Review of An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim (USA: Simon and Schuster, 2018)
by Kyle Callert
An Ocean of Minutes, the debut novel by Thea Lim, is centered around time travel. There is a plague-like flu, and there is societal collapse. The novel is about these things, insofar as they impact the world, alter character decisions, and, like any good sci-fi novel, are fleshed out to intriguing extremes. Also like a good sci-fi novel, however, the story reaches far beyond these plot devices, ultimately providing a meditation on grief, longing, race, immigration, work, and what it means to reckon with our pasts. Through Lim’s understated and light prose, An Ocean of Minutes is the rare work to satisfy genre expectations while also subverting them.
The novel begins in 1981. Polly, the protagonist, is ready to embark on a trip into the future sponsored by TimeRaiser, the company that developed the technology behind time travel. Her boyfriend, Frank, has contracted the deadly flu that’s been sweeping the nation, and health insurance through TimeRaiser is the only way to ensure he gets the vaccine he desperately needs. Thus, Frank and Polly put their lives on hold while Polly travels 12 years into the future, promising to reunite at the Flagship Hotel in Galveston, Texas, in September of 1993.
Instead, Polly arrives in 1998, and this is only the start of her troubles. The United States is now split into factions, and the future is nothing like what was promised: employees of TimeRaiser are more like indentured servants, skating by on the minimum while they work to pay off their indebted bonds for time travel. Polly has no way of contacting Frank; she can’t even be sure he’s still alive, and she’s stuck in a veritable hellscape while she tries to find him.
Lim is quick to point out An Ocean of Minutes shouldn’t be considered a dystopia. In an interview with PRISM international, she says: “… I’m mildly uncomfortable with the labelling of my novel as ‘dystopia.’ Dystopias are usually associated with prediction…or at least amplification. I was neither trying to predict nor amplify; I was trying to present our world as it is…” The bureaucracy present in the novel is reflective of this. It is not so grotesque to be considered Kafkaesque, but uncomfortably close to our 21st century world.
For example, in an off-hand conversation between Polly and another worker, her coworker warns Polly that she must eat all of her food from the cafeteria—anything that’s thrown away is charged to your account. This detail, Lim says, was inspired by conditions in a Chinese electronics factory.
Following, the most draconian aspects of Polly’s employment at TimeRaiser are as much an indictment of the fictional company as they are of America—our corporations, our immigration policies, our way of life. In the novel, time is meticulously accounted for, punishments are handed out liberally, and the work is grueling. If you do not have the correct forms, you are left without hope, and even if you do have the right forms, there is no guarantee they will reach the right person. However, TimeRaiser is not comically evil. Like Amazon, they are simply behaving the way any profitable company would. They are not interested in making employees miserable, necessarily, but interested in delivering a product in the cheapest and most efficient way possible. Whether or not America’s immigration policy is implicitly evil is still up for debate, and the novel walks the same murky line. Through its speculative universe, An Ocean of Minutes asks the reader to consider the human toll of this economic and political mode.
Thankfully, Lim’s prose is not overburdened by thematic concerns. It is graceful and swift—not minimalistic, but close to it. The narrative is Polly’s, but the reader is never left questioning an objecting truth; the novel’s reality is limned cleanly, even when the situations are anything but. In one of the rougher passages of the novel, when Polly is momentarily detained, Lim writes: “Aguirre took her to a police van. He looped the chains bolted to the floor through her handcuffs. She could no longer feel her right hand.” It is easy to imagine the same scene written in high melodrama, but Lim carefully avoids doing so, despite the terror Polly must feel. Through the trim prose, the reader is allowed to reasonably project her feelings onto Polly. The plot moves forward without dawdling in Polly’s emotional field. The feeling, then, arises from situation, rather than a thorough inspection of character. This is largely true when it comes to Polly and Frank’s relationship, as well. Their love is built through sacrifice and action.
Outside of Polly, the reader is also brought to question how our own selves and relationships are altered by things beyond our control, be they as literal as systems or as abstract as grief. Take Henry Baird, Polly’s first employer when she arrives in the future. He is cruel at first, making sure that Polly fulfills her duties, but eventually, they form a bond of sorts through mutual loss. Baird lost his partner to the flu. Like Polly’s Frank, Baird’s partner needed health insurance for the vaccine, but, he tells Polly, TimeRaiser would not cover same-sex partnerships. Baird earns Polly’s confidence and eventually helps her in a fruitless attempt to track down Frank. Yet he is also the one to sell Polly out to the authorities when contraband material is found in the office. He apologizes to Polly, he feels bad, but he had to do it. It was either him or her.
Naturally, one feels angry at Baird for doing something like this. It’s a scummy move, but an understandable one all the same. Baird, though repugnant and selfish, is trapped in the same system as everyone else in the novel. Like Polly and like the other employees both up and down the chain, Baird is also caught under the heel of TimeRaiser. Yes, sympathy tilts toward Polly, but Baird is no less complex for his actions. Who would not do the same?
One of the reasons Polly captivates is, despite the cards stacked against her, Polly never becomes bitter; she never allows her desperation to push her down to the level we see in others, such as Baird. Another is the emotional current underneath the economical and societal struggles of An Ocean of Minutes: Polly’s search for Frank. Structurally, the novel is interspersed with flashbacks. The flashbacks primarily concern the dawn of Polly and Frank’s relationship and the trials of young love that come with that territory, but as the story continues and Polly’s TimeRaiser situation deteriorates further into misery, we are given a taste of the truly good times in their relationship, a glimpse of what might have been had the flu not changed the course of the country’s history. The sweet nothings, the little rituals, the tender sacrifices, the stuff of love.
Ultimately, their love story is the main emotional force driving the plot. In 1998, Polly is too tired, too distracted, and too busy trying to save her own ass to have the time and space needed to emotionally unfurl. Heartache is present, of course, in Polly, Baird, the other workers, and everyone else she comes across, but it is stuffed down and condensed, unavailable for dissection and analysis. This is not necessarily a fault of the novel; in fact, it is an accurate representation of the crushing grind of a capitalist system. In the flashback sequences, Polly is given the room to become more human, or at least a more fully realized human, and it is in these times Lim’s prose could slow down. However, the details of their relationship are small and sparse (e.g., a black plastic bag full of beer cans that Frank brought along on their first date), and the novel stretches them thin. These memories are the only things Polly brought with her into the future, and they offer the reader a real feeling of Polly’s interiority. Of her relationship with Frank, these memories deliver a needed sense of intimacy, but one is left with the sense that they could provide more.
This slight lack is unfortunate, for the flashbacks also serve to gently and efficiently bring a discussion of race into the novel. Before she traveled into the future, Polly, whose father was Lebanese, was able to pass as white and never deliberately thought of herself as otherwise. In 1998, however, things are different for Polly. TimeRaiser employees are nominally separated by job—those with more desirable skills are of a higher status, the others lower—but this separation also parallels a racial line. In short, because Polly is racially ambiguous, strangers immediately assume she is a manual laborer who speaks Spanish. This confuses Polly, especially in the beginning, when she still has her coveted O-1 status. But when Baird rats Polly out and she joins the H-1 class workers, they, too, assume she is like them. They speak Spanish to her, and Polly begins to wonder why is it, exactly, that the H-1 workers are one color and the O-1 workers another. Again, the novel treads a thin line between dystopia and representation, for there is not any segregation law on the books. Rather, through various reasons, not a single one of which is in any individual’s power to control, this is merely the way things have turned out, and those in the wake are left to pick up the pieces and make the best of it.
Some of them do so wonderfully. After a near constant barrage of brutality, it is refreshing when a sense of comraderie is introduced through Polly’s fellow H-1 workers. A shred of humanity does survive in the future, but only in low-wage workers, the downtrodden. They are the ones who help Polly out, they are the ones who sacrifice themselves before others, and, most importantly, they are the ones who have fun, the last keepers of joy in a world where the lights have gone out.
For the most part, that is. Toward the end of the novel, Polly, caught up in in the general solidarity surrounding her, trusts someone whom she should not. Something disastrous nearly happens, a misfired act that sends Polly hurtling toward the ending of the book. After all that has happened, after Polly reaches her conclusion, questions still remain. There are eternal ones, like can you ever really come home again? But there are more specific ones, too. How do we operate in a world that turns us against each other?
It is pleasant to ponder these questions. Pleasant and a little sad. An Ocean of Minutes asks us to ponder the state of the world, but also the people we love. What we would do for them. What we would miss if they disappear. And how can we make their lives better while they are still around.
Kyle Callert is a writer from Detroit. He is Assistant Fiction Editor at Ninth Letter. His website is kylecallert.com.