Review Date: 08 May 1998
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
Bantam, 1998, $23.95
A review by Rich Horton
This current novel almost seems a response to some criticisms of Doomsday Book. If the former book was primarily a tragic story of the Plague, this book is a screwball comedy set in the time of Jerome K. Jerome's classic (and highly recommended) late Victorian comedy, Three Men in a Boat. (Indeed, the title of this book is the subtitle of Jerome's.) (And this is the second screwball comedy about time travel in two years, after John Kessel's Corrupting Dr. Nice (1997).) And, Willis seems to be saying, if this is a screwball comedy, darn it, I can have implausible plot points, and outrageous coincidences, and my tone can be as goofy as I want. But a funny thing (so to speak) happened on the way to Coventry, and this novel turns out to have a serious and moving center to it after all, albeit in the context of a generally very funny book. What's more, Willis' point derives nicely from her story's outrageous coincidences, almost too overtly so, as if the book points at its faults and says "I meant it that way".
Which brings me to my misgivings about a novel that I ended up liking quite a bit. The whole machinery of the plot is set in motion by some generally unbelievable actions. The protagonist and narrator, Ned Henry, a 30ish "historian" in 2057, has been trying to get to Coventry Cathedral just prior to the pivotal bombing in 1940 (which destroyed the Cathedral but which may have indirectly turned the Battle of Britain against Hitler) in order to rescue the Bishop's Bird Stump, a hideous item which the historians (read time travelers) need to help convincingly furnish a rebuilt Cathedral. Willis conveniently (for plot purposes) invents a syndrome she calls "time lag", which happens when people time travel too often, and results in confusion, difficulty hearing, excess emotionalism, and such like. The only cure is rest, and Henry's superior, Mr. Dunworthy of Doomsday Book, decides the only place he can rest is in the past (out of reach of the fearsome Lady Schrapnell). Unfortunately, Dunworthy decides to have Ned complete one little tiny task for him in the past, returning an anachronistic item from 1888 to it's proper time, before resting. But Ned is so time-lagged he doesn't quite realize what it is he needs to return, and there isn't enough time to properly brief him…
All these machinations strain credibility, really even beyond the rather loose requirements of a screwball comedy. Moreover, the whole plot centers about the tendency of the structure of Time to resist alteration, which necessarily requires the reader to think about the mechanics of Willis' time travel setup. Unfortunately, in my opinion this setup doesn't really stand up well to being thought about too carefully. At least for the first few chapters, I was simultaneously entertained by the comic goings on, which are prime Connie Willis in her madcap mode, and irritated by the blatant plot manipulation. However, after a bit I calmed down and accepted the premise as given, and I quite enjoyed the story.
I won't detail the rest of the plot, which is quite complicated, though in the end nothing much is really accomplished (which becomes part of the point). We are treated to a brief river journey (an hommage to the trip which makes up the action of Jerome's novel, indeed Willis cannot resist having her characters encounter Jerome and his friends Harris and George, to say nothing of their dog, Montmorency, which I found a bit over-indulgent of her), to a thematically central and also quite funny ongoing rant by an Oxford Don on the subject of the Great Man theory of History vs. his opponent's belief in Natural Forces, to the origination of the jumble sale, several nice love stories, and lots more.
As I've said, though I have reservations, I ended up really enjoying this book. At the surface level there is the shall I say typical good fun of Connie Willis in her screwball mode. Beyond this, the book engages in some Sfnal dialogue with earlier SF such as Asimov's The End of Eternity. And, finally, it all comes together to mean something, and I was quite moved by the final metaphors, which touch on the importance of details to history, and on the worth of grand indulgences like cathedrals.