Entanglement by Bryan Walpert – 2021

Paul is at a writers’ retreat in 2019, writing pieces in response to prompts, pieces from his life, from the stories he used to tell his daughter. Paul remembers episodes from 2011, in reverse chronological order, it is the year he got to know Anise, the woman he would marry. In no particular year, Paul is disoriented: “Was memory loss expected? Maybe you have forgotten you expected it, or will expect it.” He can’t remember his name. He has a photograph of Anise and his young daughter, whose name also escapes him.

Paul met Anise at the Centre for Time at the University of Sydney, where she was a philosopher of science. He was a writer wanting to know everything about time for a work in progress – seemingly dealing with the same subject as his first novel – his guilt over his twin brother being injured when they were young boys. The physicists at the centre are generous, if not slightly condescending, when explaining aspects of quantum physics and differing theories of time.

Paul is attentive and fascinated by the theories, but he is becoming more interested in Anise. Famous thought experiments start affecting his views of his relationships. Anise and his far away brother affect each other despite their never having met. Anise is behind the bedroom door being in any number of possible moods, until Paul opens the door, and her moods collapse into the mood she is in. Paul and Daniel, the twin brothers, one of whom goes away for such a short time, then finds the other irreparably damaged when they reunite.

Is Paul a time traveller trying to correct his mistakes? Or is he in a state of dissociative fugue due to the trauma of the loss of his daughter and his guilt over his brother? After all, we are all travelling through time, or maybe creating time as we link discrete events together, we are all time travellers. There are lovely musings such as what does vintage mean when you have travelled backwards. And nice dialogue: “I said, I suppose that rules out time travel. Why, she asked, is there somewhere you need to be?”

Paul is in a hospital café in Baltimore, the same hospital his brother was taken to, and where he and his parents sat at a table, when he looks up – “In the reflection you see a ragged man, possibly homeless, alone at a table for four.” The reflection is himself, he is bedraggled, maybe time travel does that to a body, or is it just jet lag? For all the fine theories of time there is always the mundane moment of experience. Paul writes of meeting a physicist for lunch, “He grapples with questions about, for example, the philosophical ramifications of relativity, yet he must still grapple with syrup and tables whose legs are for some reason not aligned”.

I initially found the dialogue in the Anise episodic memories unconvincing, and the writers’ retreat essays contrived. But then I realised everything was told deeply from the perspective of one actor – Paul, and I became emerged in his trauma. The sections dealing with the loss of his daughter are finely done, for example, his cleaning the house after neither he nor Anise had been capable of doing so for ages. His finding the vacuum bag “Half full of things that had been attached to his daughter”, and turning the vacuum on and off, and again on and off, to release some traces of her. He looks at the photograph of his family, remembers the click of taking it, the click that “marked the present made past, now present again”.

Entanglement is like Einstein’s relativity train; different readers will perceive different things. For me the novel is about guilt and grief, those instances that form you and make you who you will be, but “You hope that does not mean who you must always be”. The instinctive move away, the casual words spoken to a person when you don’t know they will be your last, the awful things said between people in the throes of grief. There are models of time: presentism, possibilism, eternalism, and then there is the task of navigating existence – “That is the problem with looking always to the future, always ahead. There are so many ways to avoid the present, to slip away from it.” I found Entanglement a touching read, and was a bit surprised by the upbeat ending, until I realised it was another thought experiment collapsed into an episode on a page.

Entanglement is short-listed for the 2022 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

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1 Response to Entanglement by Bryan Walpert – 2021

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I was waiting for a review of this one. I read Late Sonata which won a prize here in Australia, and I think he’s an interesting writer. (https://anzlitlovers.com/2020/10/16/late-sonata-by-bryan-walpert-2020-co-winner-of-seizure-viva-la-novella-prize/)
    Entanglement sounds as if it’s exploring similar issues.

    Liked by 1 person

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