(All photos by the HWS staff photographer)
This post is one of several about my experiences in the Finger Lakes District in upstate New York while serving as the Trias writer-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (Geneva).
Dexter Palmer read from Version Control, his latest novel, as part of the Trias Reading Series at HWS on October 6. This was my introduction, which focuses on Version Control, which I believe is one of the best novels of 2016.
Good evening. Welcome to the second installment of the 2016-2017 Trias reading series, which I am so lucky to get to curate. Thanks very much to Melanie Hamilton and everyone at Hobart and William Smith for their support and many kindnesses. And, of course, thanks to Peter Trias.
Tonight we have a marvelous writer reading from his new novel from Vintage—followed by a Q&A and a signing session.
Our guest tonight, Dexter Palmer, holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University, where he completed his dissertation on the novels of James Joyce, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon (and where he also staged the first academic conference ever held at an Ivy League university on the subject of video games).
I first “met” Dexter Palmer when the New York Times assigned me his first book The Dream of Perpetual Motion for review. I loved the novel, which was sophisticated, smart, so well-written, and very different in how it mixed retrofuturism with nods to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Wizard of Oz. That novel appeared on several year’s best lists and was one of Kirkus’s Books of the Year.
His new work, Version Control, is beyond what anyone might expect for a second novel. It’s a tour de force about scientists and one of the best novels about time travel that I’ve ever read. As Melanie has said in the lead-up this event. “Palmer is a novelist with an abundance of things to say — about life, about time, and about the essence of the universe. Luckily, with Version Control, he also has the chops and eloquence to make those things sing. Palmer’s book is about practically everything, from race to media to scientific method, to the terrible vagaries of love.”
As the son of an entomologist and research chemist, who grew up amid the triumphs, failures, and politics of a fire ant research lab, I was struck by just how well Palmer captures the sometimes messy lives of scientists and how well he portrays some of the challenges and subjective aspects of science that the general public often glosses over.
And, as the co-editor of an anthology of a century’s worth of time travel stories, I can tell you that reading Version Control was an eye-opening experience, too. What Palmer has achieved with his tale of time distortions and of the variant paths that life can take is a work that has an extraordinary clarity given the complexity of the issues and attention given to the characterization.
It is as Palmer told my class today, in part accomplished by a structure that’s like a performance with spinning plates, making sure to keep more and more plates spinning on rods, building to a crescendo of so many plates spinning you’re sure it’ll all come crashing down, beyond anyone’s control…but then slowly, slowly, with the same consummate skill, fewer and fewer spinning, until everything comes to a complete stop without a single plate broken…and yet, at the end, you’re somewhere different than you were before.
Only a novelist with an amazing amount of talent and control could achieve some of these effects. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Palmer has spent a great deal of time studying the so-called “encyclopedic” fiction writers like Pynchon and Gaddis and Joyce. Writers whose works seem both long enough and generous enough to contain the entirety of the world.
Well, Palmer in this novel does it in ways that are both striking and strikingly invisible, the reader carried along by the power of a narrative that is immersive, ambitious, and deeply humane.
What’s more in creating a work that his editor half-jokingly referred to as “grand unified theory of failure,” Palmer pushes back against as he puts it “the requirements of narrative to resist writing about failure” and the default in much science fiction, where the science always works and results are always positive in a sense…even though this approach is exactly one that gives real scientists fits…since failure—since trying and retrying and being patient are some of the hallmarks of good scientific process.
None of this would work if at the same time Palmer’s novel wasn’t so beautifully layered, so carefully thought out in ways that allow the novel’s characters to have purpose, significance, and depth. That Version Control ALSO contains a powerful examination of and satire of our Information Age is what makes the novel a tour de force in my opinion. The ways in which an electronic version of the president becomes the concierge to people’s lives, even in restaurants, and the spot-on commentary on the intrusive element of apps on our daily experience—expressed through a dating site integral to the novel’s plot—allows Palmer to juxtapose our basic humanity against the potential dystopia of the tools we allow to make decisions for us. The persona we exhibit online versus the private self, ever more eroded.
At the center of the novel, too, is a complex, often tangled, relationship between a husband and wife—and between the members of a lab devoted to creating a time machine. Life is messy, and doesn’t always have the kind of resolution or results we would like—just like experiments in the laboratory. The final triumph of the novel is that it leads the reader not to what they expect but to what they didn’t expect but very much needed. This takes a rare discipline and a quiet daring.
The result, then, is both profoundly moving and prescient. Very few novels that tackle the subject of modern technology can expect to have much of a half-life. But Version Control seems up-to-the-minute and yet also timeless.
It’s no surprise then that Version Control earned the coveted “quadruple crown”—starred reviews in the Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. While also receiving praise from Buzzfeed and the Washington Post, among others. As NPR wrote in their review “Every word is worth savoring”—while expressing astonishment that the author could deal with so many big ideas while writing a novel that’s also such a page-turner and so personal with regard to its characters.
Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Dexter Palmer.
Professor Melanie Hamilton, Dexter Palmer, and JV.