They say we mustn't judge a book by its cover. A carefully chosen photograph, or a pithy title presented in a pleasing font can be enough to seduce a reader into thinking he knows what he's getting. The author's photo assures us she has gravitas, or she is impish; arms folded, hand on chin, leaning against the window, the writer assures us there is something of value somewhere between the climax and denouement. Looking at the outside, we can't really know the meat and the blood and the tears that lie on the pages.
Peer inside, to the page hidden away at the front of the book, tucked away betwixt the title and the dedication, and someone has done the work. Some librarian has dissected the story, he has delicately and carefully turned all the bits and pieces over and looked at the squishy bits beneath. He has pinned your protagonist to a velvet board and labeled her with a kind of Linnaean precision. That is, if she is lucky.
Biography--Ordinary Woman--20th-21st Century. Damn, I can't even make out the copyright date. (Where are those bleedin' glasses?) There are those who believe one's story is written the moment she is born: copyright September 1967. There's a comfort to that. No matter how convoluted the plot, regardless how far-fetched the repeated tragedies and blows of fate, there is an outline somewhere. Somebody has thought through the story board. Somebody already read the last chapter and made sure there was a flow and a plot line. Others say the story is rewritten every moment: copyright right now, no now, no now. The characters have commandeered the narrative ship; the inmates are running the asylum. The problem with free will is that it's worth precisely what you paid for it, and when you cash it in the change comes in the form of regrets, and "what ifs," and all the second-guesses you can stuff in your pockets. When was my story written? Do I have to drive the plot now, or can I just sit back through the second half counting on the momentum of the plot and some carefully constructed dialogue to carry me passively along?
Science Fiction--Time Travel--No Intergalactic Battle Scenes. Nothing highlights the elastic nature of time quite like trying desperately to move beyond something. It slows like molasses, becoming viscous and opaque until a girl can't even see if it's sluggishly flowing or if it's simply pooling around her ankles. That's when it isn't speeding around her: whipping in circles around her head, tangling her hair and blinding her with objects moving so fast that they are nothing but blips of light in her peripheral vision. It doubles over on itself, and loops over and over compelling her to revisit painful moments until she wants to pluck her own eyes out of her head and stuff her ears with cotton wool. And space, space becomes so vast and cold. As time does pass--because apparently it does, even if it is relative and on her little capsule our heroine does not experience it as such--people and objects follow the path of the universe and slowly expand away. In her tiny world she is preoccupied with trying to maintain the controls and the life support systems, but elsewhere her loved ones celebrate daily victories, children are born, homes are purchased, jobs are procured. With every mile she moves further into outer space, where it is cold and quiet and lonely.
Fiction--Survivor--Reluctant. At which death does the story begin? The one at age four, when our heroine first learns that a person can walk out the door one day and simply never come home? The one at age 47, when she has a person die in her arms unable to do a fucking thing about it? The one at 49, when having made it one full calendar year on her own she questions whether she has the stamina to meet the expectations of the actuarial tables? At the moment of her own last gasp--whenever that finally comes--when she can finally, maybe, hopefully, see the arc of the whole story and pick out the points on which her plot twists and turns?
Self-help--Keep Moving--Fake it Until you Make it. There is no advice here, no pithy phrases available on a t-shirt or a coffee mug. There is no movie option. Hell, there isn't even a viable Ted Talk to be harvested from this dreck. Your heroine's pain is not truly different in magnitude from yours, though maybe it is in kind if you've been fortunate thus far, dear reader. Oh, eventually you'll find yourself in the same sticky rancid place, for it's a universal truth that sooner or later everyone finds themselves staring at the spot where a loved one used to sit wondering where he went. We all raise our hands in surrender and ask, "Where the fuck did she put those papers?" We all figure out how to explain to others that once we loved and were loved, and now we are not, and yet somehow improbably we keep going anyway. "Put on your game face," "Get up off the floor," "Do what you must." That's all this tome has to offer, really. A money back guarantee would shove our publisher into bankruptcy.
The cataloger is scratching his head. Each book can be shelved in only one place. It sits beside others that share the same aboutness with it, it finds its peers and makes friends and can rest in its right place. It's the start of a new year, and perhaps my resolution is simply to find my Dewey Decimal.