Traversing Leonard. Anvil Press
A review of Craig Savel’s debut novel, Traversing Leonard, must inevitably start with the fact that the novel was produced over 2014’s Labour Day weekend and was chosen as a winner of the thirty-seventh annual “3-Day Novel Contest.” The contest is a fascinating practice in speed-writing that veers almost into automatic territory and it has a rich history which I have neither the space nor the expertise to discuss at length here, but that can be found on their website (3daynovel.com). As part of this competition, in Traversing Leonard, Savel unsurprisingly falls back on some of the more tried and tired conventions of the pseudo-science fiction it attempts to create. In its quick-paced 123 pages, Traversing Leonard relies on clichés of the genre (“What is science fiction but science that hasn’t been invented yet?”) and on pure dad jokes including a “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” throw-away that made this reader groan audibly.
The real problem with Traversing Leonard is that its characters are either too stereotypical or too inconsistent to be engaging. The title character, Leonard, is an insane, old, and unhygienic former professor obsessed with traversing quantum bubbles and shunned by the more corporate-minded scholars in his department. Savel describes him in such a heavy-handed way that it is impossible to read him as anything other than generic convention; he knows only three things, “math, physics, and how to be really annoying.” Leonard’s counterpart, the younger Pavel/Paul (who isn’t even consistent in name!), has unclear motivations and desires, and his relationship with Leonard is fraught with vagaries and discontinuities. Though it is clearly a mentor-mentee relationship, we are told that their story “[i]sn’t Tuesdays with Morrie.” It’s unclear what either character gets out of their somewhat clandestine bond, but readers are meant to follow them as they—with relative ease—solve quantum equations well beyond this reader’s comprehension and suddenly develop the ability to time travel into alternate quantum bubbles, to alternate universes in the past.
In the time travel sections of Traversing Leonard, the book’s clichés move from trying to downright frustrating, as Leonard and Paul grapple with how to deal with gender and race politics in 1950’s New York. While overhearing a conversation between Josie and Elise, Paul scoffs at one of the women’s suggestion that women have to organize with and like the racial and class rights-based movements of the time, as though intersectionality has not been a hallmark of most feminist movements after 1980. It is not that Paul ignores gender politics in his move to the 1950s, but rather that his small gift to the rigid norms of femininity in that quantum bubble is to provide Elise with her first oral sex experience and to ultimately belabour her discomfort with 50s gender to the point that it almost feels like a joke.
On the point of sexual experience, I cannot help but add that the sex scenes in Traversing Leonard are some of the more uncomfortable and fumbling descriptions I have ever read. They read more like juvenile fanfiction than anything genuinely erotic or literary, and at one point Savel unironically uses the term “privates.” But, perhaps the silliness of “privates” is not so farfetched for a character like Paul, who at one point notes that a sad piano song “matched [his] feelings,” or who mourns the death of a religious acquaintance by proselytizing, “Jesus didn’t save him, did he?”
The novel is not a waste of time, though. While the overall message of the work is unclear, at times dismissing the idea of reality and at other times warning that “you can’t fool reality,” the book’s ending is a surprise. While I anticipated it to end as many time-travelling stories do—they realize that they should not interfere with the past, that what they must do to get what they want is to change their future behaviour—the book instead has both characters realizing, in their own ways, that they cannot escape the worst parts of the themselves and that the problem is not the world, but their own flawed personalities. Neither shows signs of future change, only a nihilistic resignation to their own inadequacies. It’s not a happy ending, but it is perhaps more realistic considering the fact that both characters are academics.