This is the third entry of this reading project
Synopsis: Down in 1980s Key West, a conman persuades Joe Baird, a Hemingway scientist, to forge a couple of lost stories and a novel by the master, which would be worth millions.
But when the scientist starts to investigate the possibilities, some timelords step in and ask him not to proceed, because the future of the universe depends on it. As he still continues talking about it and working on it, those multidimensional mysterious figures take countermeasures.
Review: Haldeman and Hemingway have a couple of common things: Both are war veterans of Vietnam resp. WWI, both were injured, both are authors (Haldeman of the speculative fiction, Hemingway of realistic). Haldeman studied Hemingway for a longer time, and wrote extensively in his FAQ about this piece:
I commented to my student that someone with a real gift for literary imitation, an old typewriter, and no morals could make a million bucks faking those lost manuscripts. Almost immediately the safer alternative occurred to me: settle for less than a million and write a book about a guy who attempts the fake.
What is the book about? The subtitle “A Short Comic Novel of Existential Terror” is accurate. In a way, it’s a horror novel tinged with ghastly humor, as the apparently insane ghost of Ernest Hemingway murders a helpless scholar over and over; the scholar slipping from one universe to the next each time he dies, in what is apparently a rather unpleasant form of serial immortality. The tongue-in-cheek explanations for how this could happen qualify the book as a science fiction novel.
There’s also a level of literary comment, about Hemingway as a man and as a writer; about how and why fiction is written and read. To a small minority of readers, this might be the most interesting aspect of the book. I’ve taken some pains, though, to make sure it doesn’t slow down the narrative. People who’ve read the book in manuscript all remark about how fast-paced it is. It may be the most “literary” of my books, but it also has the most explicit sex and the most gruesome violence I’ve ever written. Nobody will be bored by it.
I didn’t find any bragging in this explanation by Haldeman whatsoever: The story starts as a funny heist story, sucking in some violence, sex, and a touch of noir. While at the same time juggling in those crazy, multidimensional time travellers.
All of that was a real page turner, presenting ever more different aspects in style and SF elements to the original plot. The first part could very well count as an accessible and light mooded pulp fiction which turned darker over the course of the narration, ending in a short splatter scene which was resolved thankfully by yet another turn towards time-traveling.
The many literary styles – from pulp over noir to time travel and horror; not stopping at Hemingway’s characteristic direct style but including a longer stream of consciousness and lots of self-referencing – weave perfectly into each other and one cannot get bored. There is so many to experience and discover that I had to digest this masterpiece for a while after closing the last sentence.
The scientist is not exactly likeable and counts as a anti-hero, but his character is interesting with the several relations binding him to the love triangle of his wife, the conman, a commissioned call girl, and himself.
The story’s structure is a daunting task to uncover by the reader. It includes changing timelines, several perspectives at the same occurrences, while varying the protagonists’ characters.
Haldeman clearly processes his war experience in this story, even more directly than in his novel Forever War. The protagonist traveled several times back to Vietnam War, where he was shot in slightly different ways – initially cutting his testicles which led to marriage issues, then “only” his legs which led to a nearly pornographic scene when he returned to his wife in normal time. Blood and injury troubled all three authors – Hemingway, Haldeman, and Joe – and were a connective element at both in reality as well as at the meta level. Haldeman took an additional hurdle by not only writing about WWI and Vietnam experiences, but letting his protagonist write about it in his own stories.
That’s a level of complexity demonstrated in different topics of this novella, and leading to a clever, self-referencing ending.
Many thanks for late Dozois, who helped Haldeman as an editor cutting lots of dead weight from the story – there is another version as a novel, but this won’t be half as good as the shorter one.
Triggers are a splatter scene with extreme violence and some graphical sex. It’s not an easy read and asks much of the reader in the second half.
I fully recommend this masterwork to advanced readers of time travel stories who are not aversed by those triggers.