I’m not the most sentimental human being. If my ruminations on self-help books didn’t prove this enough, suffice it to say that I am the sort of person that scrutinizes birth announcements for grammatical errors and Christmas card photos for egregious sweater choices. So, when someone very awesome gifted me a copy of Evan Mandery’s Q, my immediate thought was: I don’t do love stories.
This is where most reviews would say, “Oh, but Q is not a love story. It’s so much MORE!”
I’m not going to say that. Because it IS, at its core, a love story. Instead, I will say that, surrounded as it is by so many other delightful elements–devotion to the New York cityscape, the social implications of future time-traveling technology, even ruminations on historical topics like Freud’s psychoanalysis and America’s Reconstruction period–a love story like this one is made immensely more palatable. It was a book I tore through, and one that was, more than once, responsible for the rare phenomenon of Marnie Laughing Out Loud Whilst Riding the El Alone.
Mandery’s greatest strengths are in his understated prose. The narrator’s love interest, Quentina (Q for short), is described with such reverence and so many superlatives (“No man could dare to disappoint that creature”), it’s hard not to read between the lines and see how deftly our narrator humbles himself in the process. We as readers are dealing with someone who, for over 300 pages, simply can’t believe his good luck. This is far more charming than any ruminations on Q’s radiance could ever be.
When the nameless protagonist is visited by his 60-year-old self, come from the future to deliver a grim message, Mandery knows to skip all the tiresome tropes of time-travel books, like taking pages and pages to do things such as pinch oneself to make sure it isn’t all a crazy dream, or stare “in astonishment” at the future version of oneself (a sort of stare that, for my part, I’m sure I’ve never stared in my life). Our narrator simply asks “I-60” what his business is, and scrutinizes his own future flaws:
“He takes a sip of seltzer and sucks on a lime. It is a repulsive habit, and I wonder when this begins…it’s possible that I-60’s palate has evolved, but even still, he knows how invested I am in lemons. It’s a real statement he is making, and I don’t like it one bit.”
It speaks to Mandery’s fiction prowess that he knows just what the reader will allow him to get away with. In the middle of a scene with his future self, before the grim secret is revealed–that he, I-30, must NOT marry Q, the love of his life–our narrator breaks from the scene to go on a tangent about famous cases typically studied in law school. Later, during a meeting with yet another future version of himself (I-55), the narrator again takes us out of the action to relay the details of William Henry Harrison’s presidency. Most often, these asides are only remotely connected to the plot at hand, but we accept this as a necessary breath. It tempers the density of the love story by giving us breaks in the form of history lectures, soliloquies, or long, narrative jokes. That’s just deft storytelling.
The conceit of time travel and future selves is pushed dangerously far into the farcical zone before book’s end, but for every cloying scene, there is a backing of something genuine. In a love story, the love itself, I think, should only be a foundation for the story to follow it. What builds up from there should challenge us to wonder not how love starts between two people, but where it can go thereafter. It should make us ask the questions of the human connection that our narrator asks of Q’s organic garden:
“With skyscrapers encroaching on every side, how does enough light get in to sustain the garden? Who built it? When? Who owns it now? How could its existence been kept a secret? Why is it so warm? Why is it not overrun by city idiots, ruined like everything else? How is this miracle possible?”