Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017)

August 4th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Weary, Cheeky, and (Maybe? Just a Wee Bit?) Wise

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and suicide.)

So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.

That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault—well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?

Well, it happened.

It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D printers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or whatever. But it hardly looks like The Jetsons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

It’s amazing how much damage one penis can do.

Tom Barren is an outlier, though not in a good way: he’s a ne’er do well, living in paradise. His is a world of flying cars that can pilot themselves. Of food synthesizers and clothing recyclers. Urban planning taken to outrageous levels, with interlocking buildings, fantastical skyscapes, and massive biosphere preserves. Patches that monitor and adjust your blood alcohol content (“booze cruise”). Android sex dolls and interactive storytelling. Complete gender equality (!). Corporations that actually strive to improve consumers’ quality of life, rather than marketing cheap, useless junk just to turn a profit (!!!#$#@^).

Sounds like the stuff of fiction, right? Except all this really did happen, thanks to the Goettreider Engine and the unlimited clean energy it generated by harnessing the movement of the Earth.

This was the world we were meant to live in. That is, until our narrator bumbled into his father’s time machine and accidentally sabotaged Lionel Goettreider’s infamous 1965 experiment, thus altering the trajectory of history – right before the fail safe protocols boomeranged his sorry ass home. Only when he woke up, it was in our crappy world, complete with global conflicts, mass species extinctions, accelerating climate change, and (presumably) a looming election that would put a reality teevee buffoon in the White House.

Somewhat ironically, Tom’s life changes for the better: in this reality, he goes by John. Rather than being a disappointment to his genius father, he’s a successful architect. And, oh yeah, his mother is still alive!

Can Tom somehow reverse the course of history and set things right? Does he even want to?

All Our Wrong Todays is a fun and satisfying time travel romp that’s got a few tricks up its thermal stranded sleeve. The wibbily wobbly timey wimey stuff is highly enjoyable – I especially loved learning about Tom’s world – though it is a lot to keep straight by story’s end. (But this is kind of par for the course.) The Tom/John and Penelope/Penny plot line reminded me a little of Blake Crouch’s time travel/alternate reality tale, 2016’s Dark Matter, but the two are completely different beasts: All Our Wrong Todays is a little more absurd and tongue-in-cheek. The balance of humor here is pretty much perfect here, imho.

As for the narrator, you either kinda-sorta like him or you hate him. Tom is your typical mediocre straight white dude, with one key difference: he’s well aware of and will readily admit to his mediocrity. He harbors no delusions of grandeur or self-entitlement. He’s a fuckup, and he knows it. He’s trying to do better but dammit, it’s hard work!

Honestly, all the self-denigration rather ingratiated Tom to me: sometimes it was like Mastai was holding up a mirror. A distorted funhouse mirror that exacerbates all your flaws and creates new ones where none existed, but still. I could relate to Tom more than I’d care to admit. If you’ve got self-esteem issues, you might just empathize.

I wasn’t too keen on the rape scene, mostly because it felt a little too much like a tool, a plot device to steer the story in one direction or another. The word “rape” doesn’t even appear in the book, even as Mastai stresses that what happened to Penny was A Very Bad Thing. The thing is, I suspect that a significant percentage of readers won’t even label this as a sexual assault, which is why it’s so important to clearly and emphatically identify it as such. (“Attack” is the harshest term used.)

As an aside, the food synthesizers must mean that all the food in Tom’s world is vegan, or could easily be made so …

… right?

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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One Response to “Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017)”

  1. Kathy Says:

    I completely agree with you about the rape scene(s), and it really bothers me. This book was written (and I think published) before #metoo, so I am hoping we now live in a world a bit more ready to call this out. I’ve been trying to find some critical reviews of All Our Wrong Todays focused on this aspect, but this is the only one I’ve found! Thank you for writing it.

    I am now going to state all my problems with how he writes his rape scenes. It will be wrong and I am sorry if it rambles. Thank you everyone, in advance, if you read it.

    These rapes are never called rapes. The situation with Beth is arguably consensual because she says “I know I went along with all of it” but she immediately follows that up with “I just wanted it to be over,” and before that says “you’re my boss.” Which sounds like rape she isn’t willing to face or command rape. And for Penny, it was definitely rape. The sex started when she was asleep, pinning her to the bed and not letting her end it. The fact that she doesn’t say anything because she is so overwhelmed by the complete betrayal by this person who she recently fell in love with does not make it less of a rape.

    I have several problems with the way these scenes are written. One of my problem is intent. I think this scene is being used to set up Tom as not that bad a guy. It’s saying, “sure Tom can be a buffoon, but see this other version of him? He’s a rapist. Tom’s so good compared to that guy!” And it seems to work because in the end Penny ends up with him.

    I’m not even saying rape is not the appropriate crime here, if the goal is to show that Victor/John whoever is a monster and unsafe for people to be around. Following Robert Jackson Bennett’s questions about whether a rape scene is really appropriate to include in your book, it makes sense. I hate rape, but Victor wakes up next to a woman and is a violent predator – Penny’s rape makes sense. It’s more fitting here than murder or genocide or other crimes to show what a monster he is. Fine.

    I will, however, debate the second rape – Beth’s – as necessary. Cheating on Penny twists the knife for her and can be seen as necessary to the plot – but raping a second woman just seems gratuitous. Perhaps Mastai decided that any sex Victor/John/the monster has cannot be consensual because he has no idea what that feels like, so if he’s going to cheat on Penny that will also have to be at least a borderline rape. But I still question why he could not have had that character do something else awful – beat some guy nearly lifeless, instead of cheating and raping a second woman – to show us how bad he is. I think Beth’s rape falls into proving that, as Bennett puts it, “this is a very bad dude, and I need to prove it to the audience.” But I think it’s far from the only thing that could have been placed here, and while I am willing to accept Penny’s rape as being necessary to the plot, I think Beth’s rape was lazy writing, except that it gave one more woman the chance to tell her rapist how she feels about it, which I guess is at least some good for agency?

    Here are my enumerated problems with this:
    1.) It is never called rape or assault.

    2.) The violent aspect of the rapes – the bruises on Beth’s hips, the pain Penny feels during – are vaguely remarked on as bad but never actually addressed. Certainly no one presses charges – which is realistic but also it’s never mentioned by anyone, ever, in the book.

    3.) The female characters never get real closure or resolution. We hear them describe how it affects them emotionally, which is sadly still more of a voice than the authors of most rape scenes give to their female characters. But it is largely ignored after they describe it and their path back to piecing the shards together and becoming whole again is never, ever explored. Let’s break that down:

    Beth: In attempting to make things right with Beth, Tom says “Tell me what I can do and I’ll do my best to do it.” Beth says “I was probably just going to go home and have a long bath and write an embarrassing blog post about you” and Tom just responds with “If that’s what you want to do, okay,” and later with “if you change your mind about any of this, you do whatever you need to do. I’ll understand.” That at least leaves him open to the idea of being held responsible for his actions (well, John’s actions or Victor’s or whoseever…), but it’s a bit of a cop-out because we never see the emotional effects on Beth in the long run. The morning after obviously she’s trying to bury it – she’s in shock. Maybe she’s as OK as she says she is, but I doubt it. And yet she never speaks to Tom again, his life goes on, no charges are pressed (realistic but also not a resolution.) It’s just – this happened to her, now life goes on.

    b.) Penny: Penny obviously is completely betrayed by the rape. She later admits it made her fall out of love with Tom at least partially. And we know she buys a gun to keep in her nightstand after the fact, and she cries. she talks about her emotional trauma. But I think part of the problem is, her emotional response is conflated – it’s shown to be because she finds out Tom isn’t Tom anymore, as well as because of the rape. Which means the rape is sidelined – we are made to focus on the mixed emotional repercussions of both the rape and her relationship falling apart/losing the man she loves to a time paradox. When she talks to Tom about it, she says “and now you’re here, but how long before he comes back again?” She’s not just addressing the rape, but also Tom’s presence in like, preventing more rapes from happening to her.

    I understand that losing the man you love while being raped is inherently a tangled situation. But the rape in itself is never wholly addressed. We know it made Penny feel terrible, and we know she no longer feels safe around Tom. But we never see the results. We don’t see her separating out the brutality and horror of the rape from the other emotional pain of losing Tom, and dealing with the rape specifically.

    No one is shown going to therapy. Talking to someone. Being told it is not their fault. Getting help. Taking a long time, healing, really dealing with this and growing and being strong – or weak – because of it. Or even coping poorly with it – becoming an addict, throwing their life away. It’s simply not dealt with.

    4.) The ending. In the end when Tom resolves his effectively warring personalities, he tells Penny “You know, in another reality I’m this, like, badass apocalyptic warrior.” But that warrior is Victor – the same mind Tom heavily implies is the one who actually made John, or whoever their body can be said to belong to, rape both Beth and Penny. Tom is here bragging to Penny about being this man in another possible reality, by taking all the cool parts of him that helped Tom be a good protagonist, and ignoring all the horrible things that are the large majority of what he focuses on when he tells us about Victor. He also does not take any consideration of the fact that Victor has now been subsumed into the Tom/John/Victor collective personality. And Victor seems to be a rapist. Possibly he’s not and it was all the time weirdness that made the rapes happen, but Tom is awfully confident that he can keep that darkness at bay. It’s very convenient that he merged with these other two versions of himself and all he acquired was John’s decisiveness and focus and Victor’s survivalistic military training. He’s not even stopping to consider that their other traits may affect and change him. And he’s certainly not telling Penny that her rapist is still partially there with him in his head and letting her make an informed decision about whether she wants to stay with him or not. Which is a huge breach of trust in and of itself.

    When Penny and Tom discuss it in the end, he says “I can apologize until the day I die, and I will if you’ll let me, but the best way I can think of to get back what we had is to show you every day of our lives that something like what happened to you will never happen again. But if you really feel we can’t go back, that what we had is lost forever, I’ll accept it. I will. Just knowing you’re safe and alive will have to be enough for me.”
    And Penny responds with “Yeah…that’s not what I meant by complicated…I’m pregnant.”

    So, this exchange bothers be for so many reasons. Firstly, Tom is still not calling it rape or admitting it had a perpetrator and that man wore his own face. It’s just “what happened to you,” which cleans it up and makes it less personal. And while he gives her agency to make her own decision and seems to understand how much this could scar her, as mentioned above, he does not give her all the facts to make her choice.

    Also, his solution to the situation is for her to see the face that to her now represents both the man she loves and her attacker, every day. It is never suggested that this might form a complicated relationship between them where she sometimes associates that face with her rapist. It is never suggested she seek professional help – in fact that she tells anyone. The book never hints that either Penny or Beth told anyone.

    And finally, Penny flings all this out of the way with the huge announcement that she is pregnant. Which is a big deal, of course, and I appreciate her concerns. But it makes things too simple. It sends the message that “never mind the rape, I’m pregnant now, that is more important.”

    The rape is then never discussed again. The ending is picturesque and perfect – they love each other, they love their son, they’re a family now, things are flawed but they will get better.

    At the heart of all this, my issue with this is that rape is treated as something you just recover from, like a scraped elbow. These characters, particularly Penny (for whom there was so much more betrayal and emotion involved), we raped, but it’s okay because they didn’t talk about it and they took about two months to heal by crying and buying a gun, but now new things are happening in their lives and they’re ready to move on.

    My problem is that, while people trying to deal with sexual assault like that happens a lot, people effectively dealing with it rarely works like this. It takes months and years and decades of help, of reaching out, of slowly rebuilding trust, and it involves talking and feeling supported by a community of people.

    By not including that, I think Elan Mustai is glossing over the terrible recovery that comes as the price of sexual assault for its survivors. And I think he owes the world a commentary on this aspect of his book, and an apology.

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