Short Story Club: “This Must Be The Place”

Here’s the story; and here’s the comment, starting with readers on the Strange Horizons forum:

KYL: I was really stunned by this story. A beautiful variation on an old theme, and very movingly done. Some parts made me sad because I don’t know if I can ever write anything that good.

Coolchinamonkey: I came across your story after having googled the song. Temporal etiquette. Brilliant. The whole damn story is brilliant. Keep writing like that and you’ll find your way. Superb.

Jason Sanford at The Fix:

The February 2009 fiction from Strange Horizons features four stories from new writers. The first is “This Must Be the Place” by Elliott Bangs, which is also Elliott’s first professional publication. The story is the tale of Andrea, who is newly dumped, slightly drunk, and far from home when she meets Loren Wells in a San Francisco club. Loren is a fascinating guy who seems to already know Andrea, which simply can’t be true. But then Andrea discovers Loren’s secret: he is a time traveler from the future, reliving over and over what he consider the best year in history.

Elliott’s story is well-told, with a sharp style that enhances the story without ever overwhelming the actually storytelling. For example, when Andrea is dumped by a new boyfriend, she mutters that “All Bud had left me was a heap of dirty bowls and spoons, a crap sci-fi paperback, and that same old case of rabies,” with the rabies being her curiosity to discover who this Loren Wells character truly is. Because this is a first story, there is a small problem with the narrative. The story is set in 1984, but the reader doesn’t realize this until halfway through the story (meaning the writer should have set up this little fact better). But the mere fact that someone from the future would want to relive 1984 over and over delighted the hell out of me, while the story’s ending is as perfect as can be. As a result, the reader can’t help but overlook the story’s minor flaws. Recommended.

Rich Horton, in Locus, also liked it:

Elliott Wells’s [sic] first sale appears in February at Strange Horizons, and it’s a delight. Sometimes SF is a game, and especially so when dealing with time travel. “This Must Be The Place” mixes one part The Time Traveler’s Wife with perhaps a hint of Hobson’s Choice and a cup or so of “If This Is Winnetka, You Must Be Judy”, while adding a healthy dose of ’80s nostalgia (of a sort) and with a great last line, to bring yet another slight change to an old theme. Andrea is stuck in a boring corporate job when she meets a guy who seems to have met her before, then they meet again in another city and the guy seems younger and doesn’t know her at all. Okay, SF readers know what’s going on right way, but Wells has found another way to make it fresh, to ring a fine new change or two on the old melody.

Lois Tilton, at IROSF, wasn’t so impressed:

Time travel. Andrea, a workaholic who drinks too much in bars, meets an equally undesirable man named Loren Wells who seems to have known her before. In another city, she is the one who recognizes a younger Loren. Elsewhere, she has the affair with another version of him and finally learns his secret.

An interesting idea, but the characters are both so disagreeable that I don’t particularly care when they are or what happens to them.

Among Torque Control readers, Evan didn’t care for it:

Not a lot to say about this one. I hate time travel stories, and this one is a particularly odious example of the breed. Too many time travel stories go into puzzle mode, and so too here. The writing is all right, but the characterization is of necessity a bit thin. As a disclaimer, it takes Gene Wolfe level talent to get me interested in this sort of thing, so my opinion is best ignored here.

Nor did Chance:

My main beefs with the story are basically two: There’s no real sense of time identity here. We either get 80s cliches or no description at all. Andrea was wearing a “borrowed dress” There’s “throbbing music.” Of course, we don’t get the details on why the future isn’t very interesting either. And then you get the talking points: flock of seagulls hair, she blinded me with science, talking heads (though she blinded me with science was in heavy rotation on MTV in 83, not 84. And the Talking heads song on MTV was almost certainly Burning Down the House, not the song the story is named for.) It all adds up to a bland vagueness that gives the impression that the author knows very little about 1984 and didn’t live through it.

The other problem is neither of the two main characters is very interesting.(and the other characters are nothing but plot movers, especially Bud.) Loren loves pop culture to the point where he doesn’t care about seeing his family or friends. He’d much rather live in a time when Michael Jackson wasn’t considered a nutbag. Excuse me while I yawn at the dullness of his interests. But at least he has an interest–Andrea appears to have none. We don’t even get the details on why she and Loren break up. So ultimately I could not care less what happens to these two vapid bores.

If I ever get a time travel machine, I’m going to travel back in time and tell myself not to read this story. I just hope I listen.

Maureen wasn’t wild about it, either:

But we are in the hands of a first-person narrator who is utterly clueless about such things. I’d hesitate to say she’s a monster but she is not a very thoughtful person. Her life is shallow but in many respects it seems to be the life she deserves. She seems to be very isolated, and although she clearly hates it she seems to show little inclination to move on – determinism at work. The one time she takes action is to move to Seattle, away from everything reminding her of Loren, and it’s interesting that she a) does not talk about what went wrong, but b) does for the first time mention making friends. And yet, at the end, she blows it. Having discovered the secret of the mysterious motorbike, she determines that she is going back in time because she likes The Beatles. (Is it bad of me to wonder which moment of Beatles history she would want to go back to?)

In fact, it’s that ending that undoes the story for me. I can put up with some horribly clunky and ill-thought-through descriptions, such as ‘My borrowed dress was heavy with perspiration and self-consciousness’ (you know, I bet it wasn’t heavy with either), and the alliterative arabesques, like the ‘sequin-scaled scarecrow’ … sounds lovely, what does it mean; not to mention the ‘chatter of cocaine conversation’ but that cutesy ending? No, really, it’s so trite it’s ridiculous. Until then I would be quite willing to argue that despite superficial appearances, there is more going on in this story than is obvious at first sight, and that while I wasn’t in love it it, I did enjoy the process of reading it critically, but that last paragraph did sound as though it was lifted from a school essay. Not the idea, which is in keeping with her lack of self-awareness, but the execution.

But Rose liked it:

As someone who deeply and seriously loves 80s music, I approve of this story. Light and sweet, very cute.

And now, the floor is open.

41 Responses to “Short Story Club: “This Must Be The Place””

  1. Niall Says:

    My first thoughts: yeah, I’m not wild about this one. I like the central idea, but as Maureen says, it doesn’t seem to be pushed far enough, or indeed at all; there’s certainly something going on there about nostalgia, and about how popular culture becomes, as Chance puts it, a series of talking points, and about alienation from vs engagement with living, but I can’t quite put it all together. (I’m intrigued by Maureen’s point about a shadow-story, and would be interested to see if we all actually agree about what has happened in the course of the story.) And much of the character interaction was quite enjoyable in itself — though I can’t really get behind Rose’s “sweet” and “cute”; I am interested in how differently people are reading the tone — but beyond the banter Loren never came into focus for me, although I was somewhat intrigued by Andrea. (And while I did smile at “Great Scott”, I didn’t at “stop blinding me with science”.)

  2. Abigail Says:

    Neither “Great Scott” nor “stop blinding me with science” endeared this story to me, especially as they’re both sadly representative of the level of prose on display. Andrea doesn’t sound like a person – she sounds like an amalgamation of clichés, and Bangs’s inability to find a happy medium between stock imagery and his own overbaked, nonsensical metaphors renders her voice completely unbelievable, which is a problem given that the story hinges on us buying into her morose outlook. Also, memo the SH fiction editors: ‘bizarrity’ is not a word. ‘Proudness’ is, but according to the dictionary of lubricant terms it means “ring protrusions caused by the buildup of carbon or lacquer deposits behind the ring or on the sides of the ring or groove,” which I’m guessing is not the meaning Bangs intended.

    Finally, I’m with Chance: traveling to the year in which your favorite pop culture artifact was released is moronic. For one thing, I can’t imagine having such narrow interests that I could choose a single year to live in without regretting all the later books, films, TV and music I’d have to do without. For another, I’m pretty sure that by the end of 1984 you’d build a time machine just to get away from “Thriller” and all the other top 40 songs from that year, however much you might like them with several decades’ hindsight.

  3. Ziv W Says:

    I enjoyed the story while reading it – fun, light, engaging, giving you something to look forward to. Once I finished, though, not much stuck behind.

    The two main elements in the story are, in my mind, A) the concept of encountering a time-traveler in his different incarnations, and B) the idea of repeating the same year over and over; “this time is my home.”

    A is nothing new – Time Traveller’s Wife comparisons are obviously apt. Count me among those who enjoy the trope, and I did here, but not much was actually done with it. Partially because Loren really doesn’t get much characterization; partially because it seems the story is more concerned with the idea of meeting the same traveler at different ages than it is with the different stages of any actual, particular character. The different Lorens have almost no character beyond their initial choice (and motive) for travel, and their point in time relative to one another.

    As for B, it’s an intriguing concept, but I feel it’s poorly carried out here. I’ll second Abigail here: narrowing yourself down to a particular year doesn’t make any sense, particularly with pop references seemingly the only motive for chosing the year. Who the heck wants to give up on the ability to maintain family, friends, career, and just about everything else just to live in hiding in the same year someone comes out with a pop hit you already like? Of course, the premise might be defensible if somebody tried, but it doesn’t feel like anybody did. And that’s a shame, because the concept of time as a home does sound like it has potential, if it was sharpened up and focused on.

    Other miscellaneous thoughts:
    * I liked Andrea as a character. I didn’t feel her character was very central to the story, and I was fine with her as a cleverish, sardonic viewpoint into, as I said, the playing out of a trope I enjoy.
    * I was weirded out by the gradual realization that this entire story takes place in the span of a year, from Andrea’s POV. There are so many stops and starts and lengthy pauses in between in Andrea’s relationships, that imagining stuffing them all into 12 months makes it feel like the arc is ridiculously breakneck.
    * Getting the motercycle at the end was, as far as I was concerned, cool. Deciding to do the same repeat-a-year was, as far as I was concerned, stupid. Again – not sufficiently justified for me to be able to root for it.

  4. Adam Roberts Says:

    I don’t mean to be condescending, especially as I thought this a story hung on pretty neat premise: but it struck me as obviously early career work (‘first professional sale’ and so on); which is to say, it reading reminded me of marking creative writing students’ coursework. Promising but not perfect. Viz.:

    A. It’s about a third too long.
    B. Given that so much of it is given over to dialogue, the dialogue needed to be better written: not only snappier and sharper, but also fashioned so as to individuate the deuteragonists more.
    C. There’s evidence of some effort to lift the style, which is good … unlike Maureen I quite liked ‘sequin-scaled scarecrow.’ But I agreed these moments as often misfire as not (the dress, I agree; plus ‘Moment by moment, the carriage of my unwise curiosity was turning back into a pumpkin’).
    D. Plus there are, especially towards the beginning of the story, too many adjectives and adverbs, almost to the point where no noun or verb is permitted to appear without one: ‘waning drunkenness’, ‘jet-lagged haze’, ‘bar-graph presentations to lecherous executives and their nose-picking underlings’, ‘bad pick-up lines’, ‘suffocating underground’, ‘goofy grin’, ‘the shallow, lying crowd’, ‘put naturally at ease.’ That and a tendency to qualify every assertion (‘It’s probably simplest to say’; ‘I could barely remember’; ‘Maybe he looked out of place there’ — all this in the first three paragraphs) gives a slightly overtentative, clotted feel to the prose.
    D: I’m with Abigail: ‘bizarrity’ and ‘proudness’, instead of bizarreness and pride, is poor.

    Apart from that I enjoyed it.

  5. Chance Says:

    1) I was more than a bit off put by Loren’s notion that 1984 was the ultimate year – my overarching memory from that year was the Ethiopian famine. It was a bit like saying 1939 was awesome because Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz both came out that year. War? What war? I want to watch a movie. (I can believe that someone would feel this; I just can’t ever like them after is the thing.)

    2) I’d love to believe in a shadow story where he was a tourist in 1984 (which I totally get) and got trapped because of his love for Andrea. I don’t believe this shadow story exists.

    3) Or a shadow story that delved into the alienation from people, where you want more to live as a fan of X than as someone with family or friends because your passion overwhelmed you. This story didn’t exist either.

    4) I wish his love for 1984 had been more interesting. He didn’t want to be part of something: the summer of love, the year the Berlin wall came down, harry potter day-I don’t care what. He mostly sat in a room and created an experience I can pretty much recreate today. I was bored by Loren.

  6. Adam Roberts Says:

    Also, not entirely sure why, but reading the story put me in mind of this xkcd; except that that’s much funnier, truer-to-life and considerably snappier.

  7. Rich Horton Says:

    First, I need to abjectly apologize to Elliott Bangs for substituting the name of one of his characters for his own. I can’t believe I did that, especially as I was tempted to try to insert a hopefully clever (but probably not) reference to Lester Bangs (or even Bruce Sterling’s “Dori Bangs”) into my review.

    I did enjoy the story but in a fairly light way — that is, I think it’s a slight story, but within its scope, well, much as Rose said: “light and sweet, very cute”. I don’t dispute those who quibble about the prose, and I certainly don’t dispute those who think Loren made a silly personal decision in sticking himself back in the ’80s forever, and likewise Andrea for going back to the 60s. (I don’t think you need to endorse those decisions to enjoy the story, though!) And, further, I think Loren’s rather shallow appreciation of 1984 is part of the point, part of his character. Again — we don’t need to approve.

    Adam’s comments are fair — it’s clearly early work. But nice early work, and I enjoyed it.

  8. Rich Horton Says:

    One more small comment — “Burning Down the House” was certainly the big hit from Speaking in Tongues. But a lot of people — myself enthusiastically included — preferred “This Must Be the Place”. By a wide margin, in my case. (Indeed, and perhaps this says a lot about me and even maybe my reaction to this story, it was the song we (my wife and I) chose for the first dance at our (1985) wedding.)

    (As to whether it got much MTV airplay, I don’t recall … likely not as much as “Burning Down the House”, sure.)

  9. Liz Says:

    I have zero nostalgia for the 80s, which probably doesn’t help, but I wasn’t overly taken with this. I didn’t even realise it wasn’t the present day until 1984 got mentioned, so for a story which is supposed to be about how 1984 is the pinnacle of human civilization, I could’ve done with some more sense of time and place. Why is the future a stupid place? Maybe picking a year of your life to live over and over based on what pop culture was like is supposed to be a example of how shallow Loren is, but I don’t care about him or Andrea and her sweat-heavy dress.

    Nice bit with the motorbike, though.

  10. rosejasperfox Says:

    I can’t argue with any of the objections raised so far, and I liked it anyway! Much as I’m exceedingly and perhaps excessively forgiving of 80s pop music–some of it is so cheesy it triggers my dairy allergy and I love it all anyway–I guess I’m exceedingly and perhaps excessively forgiving of anyone who says nice things about it.

    But yes, cardboard characters, silly premise, too much crammed into a single year, the usual time travel obviousness, vastly insufficient political awareness… and I just don’t care, because I’m happy to give anything a pass if it glows under blacklight. Sorry to let the team down. I’ll try to be vicious again next week.

  11. Matt Hilliard Says:

    I’m with the group who are unimpressed by the premise. If an aging hippie finds a time machine and uses it to live out the rest of their life at Woodstock, jumping back every couple of days, that would make some sense to me. Maybe even a Star Wars fan going back to May 1977 and living that summer through 10 or 20 times I could buy. But the idea that because this guy likes the Talking Heads there’s something special about December 1984 that’s just not there in January 1985, well, that seems pretty absurd.

    Well, OK, given this premise, does the story at least explore the effects of it? Someone doing this could have no deep friendship, no lasting human attachments, and in fact not even any real artistic discovery (since the focus is on submerging in the old, not embracing new art). What kind of life did this guy have that makes him want to run away from it so badly…not only his old life, but having one at all?

    We don’t find out. In fact, the story doesn’t really face up to any of the problems. I’m not sure it spins the lifestyle as positive, exactly, but it portrays the narrator’s job as soul-destroying corporate monotony, implying that in choosing to jump back to the 60s the narrator will achieve some sort of liberation (rather then, in my thinking, check out from the human race).

    Finally, the story is built around a time travel paradox (the same as Time Traveler’s Wife, which I doubt is a coincidence) and basically ignores that too. This made me want to reread “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, where Ted Chiang used that same paradox to incredible effect. So I did and it was just as fantastic as the first time I read it. So I did get something out of this story.

  12. Niall Says:

    Ziv (and I don’t think I said welcome in the other thread, so: welcome!)

    And that’s a shame, because the concept of time as a home does sound like it has potential, if it was sharpened up and focused on.

    Yes. Unlike Abigail and Chance, I don’t find the basic concept completely beyond belief; there’s a kernal of something serious in there, even if this story didn’t really uncover it. In my head it ties in with the canard about the high-school quaterback who always looks back to his golden days; I can see looking back and confusing the time with your age at the time. And I liked the motorbike, as well: a symbol of freedom, but here turned to a kind of imprisonment.

    So perhaps not surprisingly, when Rich says:

    And, further, I think Loren’s rather shallow appreciation of 1984 is part of the point, part of his character.

    I agree. Although really it’s about all there is to his character. I thought the line about not being able to have nostalgia for something you weren’t born for was quite clever, actually — because clearly you can, clearly that’s exactly what he does have. I definitely didn’t read Andrea’s final choice as achieving a kind of liberation, as Matt H did; definitely did see it as a kind of capitulation.

    Rose:

    Sorry to let the team down.

    What lets the team down is you’re not mounting a stronger defence! It’s no fun if we all agree…

    There’s something in the back of my brain about ennui and a comparison to Life on Mars (or more aptly, Ashes to Ashes), but it won’t quite come out now.

  13. James Says:

    I enjoyed reading this story, it seemed very easy, the pace or style lended itself to carrying me along nicely.

    I was a bit miffed thinking that I had perhaps missed some hidden message that would give me the year setting, realising that it just never comes across till well into the tale was a bit of a surprise, something could have easily indicated that earlier.

    Andrea seemed a bit clichéd, a person with such drive who dates a stock bloke like bud, didn’t sit right, a few things didn’t sit right with her actually, but I enjoyed her search for whatever she was looking for.

    I didn’t feel the story had ended decently or allowed a modicum of speculation – if there was an allusion that she continues searching for the right/different Lorens or ponders setting the bike at a future stage to 1984 I would have felt more satisfied. The end just felt like trying to tie into the cultural hook that was used as part of Lorens character, which I liked, I kept thinking of a shiny grey suits, over a T-shirt, slip on shoes with white socks or worse no socks, he is as odd as the year was, but felt the ending was spoilt by Andrea whimsying about the Beatles. Was that what she was looking for?

    Yet despite these little moans I quite enjoyed the read.
    I still wonder if Andrea was all Power Dressing and shoulder Pads, and massive hair and stilettos and Jumpsuits in the club. The year changed how I imagined her, rightly or wrongly.

  14. Matt Denault Says:

    I found the story entertaining in a breezy, shallow sort of way, but it is such a slight story that I find it difficult to comment on. It doesn’t engage with the idea of time travel, for all the word count it spends hand-waving at it; its core story elements — character, setting, etc. — are under-developed as well; and thematically it is muddled.

    To the extent that I wondered whether the story was trying to say anything thematically, Loren’s passiveness seemed to suggest one possibility. A fan of an even earlier era’s culture (say the psychedelic 1960s) who went back in time would do so to mingle, to be a part of Woodstock, or the Summer of Love in San Francisco or London, etc. But a fan of 1980s mass media culture who went back in time might in fact feel that the culturally essential thing to do was to kick back and watch the world unfold on TV. One could argue that it is in the 1980s that we reached a tipping point where to feel that you were a part of the zeitgeist meant experiencing the world through an interface (TV, eventually computers) more often than directly experiencing the world, a point where media culture and media technologies combined to become an isolating and alienating force. (Question: what do we think is the “crap sci-fi paperback” Bud leaves when he and Andrea split? It could of course be 1984, but my money would be on Neuromancer, as that was pretty much the iconic 1984 SF paperback in America — and this is an oddly American-centric story.) I suspect part of why Loren loves Andrea (who otherwise seems quite unlovable) is that she is beautiful to him as a broken creature of the 80s.

    The problems with trying to read the story this way are 1) it feels like 90% me reading people I’ve known and bits of sociology that I’ve read into the empty spaces of the story, rather than the story doing any of the heavy lifting itself, 2) to the extent that what I wrote above is true, I don’t think that it is an insightful enough idea to hang a story around unless the characters, setting, etc., are artfully tied to these ideas and also moving as individual characters living in a evocatively rendered world, which isn’t the case here. Well, and 3) I’m not sure that the above is true, and the story doesn’t make any sort of argument, logical or emotional, that I can use for testing.

  15. Rose Fox Says:

    Matt:

    the story doesn’t make any sort of argument, logical or emotional, that I can use for testing

    I don’t even get the sense that it occurs to the story (or the author) that it should make any sort of argument, logical or emotional. That’s much of what gives it the learner-writer feel, I think. We’re talking about layers of meaning and effort that just don’t exist in this world. It’s like applying foodie terminology to McDonald’s fries: they accomplish what they set out to accomplish, but there’s not exactly a lot of nuance there.

    Sorry, Niall, I reserve my passionate defending for stories I actually feel passionate about. *)

  16. Alexander Says:

    I strongly disliked this one. Even if I’d never read a time travel story before, I think this production would have still struck me as bland, unengaging and thematically inane. As there have been so many works that used this motif better, even in the specific subset of romance through non-linear time, it makes me inclined not to read any more of Bangs’ stuff.

    Apart from the whole non-starter of the ultimate rationale for time travel (couldn’t one just watch recording and music documentaries lots of time if that the minutia of writing wasn’t good enough to life a too-familiar premise. It seems like a story that aimed very low and didn’t even succeed in that.

  17. chance Says:

    Rich – I’m sure we were meant to think it was the title song that was Loren’s favorite, but This Must Be the Place wasn’t played on MTV (I don’t think there was even was a video until after the movie Stop Making Sense was released, and that was after this scene was meant to take place.)

  18. James Says:

    Liked it
    http://bigdumbobject.co.uk/2009/09/torque-control-short.html

    Arguing that reliving one year is absurd seems to miss the point to me. It’s an arbitrary thing, just like years are an arbitrary date. Why not do it? And besides he only did it a few times and hadn’t got time to be bored. For all we know he’d spent twenty years travelling into the future. But the main point I think is that he felt he had to go back to the year he remembered to be the best, relive the rose-tinted past, which shows a lack of optimism in the character which felt real to me.

    If I had a time machine I’d give the idea a go for a few years.

  19. Abigail Says:

    he felt he had to go back to the year he remembered to be the best

    Loren didn’t remember 1984 – he was born in 2008. His associations with it were purely cultural, not personal. And I don’t see the arbitrariness either. Loren specifically chooses 1984 for the specific reasons he lays out to Andrea.

  20. Abigail Says:

    Also, now that I think about it, I have to question the notion that a twentysomething man born in 2008 would have such strong associations with Michael Jackson or Mel Gibson. It could happen, I suppose (see Andrea’s Beatles-mania), but it feels more like Bangs imposing his own tastes on the character.

  21. Martin Says:

    Yeah, this story is a load of old crap.

    First off, like Evan, I think if you are going to do a time travel story you need to do something special. They are just too familar and too easy to get wrong.

    Bangs dodges everything. The future is “stupid”, apparently. Paradoxes? Oh, I told you about those before, sorry if you’ve forgotten! Even the break up:

    It doesn’t really matter what happened. I don’t want to talk about it.

    This reads a lot more like Bangs couldn’t be bothered to write it or didn’t think he was capable of writing it. This links back to what Adam was saying about the weakness of the writing and lack of confidence.

    Ignoring all this it still doesn’t make any sense. No one is going to spend eternity in 1984. This is particular true of someone born in 2008. Bangs is obviously trying to explicitly evoke a comparison to the way the Sixities is fetishised and mythlogised but (as Abigail says) he is too far in the future. The Eighties is already being replayed in popular culture. Loren coudl experience what he want simply by going to the local club that has an Eighties night, stealing a time machine is extreme overkill.

  22. Jo Walton Says:

    I liked it. I don’t think it’s the greatest story of all time, but I’m with Rose, light, sweet and cute. I thought it started clunkily and then found its feet at about the time it started to explain what was going on.

    This story — living in the same year — has been done before sentimentally, and I thought doing it unsentimentally was an interesting angle on it. Why should it always be competent people and perfect lovers who get to time travel? Why not people like that for a change? I thought they both came over well as characters. And wonderful amazing technological advances get used for incredibly banal purposes all the time. Using a time machine to relive 1984 because of the music (and I hated the music at the time and still hate it) is just like using an iPhone to text “Where R U?” It is the sort of thing people do.

    And I did like the last line.

  23. Martin Says:

    Texting “Where R U?” is part of the basic functionality of an iPhone, it is what it was designed for. And no one only uses an iPhone for texting. Loren is doing the equivalent of just playing one crappy freeware app over and over again and nothing else. Which is not something people do.

  24. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    We’re all assuming that Andrea and Loren can’t possibly be as shallow and unthinking as as to believe that going back in time is the answer, but we are a self-selecting bunch of bright, articulate people who’ve thought through the issues and who are here, talking about them, and who have, dare I say it, actually got lives. I’ve encountered enough people like Andrea and Loren over the years who would, given the opportunity, happily make a trip through time for a reason as trivial as ‘the music was great’, because they believed they hadn’t got anything to lose. And they’d make that trip because they didn’t realise that there was anything to lose. They don’t have developed lives at all. Even in New York, Loren’s dancing sets him apart from people; he looks odd, robotic, whatever, while Andrea is just slogging around after other people. I still have a half-suspicion that San Francisco Loren has just about got to the stage of figuring what’s going on, because, crucially, he is ageing, whereas Andrea goes through one year. Nostalgia sounds fantastic when you’re young, because everything is still so immediate. I think five years of Thomas Dolby has maybe demonstrated that nostalgia is something to be encountered, not lived full on.

    Admittedly, we can only guess at what originally drove Loren, but there is an indicator in ‘Say you stole a time machine […]’, which suggests to me that he plunged into his trip without thinking it through at all. I think Rich Horton is right to suggest that ‘Loren’s rather shallow appreciation of 1984 is part of the point’; on the other hand, I still don’t think the issue is fully explored, and clearly it’s not a point Andrea has grasped when she decides to go back in time. I don’t see Andrea’s choice as a liberation (Matt H), but neither do I see it as a kind of capitulation (Niall). To be honest, I think she’s just too stupid to have figured out what’s been going on, and is taking her turn at snatching at the pretty trinket of nostalgia.

  25. Niall Says:

    Abigail:

    it feels more like Bangs imposing his own tastes on the character.

    Of course, we don’t know how old Bangs is. He could be young enough that he doesn’t remember 1984 — or at least the bits of it that his character idolizes — personally.

    Maureen:

    I think five years of Thomas Dolby has maybe demonstrated that nostalgia is something to be encountered, not lived full on.

    I do think this is both in the story, and the most interesting aspect of the story; but as you say, underdeveloped. One question I keep turning over in my head is: what would the story have been like if Loren was the narrator? Part of me thinks it would have been a clearer expression of the things we’re poking at here; part of me thinks the things we’re poking at here, though part of the story, were not ever intended to be its focus, such that what was really needed was a narrator with more vigour.

  26. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    Picking up on Abigail’s questioning a twenty-something born in 2008 having such strong associations with, say Michael Jackson or Mel Gibson, this doesn’t actually surprise me so much. I’ve had conversations with twenty-somethings who’ve discovered people like Crosby, Stills, Young and Nash or James Taylor, or Black Sabbath (one of my student colleagues this year), things that perhaps seem a bit old hat to me, and the excitement is palpable. I could see them wanting to go back in time to be in the moment, rather as one might want to see, say, the first night of The Rite of Spring, or go back to see the Carter Family performing. I can get the idea that someone might be that engaged about Mel Gibson or Michael Jackson in the future.

    (And I can even get the going back … it’s Bangs’ failure to really do anything with it that still irks me.)

  27. Alexander Says:

    Maureen: I see a problem even if both characters are that incredibly shallow. Well, for one thing there’s the question of what the point of the narrative is, but beyond that this doesn’t seem a scenario that would appeal to people that shallow. Loren trades away internet, modern electronic conveniences plus whatever might have been developed in the future for the sake of reliving a specific cultural thing over and over. That seems more obsessive and less rationally the type of personality you’re describing.

    The Time Traveler’s Wife is a natural point of comparison, but I’m also reminded of Robert Charles Wilson’s Bridge of Years, in which the male protagonist took advantage of an opening to go back several decades. Except there what attracted him was more credible than specific music (a desire to live in a world with security, assurance of no nuclear war in that period, etc) and the female from the past pointed out how crazy and counterproductive that was.

  28. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    Niall, you’ve just picked up on something I was thinking about this morning; the story’s narrative viewpoint, though I was originally thinking about Adam’s comments (and yes, Adam, the pumpkin of curiosity – oh dear). Actually, what I was thinking about was the ‘sequin-scaled scarecrow’, which I don’t dislike as an image, but it doesn’t seem to me to be something she’d say, so where does it come from?

    Which in turn sent me back to story #1 and the old question: if this is Andrea’s story, who is she telling it to? And why? If she’s off to 1960-something and has no attachments, why does she suddenly feel a need to leave some sort of record? But assuming she has chosen to, then I could buy the kind of overwriting shown here, because I see enough of it in the day job. On the other hand, I suspect I am actually cutting Bangs far too much slack by suggesting it’s intentional as it’s not consistent.

    But it did strike me that probably the biggest problem this story has for me is that it is being told from the point of view of a narrator who actually isn’t that interested in what’s going on except insofar as it directly pertains to her, and even then seems uninclined to share much of it with her projected audience (I can’t decide if this means she is trying to preserve an air of mystery or else the author just doesn’t know what happens when he elides events). She’s no more infected with the rabies of curiosity than I am infected by conventional rabies; if she were, she wouldn’t have hired a PI to find out what happened to Seattle Loren, she’d be out there doing it herself. I think Evan dignifies it by suggesting the story goes into puzzle mode when, really, it only goes halfway there. Much of the unravelling is done by other people – Loren himself, or Bud, who solves the mystery of the cipher on the napkin for Andrea. I wonder if she would have gone to the club if he hadn’t egged her on. Andrea herself only goes as far as looking Loren up in the phone book. She certainly doesn’t ‘follow a mystery past all the limits of common sense’. That feels to me like something she thinks looks good when written down.

    As to how Loren would tell the story … Everything is so filtered through Andrea’s dullness it’s difficult to get a sense of what he might have been like, but I suspect that we wouldn’t get much more sense about why or how he got to 1984 than we already have. What I’d hope for, though, is perhaps more excitement at being there, depending on where in the cycle he tells the story. Andrea doesn’t even seem to be that excited about meeting a bona fide time traveller.

  29. Matt Denault Says:

    Maureen:

    I think five years of Thomas Dolby has maybe demonstrated that nostalgia is something to be encountered, not lived full on.

    I agree with you and Niall, I do think this is in the story. The later Loren has to be completely drunk to view the 80s. (Though of course the other part of it is that he knows he is approaching his own death.)

    I could see them wanting to go back in time to be in the moment, rather as one might want to see, say, the first night of The Rite of Spring, or go back to see the Carter Family performing. I can get the idea that someone might be that engaged about Mel Gibson or Michael Jackson in the future.

    Yes, although one of the things I struggled with in the story was precisely Loren’s passiveness in this regard — I’d have expected an 80s nut from the future to attend Talking Heads concerts (wasn’t their last major tour in ’84?), I’d expect him to have a brand new Apple Mac and be gleefully churning out amateur newsletters with MacWrite and MacPaint, etc.

    Instead, part of what felt so contrived about the story is the nature of Loren’s fandom: he’s a fan of music but doesn’t care about seeing the bands, he’s a fan of music video but doesn’t seem interested in MTV as an entity, he’s a fan of popular actors but not of the kinds of movies they make. One of the things technology has allowed us to do is focus our fandom (as we’ve seen in SF&F), such that a fan of band X knows, as you say, that on date Y they performed a legendary rendition of song Z — having a time machine would be an exercise in navigating specifics. But basically Loren is a fan of the sociological phenomenon of mass media culture itself, not a fan in the more human sense you describe.

  30. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    Matt,

    “Loren is a fan of the sociological phenomenon of mass media culture itself, not a fan in the more human sense you describe.”

    I wonder if he is even a fan of the sociological phenomenon. The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether Loren’s curiosity is in fact only as rabid as Andrea’s, and thus not that rabid at all. (The more I think about it, the more it strikes me that they are very much two of a kind.) She says ‘I like the Beatles’, but is ‘like’ enough of a reason to commit yourself to an irreversible trip through time? I can imagine Loren saying ‘I love Talking Heads’, without actually feeling it, paying

    I would love to have seen more of him when he first arrives in 1984, how he responded then.

  31. Matt Denault Says:

    Maureen again:

    As to how Loren would tell the story…

    Yes, Andrea is so self-absorbed that we don’t really get a sense of Loren’s character. I do note, as above, that Loren knows almost from the beginning that he’s destined to die in 1984 in about 10 of his subjective years. So I wonder, if he came to 1984 thinking it would be the best year ever, if he continued to repeat it because he continued to enjoy it, or because he felt trapped? If someone with a time machine knew they were destined to die in 1984 and made it to 1985, I can see a rather miserable type of person thinking, “well, I may as well go back and live 1984 again, I know it’s going to happen sometime and there’s no escaping it.” If you arrive in a specific year and learn you’re going to die in that same year, I can imagine seeing that year as your “home.”

  32. SF Strangelove Says:

    I am in agreement with most of the opinions here that find “This Must Be The Place” lacking.

    The notion of reliving the same year in different cities seemed promising, but I expected the author to more with it.

    I am used to time-travel stories that use pop culture references as a short-cut for establishing “when” we are in a story. Making those pop culture references the point of the story? It’s just so empty. I was not immune to pop culture in 1984, in fact I felt over exposed. Music videos and Hollywood movies were pushed on us by huge engines of marketing. Celebrating a year for its corporate media product is simply avoidance of real issues. I get that the story is intended to be light and entertaining. Still, it would help if it dug down for a moment or two and revealed something a little deeper about the characters and their real concerns.

  33. Hannah Baker Says:

    Hi, long-time reader, first-time poster.

    I saw this story as a parody of romantic or depressing time-travel stories. In most time-travel narratives, people travel in time for important, significant, or at least inevitable reasons; here they do it because they like the pop culture better. Often there are serious scientific or mystical obstacles preventing characters from changing the past or fulfilling their desires; here the only real obstacle is that Loren has decided, for no real reason, to never leave 1984. Romances like “The Time-Traveller’s Wife” contrast the effects of time travel with the eternal true love between two characters; Andrea (until the end) doesn’t feel much for Loren beyond curiosity. Time travel stories in general are often wish fulfillment for readers who long to visit historical periods like Ancient Greece or the Rennaissance; in this story the longed-for golden past is 1984 in America.

    I enjoyed the story because I saw the shallowness of the characters and their adventures as an intentional subversion of the way in which time travel stories can sometimes be overly ponderous. The story doesn’t make sense when taken realistically because it’s satirical rather than realistic.

  34. Jed Says:

    I’m pleased to see all this discussion of this story; thank you all for your comments.

    I’m probably not going to comment on the substantive comments here, but I did want to address one minor side point that was specifically addressed to us editors (though I don’t mean to derail discussion with this):

    Abigail and Adam: The proofreaders and I discussed the word “bizarrity.” It’s true that that word doesn’t appear in my dictionary, but I would say that it’s nonetheless a word; it’s in pretty wide use online, for example. I don’t know for sure that it was in casual use in 1984, but I suspect it was.

    I come across it now and then in casual use, and I think I even use it myself on occasion; it seems to me that its meanings and usages overlap with but aren’t identical to those of “bizarreness.” For example, I think I could say (random example off top of head) “that half-snake half-leopard creature is a bizarrity” but not “…is a bizarreness.” I realize that’s not the usage that appears in the story, but it also sounded okay to me in the story.

    Note too that the word “bizarrities” appears in the story; “a man who lived for bizarrenesses” didn’t sound right to any of us.

    So I ended up saying to the proofreaders: ‘Yeah, it’s a tough call, but given the “bizarrities” line, I think we should leave it alone.’

    As for “proudness,” during the editing process I queried the author thusly:

    ‘I would usually expect “pride” rather than “proudness.” But it’s informal dialogue and he’s drunk, so fine to leave this alone, especially if it was intentional.’

    And he said it was intentional, so we left it alone.

  35. Matt Hilliard Says:

    It’s a fun coincidence that in successive posts Hannah and Jed both offer the same defense of different criticisms: “That was intentional.”

    Maybe so. I’ll believe it about the word choices, although I think whatever advantage was gained through using a word like “bizarities” was lost many times over on readers who saw it as a mistake.

    The satire issue is trickier. It’s certainly possible, but my feeling was the author expected me to like the main character, not laugh at her. Is there anything in the text itself that marks this as satire?

  36. Rich Horton Says:

    I don’t think it was intended as satire, but I do think it was intended as a light story. Some folks here have made suggestions that probably might have resulted (if well executed) in a more impressive story — but not the story Bangs intended to write.

    I mean, as Matt says (and Martin echoes a bit more forcefully), the story doesn’t really engage the time travel idea much — it doesn’t care about paradoxes, or about the mechanics of the thing, or about what certain people (not the two main characters!) might do with such an opportunity. I think it’s OK to let the story not care about those things, though. I mean, yes, it is a slightish story, but sometimes that’s enough.

  37. Nick H. Says:

    I was barely halfway through the story before all the dialogue modifiers drove me potty. The narrator ‘says in shock’, Loren ‘exclaims’, the narrator ‘groans’, ‘protests’, ‘calls’, ‘squawks’, ‘mumbles’, ‘demands’, ‘asks with a mocking snicker’, ‘says coldly’… enough already!

    Always I’ve been taught that this is a poor way of expressing the tone behind the dialogue, and that the dialogue should be such that the reader can infer the tone without needing to be told. Stick to ‘he said, she said’ and trust the reader to be able to infer the tone correctly from the context. In this case, perhaps, it’s an application of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.

    Nor was this the only problem I had with the story. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to judge a science-fiction story on literary merit, but often I found the sentence flow to be a bit hinky. Each individual sentence may have been fine on its own, but when put together, instead of flowing into one another, it was as if there were a big, crashing, speed-bump at the end of each sentence stopping the reader dead in his tracks. This, unfortunately, happens as early as the second paragraph (“It wasn’t the best night of my life. I could barely remember the names of the people who had dragged me there. My borrowed dress was heavy…”)

    I see the made-up words have already been mentioned, but another word in particular that grated with me was the mis-use of ‘suave’, in “He looked younger now, and all the suave he’d once had was missing along with the years.” I cringe every time I read that sentence.

    It’s not *all* bad, though. Unlike others, I don’t seem to find Loren’s behaviour quite so crazy. Is it really so hard to believe that a man born in 2008 could be such a big fan of the 1980s? I reminded of every time I settle down to watch a film from the ’30s or ’40s and my mother expresses disbelief that I could be at all interested in watching something that was made before *she* was born, let alone from before I was born. So, you know, I don’t have trouble buying the fact that someone is a big fan of a period they never even lived through. And anyone who says otherwise is imposing their own tastes on things as much as they claim Elliot is imposing his.

    Likewise, the fact that we find out so little about the future. Again, I myself can think of many times when I’ve answered the question of ‘Where are you from?’ with something along the lines of ‘Someplace, but that’s not interesting. Tell me more about you!’ Which is what, more or less, is happening in the context of the story. All we need to know about the future is that Loren stole a time machine. No more, no less. In this way, it’s rather like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, where all we need to know in terms of science-fiction is that the process erases memories. How does it work? That doesn’t really matter, instead we’re to care more about the personal stories of the characters involved. The intention here is more or less the same – sod the science, the story is about the people.

    The main difference between “This Must Be the Place” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, though, is that where the latter convinces, the former does not. And I think ultimately what it comes down to is that “This Must Be the Place” is, in a sense, unfinished. It feels very much as if it could have benefitted from some workshopping, specifically, as many of the criticisms raised now seem to be the sort of criticisms that could be raised at a workshopping stage and then fed back into the story. Along similar lines, and I’m somewhat hesitant to say this because at least one person involved has commented, but some more editing might have helped too – specifically, leaving in made-up words was a mistake, no matter the rational, at least to my thinking.

    One last thing, and it’s outside the story matters (possibly). A question: is Elliott Bangs the writer’s real name, or is it a pseudonym?

  38. Rose Says:

    Nick H.,

    Yes, Elliott Bangs is his real name. Isn’t he lucky?

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  41. JG Says:

    Some very harsh comments here. I found the story interesting as a commentary on how we treat the past as a fashion accessory – wave after wave of nostalgia that seeks to revive the music and ephemera of 1984, but completely misses the substance of the year, because the future has no use for the substance. So the story is as much about the banality of our nostalgia , stretching ahead, as it is about 1984.

    The motorbike struck me as a neat take on the DeLorean of Back To The Future, released the following year, remember? And Loren’s name a take on that too? The lack of characterisation in Loren himself is an indication that he is simply made up of retro-style cultural references – that he has no depth beyond informed nostalgia.

    It;s not a great story but it’s a fine first sale, end of.


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