If a story’s beginning looks at its reflection in a room made of mirrors, does it see its own beginning-self reflected back? Or is the reflection actually the story’s ending?
This is the kind of question that I can imagine keeps Jay Hosking up late at night. The characters in Three Years with the Rat are similarly preoccupied.
Consider the friend who asks the narrator of the novel “Beginning of the end or end of the beginning?”
Of course, he’s actually asking about the young man’s relationship with his girlfriend, Nicole. Which is strained and waning. But it’s important overall: where things start, where they stop, and the amount of time which elapses between starting and stopping.
Circularity is humming throughout the novel. Wide arcs connect characters and timeframes, memories and geography. However, just as with the question posed above, readers can rely upon solid characterization and an investment in a handful of voices to pull them through the narrative.
Structurally, readers can rely upon the calendar to root them as well. The novel is divided into August, September, October, November and December.
But, wait: it’s not that simple. The August section contains, for instance, 2008 and 2007 and 2006. In fact, each of the months contains glimpses of these three years. From ending to beginning, from 2008 back to 2006.
Readers might want to draw a straight line for the chronology of months, to join these parts of the story, to feel something concrete beneath the narrative. (I imagine this line drawn in thick, water-proof, black, chisel-tipped magic marker.)
But they also would have to draw other connections., so the 2006 segment of the December chapter near the end of the book, could be connected to the 2006 segment of the August chapter, which is near the beginning. (I imagine these lines drawn with those skinny little markers you buy at art stores, in a variety of bright colours.)
And so on, and so on. Except, not so much so-on-and-so-on. Because the essential element of this novel is disconnection, not connection. Readers no sooner settle into a month and year, which is scenically drawn and filled with emotional and sensory detail, when their attention to directed to another layer in the reflection.
While the plotting is tight and solid (readers could read all the 2006 sections together, for instance, instead of moving through the pages sequentially), nothing else feels firm here.
The characters are young and searching, students in university, inhabiting laboratories and bars with equal dedication. Questions outnumber answers in both scenarios.
“Man up or suck it up, Danger. Commit to something or stop your maudlin pity party. You can make your choice or you can have it taken away from you again.”
When and how to act: this is an underlying concern, both at the everyday and ordinary level (whether to keep a job which is clearly dissatisfying) and the bizarre and extraordinary (whether to travel through time).
And, then, there is the matter of sorting out what one can trust and what is possible (whether a relationship brings out the best in you), from what is illusory and inconceivable (whether you can control the subjective nature of time to move yourself through your past-present-future).
Early in the novel, a mystery is presented. “There was something in it, not a lie exactly but not the truth. He had faltered. He knew something about Grace but he didn’t think it would help me.”
When Grace disappears (and, later, her boyfriend, John, disappears), the narrator begins by asking the kinds of questions you think one would ask if someone disappears.
But before page 100, readers understand that there is another set of questions which must be addressed.
“Just imagine you could be the past and the present and the future you, all at the same time,” she said. “Imagine you had full access. Imagine you knew everything was going to work out, or even if it wasn’t going to work out, at least you’d be ready for that’s coming. The things you could tell yourself.”
This is Grace speaking. Readers understand that her disappearance is not the average girl-goes-missing story.
Furthermore, Grace is not an average girl. She is above-average smart. But she understands that readers (and some other characters) do not engage with the world in the same way she does.
She takes time to explain her studies to her brother and uses language that readers can understand.
“If objective time is a one-dimensional arrow, maybe subjective time is a two-dimensional wave. Or a three-dimensional spiral. Maybe clocks are only measuring that movement in one dimension, its length, but our brains are sensing our depth and width through time.”
Here, you can begin to see that diagram of the novel’s structure (the one I was drawing with magic markers above, fat and skinny lines, dark and bright colours) pointing and waving and spiralling.
(The jacket compares this novel to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. This makes sense: I think of the pages in that book in which the narrative takes place in the margins, the way that the actual story gets displaced, forcing readers to read blank pages and grapple with a shape that is constantly shifting, a story that loses its centre before it begins. But it seems to have a closer resemblance to a book like Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am, which also plays with science-y ideas and time in particular, but is truly concerned with connections between people and the question of absence and presence. Or Benjamin Constable’s The Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, which is also about a disappearance, but less sciencey and is more about securing a relationship by solving a series of puzzles and following clues left behind.)
But not-so-science-y readers need not fear. Those who are super curious could turn to Claudia Hammond’s 2012 work, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, and delve into the psychology and neuroscience that simmer beneath the novel’s surface.
Yet, Three Years with the Rat is ulimately about relationships, and not just the relationship between one’s subjective and objective experiences of time, but family and love relationships.
Ultimately it is about whether or not we can connect in those relationships, whether acts which resulted in our disconnecting from ourselves (painful things, haunting things, puzzling things) mean that we are left unable to draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Whether, as the years pass (or, as we force them to pass or to un-pass, whether we move backwards or forwards) we can thrive (or, survive).
“Oblivion is the annihilation of the self. Grace was looking for the opposite, a way to remove everything but the self.”
How do we make ourselves? What happens when all that is left is the un-making?
Is there a way to get back to the beginning, when the ending is just too much?