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
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