by Seldon Edwards
I first heard about The Little Book several years ago, when I saw Seldon Edwards speak at Book Group Expo. (Notes on the event here.) This novel is one that the author worked and re-worked for decades, and the passion with which he spoke about his work made me extremely curious about it. It only took me four years, but I finally got around to reading The Little Book. (Not a particularly tiny tome, by the way – the name comes from a text within the story, and is not a reference to the size of the Edwards’ novel.)
Stan “Wheeler” Burden, former baseball prodigy and rock and roll legend, is attacked on the mean streets of 1980s San Francisco. When he comes to, Wheeler finds himself in Vienna at the close of the 19th century. Wheeler isn’t fazed by his sudden time travel – rather, he’s delighted. Ever since he was a boy in prep school, Wheeler has heard magnificent stories about the splendor and the beauty and the magic of Vienna, thanks to the stories shared by his teacher Arnauld Esterhazy. Cleverly, Wheeler hunts down Sigmund Freud – currently working on his Oedipus complex – and tells the doctor his life story, convincing him that Wheeler suffers from a massive delusion about time travel. The doctor provides Wheeler with a place to live as part of his ‘treatment’, freeing the 20th century man from the hassle of working and enabling him to wander the city. In the process, Wheeler meets his father – another time traveler who ended up in Vienna after ‘dying’ in World War II – and his grandparents, and the crisscrossing of the various Burdens creates a tangled tapestry whose effects ripple throughout the 20th century.
The novel’s biggest weakness – at least for me – was the absolute perfection of Wheeler, the main character. As a child, he basically (through his mother) writes a philosophical book that founded the American feminist movement. As a teenager, he is a baseball prodigy who winds up playing for Harvard and setting all sorts of records before walking away from it to become a rock star. Not only is he a successful musician, he’s one of the most famous and iconic performers of the 1970s. Naturally, such a man is also ridiculously good looking and wonderful in bed…yet sensitive. In the 1980s, the marvelous Mr. Wheeler publishes a best-selling book based on the notes of his beloved Esterhazy. He’s just so wonderful and talented, that Wheeler – as the author never stops informing the readers – but I find him completely unbelievable and not at all compelling, because he’s clearly too good to be true.
This gasping, fawning hero-worship extends to other characters, too. For example, Arnauld Esterhazy is never referred to as “Professor Esterhazy” or “Arnauld” – he’s always ‘The Venerable Haze’, a nickname provided by adoring students. Freud is always ‘the great doctor’. After a while, it’s just overwhelming, especially with the verbose, wordy prose favored by the author.
Edwards assumes that his reader knows nothing about 19th century Vienna, which is fine – I mean, I didn’t know anything about its history or politics at the time. But there’s paragraph after paragraph of information dumping, and not just about Vienna – he also fills the pages with unnecessary detail about the 1960s, World War II, and it slows the narrative to a crawl. Everything is great and wonderful and epic – but though we’re told this over and over, it’s never convincing because we’re not shown why it’s awesome. To put it another way, The Little Book is extremely nostalgic, but it never clarifies why we should look back to the past with such fondness.
I’d hate to give away the twists of the story, but it only seems fair to warn readers: there’s incest. Freud isn’t the only one thinking about Oedipus complexes, and several characters manage to get wrapped up in some pretty twisted relationships…although it somehow works out in the end.
All in all, the story was definitely not my cup of tea. It was too rambling and the characters far too flat to be engaging. But the time travel was fun, and I’m intrigued enough about the Vienna shown here to seek out more books set in that time period.
2.5 out of 5 stars
To read more about The Little Book, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.