By Nicole Brodeur
It’s a good thing that the protagonist in Elan Mastai’s new book, All Our Wrong Todays is a funny guy.
For Tom Barren shows us the 2016 we once dreamed of, and failed to achieve: A Jetsons-like society of flying cars, no pollution, moon bases, moving sidewalks and gender equality. Even the avocados are perfect, every time.
But after a time-machine mistake, Tom finds himself in our 2016 — a badly dressed, divided society that he sees as a flawed dystopia — but that is refreshing in its humanity.
“He comes from a world where everything is taken care of,” said Mastai.
“I thought, ‘Let me start taking things away from him.’ This is a book where not just bad things are going to happen, but human things are going to happen.”
In that sense, All Our Wrong Todays forces the reader to think about the impact technology has had on our human selves.
Tom is the perfect, offbeat, misfit tour guide. He is the underachieving son of a genius scientist whose invention made possible a stunning, idealistic world.
But after his mother’s death and a broken heart, Tom steals his father’s time machine, goes back to the moment of the world-changing discovery and ends up in the 2016 we actually have, what is described as “a terrible dystopian wasteland.”
Tom wants nothing more than to fix his mistake, until he realises how much he loves the mess we have made. How imperfect can be so perfect. And so human.
So what to do? Fix the flow of history or carry on with the rest of us?
In this debut novel — a science-fiction rom-com, if there is such a thing — Mastaiposes a weighty question for readers: What can be taken away from you, and yet, you remain yourself?
“That point fascinates me as a writer,” Mastai said the other day, on the phone from Toronto, where he lives with his wife and two little girls. “What are the things that if you lose, would change you?”
The book takes some of the power out of the technology that has transformed our lives for better and for worse; that immediately connects us with people on the other side of the world, but causes us to ignore those sitting across the table.
“We live in a society where we love to valorise all this technology, but it is a tool,” Mastai said.
The internet makes all information equal, he said.
“Fact and fiction become a question of choice,” he said. “People don’t live in an objective reality, they live in the reality of their choice. So whatever problem that technology was going to solve, there’s a flip side.”
He recalled losing his mother 16 years ago. It changed him.
“I look back on that and think that in the end, technology can be dazzling or frustrating. But none of that matters. What matters is the people in your life.”
Although he lives to the north, Mastai has kept a close eye on the state of things in the United States and is not surprised that sales of dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984 are soaring in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration — more markedly since his counsellor Kellyanne Conway said press secretary Sean Spicer used “alternative facts” to describe the size of the inauguration audience.
“As a book lover, I am happy that people are turning to literature to try to make sense of these radical turns in our world,” Mastai said. “As a human, it’s a little bit scary. You know when you’re opening Orwell, it’s a little weird.
“But that’s what books are for. It’s what helps us make sense of the world. Writers and thinkers have been grappling with these issues for centuries.”
All Our Wrong Todays was the subject of early buzz and chosen as the number-one Indie Next Pick by the American Booksellers Association. It was soon optioned for film by Amy Pascal and Paramount Pictures. Mastai is writing the screenplay.
It will be his sixth; Mastai has had five films produced from his screenplays, most recently What If, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan and Adam Driver. In 2013, he was named one of Variety’s Ten Screenwriters to Watch.
But this story was meant to be a book before a movie, Mastai said.
“Telling it as a book was the best way to make it expansive, with nuances and details,” he said. “I wanted to do a story that isn’t just a great yarn, but it’s a book that embraces its own bookishness. The language, the intimacy.”
He declined to talk about casting, which is “an actual issue right now.” He’d rather let readers imagine their own version of his characters.
“When the movie gets made, then everybody will imagine that person,” he said. “But right now, they can be whoever we want.”
In the book, every problem has been solved — even choosing what to wear in the morning. But when Tom finds himself in our 2016, “everything is complex, and that’s disconcerting. He realises that meaning and happiness come from the grace with which you manage complexity.”
In that sense, All Our Wrong Tomorrows forces the reader to ask what makes them happy, and how they can make decisions that will get them there.
“Why even write a book right now?” Mastai asked. “Why not just write a series of tweets? But I believe in the power of words. Everything moves so fast, and that is part of people’s anxiety. They panic because everything moves so fast.
“You can get off, though,” he said. “It’s OK to contemplate, too.” —The Seattle Times/TNS
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