In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack (May 19, 2016)l; 336 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.
I’m going to come out of the closet here as someone who loves grammar. (Sorry to disappoint, but I long ago came out of the sexuality closet.) I’m coming out as a grammar nerd (okay, a queer grammar nerd) to say how much I love the title of this book. First, the double meaning of “tense”—this refers both to a time-bound verb form (is it past? Is it now?) and to the feeling of tightness (in the situation/plot, in the emotional line, in the urgency of the characters’ needs, all of that). Second, that multiple meaning of “present”: when we refer to the “present tense,” we generally refer to verbs capturing the now, the immediate action; when we say “presently,” however, we mean “soon” (not “now,” as many people assume). Both those words are full of multiple meanings and the insecurity of meaning itself.
In other words, this title perfectly captures the quite successful intellectual juggling act of the novel—it tosses all those balls in the air and manages to keep them flying, and beautifully-so.
Miles Lawson is caught between: either he can time-travel, or he’s mentally ill; he unpredictably shuttles between his struggle in the current moment (in which he’s committed to a shady mental health facility) and the past (in which he and his then-love Adam struggle); he is still in love with Adam while being married to Ana; he both loves his wife and doesn’t trust her. There’s more, but I don’t want to give too much away—suffice it to say, Miles Lawson is fraught.
When I read this novel, at several points, I actually said out loud, “yeah, but what’s real?” I think that’s very much the point, for me—the reader is strung as precariously as is Miles himself (and as, probably, all the characters are). There are no truly evil characters here (not even the seemingly-evil Dr. Brannigan—it’s possible to understand him as a moustache-twirler, but also possible to humanize your view of him in this novel, see him as a character with dire motivations, too).
What I loved here was having to relinquish myself entirely to the novel, not to be sure at any moment in the plot, never to fully understand what the novel “was” until it was over. Giving over control of oneself, especially one’s mind, like that is rather scary, even in this small way.
Oh, hey, look at that! Did you catch it? The novel doesn’t just tell the story of Miles’ difficulty, nor vividly show me that circumstance; it puts the reader herself into a similar difficulty, lets her really feel it. Neither showing, nor telling, but being is its mode.
It strikes me now, as I write, that this novel is about—in so many ways—empathy (I distinguish this deliberately from sympathy, a form of pity). To fully empathize, I have to feel the feelings of and understand the experience of both myself and another person at once (to sympathize, I need never truly feel the other person’s world, and need never truly relinquish my own ideas).
But all this intellectualizing is how I, generally, enjoy books. I recognize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of chamomile (see? I’m being empathetic). For those of you impatient with such a view, I can also say: In the Present Tense is a hand-wringing, exciting novel you’ll love to read for both the thrill and the romance it offers.