From the Files of the Time Rangers
by Richard Bowes
Golden Gryphon Press, 2005
I think, perhaps, that the best thing I could say for Richard Bowes's "mosaic" novel, From the Files of the Time Rangers, is that I never would have known what I was missing if I hadn't been assigned to review it. Even if I had read the book on my own, without the obligation to examine it more closely than a simple casual read, I would have missed out on a great deal of what lies beneath the smooth surface of Bowes's stark prose. A book that rewards close reading is an event unto itself in a field comprising mainly works intended to pander to our collective expectations.
The conventional elements of modern storytelling are, for the most part, vestigial organs here in what is manifestly an altogether different beastie. Genre fiction tends to be plot-driven, and yet Bowes allows a sense of what happens only to provide an overarching context, a sort of pitiable, disordered raison d'être upon which he offers a scant hook of structure to alleviate some of the vertigo. Mostly we're face-to-face with the abyss, from beginning to end, with neither the threat of a central conflict nor the relief of a neat resolution to wrap catharsis in the soft, warm wool of consolation.
The basic premise of From the Files of the Time Rangers is the imminent destruction of humanity, and consequently the gods who rule over them. The book follows the obscure machinations of various members of the Greek pantheon, and their human devotees. The most consistent plot element we have is the ascension of Timothy Macauley, the scion of a sort of alternate-universe Kennedy family, who is destined/chosen/doomed to become president of the United States and perhaps savior of all humanity. Macauley takes up more and more of the book as it progresses, but even as Bowes is sewing the whole thing up we have several Time Ranger side trips into surreality to keep it lively. The Time Rangers, Apollo's cops of the multiverse, are pushed, pulled, and warped out of shape in a chaotic mélange of alternative perspectives of the same events (maybe?), and seemingly unrelated scenes that enigmatically take on ponderous relevance and then fade into oblivion again (the mysterious alternate Penn Station with the fallen stone eagle, for instance), such that the book's premise of a battle between capricious Platonic idealities and an imminent mechanical apocalypse becomes more and more plausible. It's very much like watching a 4-D chess game unfold, only someone's substituted the traditional array of game pieces with random-seeming debris; the rules seem as though they've been suspended, but perhaps the game just appears like something familiar. Perhaps it's not chess at all. Maybe it's just Dada. Much of the joy I took from this book was the same sort of anticipation I get watching a juggler tossing chainsaws. As each plot thread went up and then down, I was sort of waiting for the whole shebang to come crashing down on Bowes's head. I'm not sure if I was disappointed by his successful stunt, or not.
The genius of this book lies in the term Bowes borrows to describe its unique character. Mosaic novels have been around for quite some time, and in fact an interdisciplinary scholarly literature journal titled Mosaic Novel (now simply Mosaic) was founded in 1967 and advanced the notion of the whole body of literature as a work in generational progress. The George-R.R.-Martin-edited Wild Cards series (my paperback copy of Aces High describes the series as mosaic novels on the inside back cover "About the Contributors") was published in the mid-80s, and so might have first dibs on the term in praxis, genre-wise. What we know for sure is, mosaic novels are an established form in which multiple authors contribute a portion of the story under the aegis of an overall controlling plot. Having established the provenance of the term, I think it fair to question Bowes's use of it in relation to his own project. Mosaic novels have traditionally been what might otherwise be called a themed collection, only much more integrated and heavily structured than the latter. The central characteristic of a mosaic novel is the multiplicity of authorship, which tends to fracture the core vision of the storyline, hence mosaic. Can a single author manage this effect of unified plurality? For Bowes the answer is a resounding you-bet-yer-ass.
Working from a bevy of previously published short works, Bowes constructs a variegated novel that deliberately compromises any plot analysis with its multiversal milieu. There is no central character, but an ensemble; there is no particular sense of place and time, but endless categorical permutations of each. Individuals are defined by group affiliation, settings are situated in an infinitely quixotic Time Stream, which in itself may be a wine-dark sea dotted with an endless variety of islands. Conflict could be between nature and artifice, human and machine, machine and gods, gods and God, chaos and order, totalitarianism and liberality, or fate and chance. The metaphors aren't mine, nor are they limited to my short categorization. This book operates on the dynamism of juxtaposition, as absolute as the Catholic doctrine Bowes rarely characterizes favorably. Dark and Light are interchangeable appellations, and the true core conceit of the entire work isn't the various combinations of alternate history, but the emphatic uncertainty impressed upon each of the jagged tiles fitted into this portrait. Everything about this work derides the hubris of consensual reality. From the endless array of worlds and viewpoints presented to the Carveresque taciturnity of the storytelling itself, we're given no solid ground on which to stand and survey our surroundings.
I think Bowes has managed, with From the Files of the Time Rangers, to construct a rare event in the homogenous field of genre today. This book is a singularly original incarnation of awesome talent, fearful symmetry, and unabashed moxie. Congratulations, Mr. Bowes, you done good.