There is so much promise in Brendan Mathews’ The World of Tomorrow. There is a madcap caper driven by Francis who knows how to jump at a chance, fleeing prison during his father’s funeral and taking advantage of an accidental explosion to pick up some cash and new identities for him and his brother Michael. With Michael, we get a hallucinatory dream story, conversations with the ghost of Yeats. They sail for New York to their brother Martin where there is this family story, a marriage challenged by the conflict between responsibility and vocation. Then there is a grim thriller featuring hitman Cronin whose seeking these brothers on behalf of an IRA boss who imagines a grand political assassination. Then there is a comedy of manners featuring the Binghams, revealing the travails of privilege and gossip and the marriage market. With Lilly, we have a glimpse of the rising horror of Nazism and the coming Holocaust. This is a sprawling novel and I can’t help thinking that Mathews could not make up his mind what kind of book he intended to write so he wrote a bit of everything.
The general outline of the story is two brothers fleeing prison and the seminary for a safe house that was already occupied by some IRA bombers of less than stellar accomplishment. They manage to blow themselves up, leaving one brother wounded and the other one alert to the main chance. Grabbing the bomber’s money they head off to New York where their older brother emigrated and where they hope to escape into new lives. They go top class, taking on the identities of Scottish noblemen. An IRA boss dispatches a killer to capture one of the brothers and then sees an opportunity for a terroristic coup at the World’s Fair. Meanwhile, several other things are happening and every character down to the inconsequential get their day, their life history, their hopes, and dreams, are all shared in great detail, even if they barely impinge on the main story.
Meanwhile, several other things are happening and every character down to the inconsequential get their day, their life history, their hopes, and dreams, are all shared in great detail, even if they barely impinge on the main story. Perhaps the most egregious example is the doctor, van Wooten, who has an entire chapter devoted to his frustrated life of medical servitude to the Binghams. He could not exist and the story would not change one whit.
Evaluating a book is always a matter of taste and some people like books that sprawl all over creation. It’s not that I demand books be linear, but I like to think what is in the book is necessary. The long introductions to characters feel like those writing seminar exercises in imagining a character, it’s all backstory and tedious. It is all telling, no showing. Completely realized, fully drawn characters with nothing to do but wait for their stories. But this was not van Wooten’s story and he could have stayed on his index cards. As could a lot of the details on other characters.
The writing varies from imaginative to prosaic. Eyes and gimlet and rituals are arcane. That is disappointing, but when he ventures into more imaginative writing, Mathews can be excellent and then he can be downright silly. I kind of like comparing the first note on the violin to a starter’s pistol in a musical steeplechase, but in the same scene, the writing descends to parody of low-rent romance with Anisette’s pupils contracting and dilating to the music. It was so overblown and florid, I laughed.
I wish I had liked The World of Tomorrow but I did not. I was about two-thirds through the book and considered giving up, but hoped that at least the thriller plot would redeem itself. It did not. It was as anticlimactic and silly as anything. And then, to wrap it all up, we are given a summary of who did what bringing us up to near the present day in the most ridiculous final chapter ever. And now, I have to stop this review, because the more I write, the more I am reminded of what I did not like.
The World of Tomorrow will be released September 5th. I received an advance e-galley from Little Brown, the publisher, through NetGalley.