhabits — namely, ours. By its end, you’ll be glad to have stayed for the ride.

Hartisle, England. Christmas Eve, 1970. After a night of revelry, Edmund Lea finds himself on a train. Initially believing himself the victim of a drunken prank, he soon discovers that he’s not on his way to Scotland but literally heading nowhere fast. The train, peopled by gibberish-speaking attendants, hurtles through murky dreamscapes for seven years, steaming into Hartisle on a snowy December 24, 1977. Edmund visits friends and family, none of whom believe he’s the boy who disappeared years before. At Christmas morning’s first light, he’s back in his moving prison, left to ply his otherworld for another seven years.

And the journey continues: seven-year stretches of exile punctuated by single nights of return: 1991, 1998, 2005, 2012, 2019. Edmund surmises that he’s stuck on the train because of a sin he’s committed. He tries everything to escape from his hell (which, he’s increasingly sure, is exactly where he is): repentance, true love, death. It’s futile. Is he doomed, like the Flying Dutchman, to unending travel?

Despite an epigraph drawn from Der Fliegende Holländer, Wagner is a less significant presence here than Dante. Inferno, too, was a terza rima depiction of spiritual pursuit through ever-unfolding layers of hell. And like Dante’s Virgil, Edmund’s guide is a poet — this one a besotted twentysomething who disbelieves Edmund’s story even as he takes notes for inspiration.

But the Dantean influence is most visible in Maxwell’s language. Inferno — written in the vernacular, preachy, funny, poignant — was like nothing else before it. The Florentine poet transformed common parlance into poetry, and he did so using one of the most complicated rhyme schemes invented. Maxwell takes up the mantle and updates it for the 21st century, approximating the interlocking rhyme scheme (which is about all one could expect) and employing a tone that’s so conversational, you’re apt to fall out of the rhythm of the verse and unconsciously begin reading the words as prose. Nevertheless he maintains the dramatic effect of well-constructed poetry. Here, the Poet guide recalls the similarities between Edmund’s predicament and a legend he had learned in school:

‘Oh I don’t know. We did it once in
I didn’t listen. Then one night at home
I noticed it was on, it could be homework,
watching TV. Fine, I thought, game on,
we say at Oxon. Oh, and he was this,
this captain, you know, admiral, big man,
he sailed his boat, his ship. The
seven seas,
all that. I got that from a magazine
about it. He was doomed to, like a curse,
because of something earlier it
I missed, I was also watching some old soap
so I didn’t catch it all. From time to time
it looked like he’d arrived
somewhere, he’d stop
and sing for about an hour in lengthy German,
and then what? I don’t know. . . 

This collision of the mythological and the demotic is at the core of Time’s Fool. Maxwell draws on both the cultural detritus of this century’s latter days — punk rock, Thatcher, the X-Files, the Internet (“They talk about you on my World Wide Web page!”, Edmund is told upon one of his returns), Princess Di’s life and death — and the surreal imagery of sci-fi, fantasy, even Coleridge (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with its bleak, impressionistic setting, is called to mind more than once) to tell the story not only of a timeless man but of the passing of five decades well into the future. It’s a long, strange trip that, in this way at least, we’re all on.