‘To Say Nothing Of The Dog’ by Connie Willis

I re-read ‘To Say Nothing Of The Dog’ after a twenty-five-year gap that had left me with little memory of the book beyond that it was good and it made laugh. Reading it again, I can say that it remains good and it made me laugh several times. I’d also forgotten most of the things that made the book worth reading.

What is it about? Well, that depends. The plot seems to be about a time-lagged time traveller from Oxford in the 2030s wandering along the Thames in a boat in 1888 intent on fixing an ‘incongruity’ that could collapse the timeline that he comes from, perhaps resulting in Germany winning World War II. The same time traveller is also returning a missing cat, falling in love at first sight with a female colleague and trying to find the Bishop’s Bird Stump, lost during the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in 1941, so that it can be included in the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral that is about to be opened in Oxford in the 2030s.

Sound confusing? Well, I think it’s supposed to because it seems to me that none of these things is what the novel is about. I think ‘To Say Nothing Of The Dog’ a complex puzzle meant to amuse but also to demonstrate that, although we know it is futile to try and explain the operation of massively complex chaotic systems in terms of linear cause and effect, we just can’t help ourselves. We have a deep need to simplify complexity in order to have a reason for why things happened and to preserve our own sense of urgency.

Connie Willis does a masterful job of playfully using the conventions of Golden Age detective fiction by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers to show the fallacy of reasoning our way to an answer in a system where everything is connected to and affected by everything else.

Connie Willis also shows us that, although people as people don’t change over time, our reference points and expectations are so different from generation to generation that we can seem absurd to one another. The world of Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men In A Boat’, written from an unthinking security that only men born the ruling class of the world’s most powerful empire, looks very different when you look back from the twenty-first century and wonder how they could have so child-like, so romantic in their conception of women, and so unassailably self-confident when, in less than thirty years, their entire world will have been blown apart.

By now, you may be wondering what it was that I was laughing at. Well, the book has a very specific kind of humour. The action and some of the actors are inherently silly. Some of the humour borrows from farce, some from rom-com and some is the raise-a-rueful-eyebrow and smile kind of humour that depends on the reader understanding all the connections that are there to be seen but which one wouldn’t want to have to underline too heavily.

It took me the first quarter of the book before I relaxed (gave up?) and embraced the silliness of the book. Scenes like the first entrance into Muchings Hall or the allegedly Russian medium, Madame Iritovsky’s seance made me laugh out loud.

I enjoyed watching the befuddlement of Ned Henry, one of the time travellers, at aspects of Victorian life, a period for which he has not been prepped. I was amused at his disappointment that an English Breakfast doesn’t include bacon, eggs or toast unless you were a member of the proletariat and his astonishment that the Victorian idea of restoring a church was to whip out the 12th Century Font and the medieval windows and replace them with nice new ones.

I liked how mystified Ned was by cats. I’m like that all the time. Ned attributes his confusion to coming from an age when cats are extinct. I attribute my confusion to the cats. They like me to be confused so they can be superior.

The story is peppered with fascinating little snippets of history. The kind of anecdotes that appeal to my sense of the memorable and make me want to say, ‘So that’s why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo’ except, it eventually became clear to me that these are all there to show me how easy it is to attribute causality to something because it’s simple and easy to understand but that history doesn’t really work that way.

This is a novel where almost nothing is only just one thing. It’s filled with so many I’m overlays of references that I sometimes felt a little time-lagged myself: watching Tossie cheating at croquet and seeing her as the Red Queen in Alice: the references to Wimsey’s proposal to Vane (a scene I loved – in part because the proposal and acceptance were in Latin) and the feeling that Jeeves has just arrived in 1888 were all rather dislocating (as I’m sure they were meant to be).

My main difficulty with the book was the pace. It was so unhurried that, if the novel had been a person, I’d have been checking for a pulse. ‘To Say Nothing Of The Dog’ feels like a fun four-hundred-page novel that was unfortunately, five-hundred-and-twelve pages long.

Still, it is an extraordinary, one of a kind, sort of book that I’m glad I re-read.

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