Fir Lodge, Sean McMahon

Like a lot of snfal concepts the time travel conceit has been knocking around for, uh, some time now. It’s perhaps older than most, having been popularised by Wells almost 120 years ago. Even the space opera genre is forty years its junior. 

So how do you make something that has been done, time and time again, across pretty much every medium you might imagine, feel fresh? One way to answer that question is to look at pop culture, the entertainment realm of a globalised mass consumerist social sphere, which in its pathologic aversion to risk must continually devise ways to sell us the same stories we flocked to before. Pop culture in 2019 regurgitates itself endlessly, outpacing parody and much satire: another new Spiderman trilogy, PC Music, JK Rowling’s twitter account as retcon feed, another remake of an 80s franchise that nobody asked for because it’s safer than ‘a new IP’, an endless procession of copy-pasted retro-futurist aesthetics. 

Pop culture permeates our existence, and the way it eats itself and is continually reborn is not solely the preserve of creators and corporate owners. The products of popular culture also command our attention and propagate in the form of memes. Images structure jokes by way of their source and are shared online at lightning speed. Quotes become soundbites, their deployment a game between those in the know. Pseudoprivate languages form within communities and between friends, a series of shared signifiers of personal significance, but which might as easily be recognised by an outsider as leave a loved one bemused. Contemporary popular culture is, after all, a battleground; not of ideology but of franchises warring for attention, for eyeballs, for ad dollars and disposable income. 

All of which is a rather long-winded way to acknowledge the many complicated ways in which pop culture permeates and structures society and social interaction in 2019. And this is done to contextualise a simple statement: if you find yourself irritated by the idea of pop culture references liberally distributed throughout a text, for no other reason than a protagonist really, really defines themselves by pop culture, Fir Lodge may not be for you. 

For me, this voice honestly resonates with me. Full disclosure: Fir Lodge‘s author and I went to school together, shared ill-advised teenage adventures together, watched movies and got drunk and pined over girls together. We shared some few of our formative years, and so I see a little of the private language we shared reflected in protagonist Hal’s particular obsessions and personality. And okay, McMahon hasn’t found a way to insert the phrase “I’m gonna be a naughty Vampire God” into his first novel – which will haunt me to my grave – but what he has done in my biased reading is make of Hal an unashamed and charming pop-culture sponge. You don’t have to squeeze hard for that pop culture to seep out, and it’s also been so thoroughly absorbed that it structures his problem-solving approaches too. Hal benefits from a foil in the form of partner-in-crime Kara, who is mildly exasperated and performatively unimpressed by Hal’s quirks for much of their time together. 

That’s a lot about pop culture given that I’m writing about a time travel story. I feel it’s necessary. Although Fir Lodge says little directly on the subject, the way Hal and a few others in his friend circle share and reflect pop culture so deeply in their personalities rings true to me. It’s an unironic presentation of contemporary Western culture that for better or worse feels closer to my lived experience as a child born in the 1980s than a lot of fiction manages. This left me reflecting on the way consumerism infiltrates our lives so deeply. The political adult in me sees in this the way capital’s ideomemes sink deep roots into our psyches, our imaginations just another frontier for late capitalism to conquer so as to establish a revenue stream. The kid in me sees stories that inflame our imaginations, that enrich our lives and help us understand how to navigate and tolerate living amid the ceaseless discharge of hellworld capitalism (hey, it’s 2019 after all and innocence is long dead). Stories and fond memories that we love, and love to share. Both interpretations can be true. 

Seriously, though, if pop culture references vex you, steer clear. There’s a costume party where people come as Ghostbusters, The Mask (you know, from The Mask) and in a Facejacker costume; not one chapter goes by where Hal can’t be found quoting something – even if it’s a two-word line like “punch it!” – and it’s usually a sci-fi movie. TVtropes contributors would have a fucking field day with this book. On the other hand, if a bunch of what you just read above strikes you as pseudo-academic twaddle, don’t sweat it: that’s me reading the novel, not the novel itself. And congratulations on sticking with me. I’m gonna talk about the novel now.

The time travel element – which is gonna get short shrift in this review I’m afraid, as I just have less to bring to the table here – runs with the conceit that time gets reset at the end of every period. It’s more Run Lola Run than Groundhog Day, as Hal and Kara learn that by making minute changes to the past they can affect the future. This often goes wrong in violent, hilarious, stupid and tragic ways, and a lot of the fun of Fir Lodge’s storytelling is in seeing how these two characters – one basically raised by movie wolves – test and define the rules of their environment. Each restart also resets everything, which gives protagonists and author room to breathe with their experimentation. 

There is an antagonist against whom Hal and Kara must also test themselves. The most fun element of the antagonist for me was an early fake out moment that evoked a genuine laugh; the character itself gets little opportunity to demonstrate depth beyond central casting psycho, but I can live with that. He’s an important piece of Fir Lodge but the novel wouldn’t particularly benefit from delving into his motivations. 

The novel is overlong at 550 pages and a good quantity could’ve been trimmed away without losing much; part of that could have come from an over-large supporting cast most of whom don’t get much to do at all. Despite the flab it’s a brisk and breezy read, with competent pacing once it hits its stride almost 90 pages in. I will concede that the substantial time devoted to set-up pays some dividends once the story gets stuck into its restarts, but it’s a fair investment to ask of a reader before the story really gets going. 

Making that investment of time is certainly helped by the occasionally bristling energy and genuine warmth of the narrative here, and an easy humour that feels natural. The story’s structure works nicely around the idea that its protagonists accept and are knowingly working out the rules of their predicament, based on the same information available to the reader, and twists and revelations are doled out such that the story never loses its forward momentum, even if Hal and Kara themselves sometimes do. 

As I’ve made clear, I’m hugely biased and you won’t get any pretence toward objectivity from me. Still, the criticisms and warning are as honest as the praise, and to get even more honest I’m just plain proud of my buddy and his first novel. And yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

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