The History of Now, by Daniel Klein, opens by recounting an arson, one that will facilitate the commercial development of an important block in downtown Grandville, a quintessential small New England town nestled in the Berkshires. Part of that block will become the Phoenix, a theatre designed to draw a regional crowd, and a great success until the age of the silver screen.
The chain of events that leads to the opening of the Phoenix brings up the philosophical thread of the novel right from the beginning—how did we get where we are now? With “now” so precariously balanced on the chain of events that preceded it, how can we know when it really begins or ends? In the case of the Phoenix, that chain of events included: the arson; the membership of Hans deVries in the group of developers; the desire of Hans’s charming wife Françoise for a theatre in the town; Françoise’s idea to send the architect to Quebec City where he will have a tryst with her cousin and realize how badly he wants to design a spectacular theatre.
The main action takes place in the Grandville of today, still a place of townies and second-homers, but updated with a Japanese restaurant, Iraq war protesters, and permanently transplanted New Yorkers who want to live a rustic post-9/11 life. This Grandville is perfectly drawn, and frequent trips back in time show us bits and pieces of how it ended up that way.
The book seems at first mostly focused on these larger historical questions, but there is a smaller but perhaps more interesting display of the importance of cause and effect in the characters’ interactions with each other. Lila deVries, for example, an alienated high school student in the present day, overhears her classmate Stephanie crying alone in the gym and, acting in the only human way possible, goes to comfort her. But she does not trust Stephanie, believes she is crying for selfish or pathetic reasons, and later refuses to continue with any sort of friendship because she thinks she knows the type of girl she is dealing with. We, of course, know how wrong Lila is, how wrong she gets Stephanie’s motivations, but without knowing how Stephanie came to be in that gym by herself Lila can only fill in the blanks with her own prejudice.
A great source of human misunderstanding: one character cannot comprehend the actions of another without knowing his motivation, so the actions of “now” aren’t just about “now” but about everything before that brought them about. This microcosmic representation of the issue is critical; the history of Grandville and the deVries family is good, but too big-picture, I think, to really convey the importance of the theme on its own.
Most of the flashbacks deal with the distant past, and there are years’ worth of blanks in the timeline so that we can’t see every link in the chain (a pattern nicely mirrored in the research of a historian studying a runaway slave who would become a deVries forebear). But in one contemporary case we can see straight back from Grandville to the mountains of Colombia, where a family in tragic straits will flee to Bogotá, and later the oldest son will move slowly north to join the rest of the cast in New England. Here even the most minor of characters suddenly becomes key and the seemingly jarring tale of a Colombian refugee begins to make sense. And it’s all so precarious: if Hector had not done this, if Pato had not done that…where would we be?
Toward the end, a community college philosophy professor provides a vehicle to make the themes a bit more explicit; the result is a little didactic but not heavy-handed. The writing didn’t really pop for me, but the descriptions and characterizations were spot-on and deVries family life completely enchanting. In the end I am also struck by the secretiveness of many of the characters. We don’t always want others to know why we do things; those reasons can be personal, private, and painful. But without those reasons we’ll be disconnected, from the past, from “now,” and from the future which can only continue from the present.