Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson

Title: Bid Time Return
Author: Richard Matheson
Publisher:  Viking Press (1975)

Note: This title was also released in 1998 by Tor Books under the title Somewhere In Time
Note2: I thought the original title was far superior and can't figure why it was changed.

Michael; genius, movie reviewer extraordinaire, and all-around fantastic human; and I are sticking with sci-fi again this month but our chosen title is markedly different from the last two pairings we’ve done. I saw this movie many years ago and have read the book for the first time just this month. Click the link below for movie thoughts and read on for bookie stuff.

O Call back yesterday,
Bid time return
-Richard II, Act III, Sc.2

After this quote the book starts with a note from the brother of the protagonist. Amongst other things he says, “Yielding to the publisher, I’ve done extensive pruning in the first section of the manuscript. Again, I’m not sure I’ve done the right thing. I can’t dispute the fact that this section was lengthy and occasionally tedious.”

When I first started reading, the book reminded me of how I felt when watching the movie Buried: what a great idea, I’m glad someone thought of it and pursued it, it’s a shame it’s not the type of thing that keeps my attention. But then, as I progressed through Bid Time Return, I kept coming back to “lengthy and occasionally tedious.” It’s not only an apt description of the beginning, it pretty much describes the entire book.

In 1971 Richard Collier is 36 and receives some news that makes him re-evaluate his entire life and what he will do with the rest of it. Deciding to pursue a personal journey across the US (not even telling his brother where he is going), he flips a coin and makes San Diego his first destination. He had intended to stay only a few days but seeing the portrait of a beautiful actress who performed at his hotel in 1896 changes his plans completely. He is haunted by her face and his attraction to her. He becomes consumed with researching her life and the more he learns about her the more convinced he becomes that he was a part of that life. He expands his research to time travel (as you do) by reading, and obsessing over, a book he finds called Man and Time by J.B. Priestley (his brother kindly inserts a bit of info to let us know he edited out the detailed notes Richard took on the book).

**The rest of this review includes SPOILERS**

Richard’s style begins as one of dictatorial lists of his activities and feelings (with a bit more naval-gazing than I can tolerate in books but he did just learn that he is going to die soon so I should probably forgive him that). I actually enjoyed the point by point movement through his days. It’s easy to read over even if it’s not necessarily compelling in a narrative sense. As he moves closer, in emotion and in time, to Elise McKenna the style changes to traditional story-telling (Richard, being a writer, even comments on his own style changes). Of course, by the time that happens I’d mostly lost interest in the story and was spending my time wondering why. You see, even though I described this as sci-fi it’s pretty much straight up Romance (with one exception that I’ll go into later). This is not a problem for me as I like and read Romance. However, I like and read Romances that are much better than this one. Honestly, I wondered at one point if the entire book was a joke poking fun at Romance. It would have been such a poorly executed joke, though, that I had to assume I was meant to take the story seriously. So, why am I such a hater? It came down to the fact that the characters had no personal agency.

The book almost has only the one character because Richard dominates so much of the story (naturally, it is his story, after all) but Elise certainly ought to get a lot of attention from the reader. The thing is, neither of the characters is that interesting. Richard’s motivation: saw pic of hottie actress and immediately fell in love with her. Elise’s motivation: was given two predictions regarding a man in her future and decides Richard fits those predictions. Whenever either of them talks about why they want to be with the other it’s always described as this “need” or as being “mysterious.” How is that interesting? It doesn’t even seem to have anything to do with who these two people actually are (at one point Richard expresses fucking surprise when it turns out Elise has a bunch of really great qualities that have nothing to do with her beauty or charisma). This is not the kind of Romance that can keep my interest. Mysterious needs and unexplained attraction do not feel like the elements of a meaningful relationship. But, hey, once they met maybe they had wonderful experiences together over a period of time that would make motivations less mysterious. Oh, woops, they spend about 36 hours together and have some of the most painfully awkward conversations I’ve ever had the displeasure to read (I kept thinking, this guy is a writer and this is the best he can come up with?????). It’s not exactly the sort of thing that would make a reader believe the two of them would like to spend their lives together.

Richard is also so agitated and desperate in his need to be with Elise that he professes his love enough to make anyone wonder what his deal is (psycho being the first answer any normal person would come up with) and he’s constantly evasive about where he’s from (or should I say when). In short, he behaves in such a way that any rational woman would ask him to leave her alone. But, of course, Elise is experiencing her Mysterious Pull for Richard so she only expresses dismay at the complete reversal of her normal behavior (if only she had known about Mighty Wang and Magic Hoo Hoos she might not have been so dismayed).

The one exception to this being a true Romance is that it doesn’t have a happy ending. By the time the end came around its unhappiness had little effect on me because I didn’t care about the characters. I was tired of Richard’s Too Stupid Too Live moments and Elise’s willingness to make a life commitment to someone she doesn’t even know. A Romance that centers around two people who have no choice in the matter and then are pulled apart by circumstance is not interesting. It’s easy - and possibly able to engage your emotions (though, in this case, definitely not mine) - but it’s not compelling. There is no journey to go through with the characters, no hard choices to be made, no reason to care for anything other than that it’s too bad this had to happen because now everyone is sad.

But this does give me a chance to say that I can recommend several great Romances for anyone who has read this and thought, “There must be something better out there.” There certainly is and I’m happy to share. I can recommend Romances with well-developed characters who actively make choices, sometimes very difficult choices, for themselves and for the people in their lives, Romances with characters who converse in ways that make you believe they’d actually want to have multiple conversations, Romances that show two people growing together over time and learning that they can be as strong, or stronger, together than apart. 


  1. Another of your fine book dissections, Rachel. I know they all can't work for you, and your reasoning, especially given you're well acquaintance with the romance genre, makes a whole lot of sense. Both of us experienced the film way before we ever gave the source material a read (you with the text and me with its audiobook counterpart). Perhaps, because of that, I enjoyed the book less than the movie, but more than you.

    Initially, I found the start tough going, up until Richard Collier's confession that he was dying young of a brain tumor. Then it did begin to capture some of my curiosity since it was different on film. Some of the dissimilarities I did enjoy: the two predictions come from psychics rather than the Robinson character alone, the touching remembrance by Collier's brother as he recounts Richard's last days, and the fact there wasn't a time paradox with that watch.

    Of course, there were those things I could have done without (some of them you summarized very well). I think, given Matheson's composition and the idea behind it all, I was less critical of some of the writing because a) it was a hybrid of genres (though some things worked and others didn't), and b) I don't see this as a 'romance' novel in the parameters (or more truthfully my idea of what they are) of the genre. Still, his (Matheson scrawling as Collier's character) writing does change when he's back in 1896 much like the era that he's in is enveloping him and I found that interesting.

    And yet, I was moved at the end. Surprisingly so given the ups and downs I experienced with the characters. Although, I loved the way Matheson handled that 'doormat' remark by Elise to Robinson in both the novel and the film. They were both different so far as their medium, but still the sting of her words were well evident. I can see how readers of the book could gravitate and enjoy it in the 70s, before the film arrived. I don't hate the book. I think the film adaptation may have tinged my reading in the final analysis.

    I'm glad we took a look at this though, Rachel. Thanks for giving it a go in the series.

  2. Hey Michael,

    I certainly agree that the movie is better. In fact, I think even had I liked the book more I still would have thought the movie was better. This type of story works better for me on film than in a book. But, yes, I think my familiarity with Romance probably makes me a more critical reader of some of the traditional Romance elements.

    Side note: I think this romance is taken more seriously than traditional Romances due to the author (which is great because I love authors who push and break boundaries) but also because of its ending. The ending is the only thing that keeps this from being a traditional Romance and I wonder what it is that keeps us, as a culture, from taking things seriously that have "happy" endings. Why do we view them as trite? I think this can also be seen when people say "I don't read genre fiction" like it's some kind of badge of honor. Ok, fine, read what you like I say but why is fiction only "literary" when the endings/stories are depressing? Why is fulfillment and happiness trite? I live a very fulfilled and happy life and I don't think it's unrealistic or trite. I work very hard to have the life I want, why don't we value that as piece of art if it is conveyed via the entertainment venue? This is something that always pokes at my mind.

    Side note2: Ironically most romances end with the hint of children because, apparently, the only satisfied life is the life of partners that produce children but, for me, that is a very unhappy ending. :) hehe

    So very true about the beginning pre-dying revelation. At the very beginning it's really hard to figure out why this guy felt this stuff needed to be written down. Learning that he is going to die really puts his thoughts and actions into perspective.

    I liked Elise's interactions with Robinson because I felt you got a better idea of what kind of person she actually was. This, though, is part of the reason the end wasn't moving for me. I mean, I prefer Elise's interactions with a jerky character and not the hero? Oi! Makes it hard to be engaged in the ending when that is how I feel while I am reading. No need to re-hash that, though. ;)

    I'm also glad we did it as it's definitely a bit of a turn from our usual type. It's good to venture out of habits, right? And speaking of, if you ever decide to try your hand at an honest-to-goodness Romance do let me know and I'll steer you in the right direction.

    Can't wait for our next one!

  3. Great points, Rachel. So, is there a romance novel/film pairing you'd like to try? Would Atonement by Ian McEwan qualify as romance? Thanks, Rachel.

  4. I can't think of one. Unless we do a classic, my favorite Romances are not films. I will keep my mind open to an idea if one comes to me. We could always do a Special Feature of sorts where I choose a Romance for you to read (you know, a bit of witnessing in the hopes of making a convert:) and we discuss. I've seen some of these done in a multi-part manner so as to get reactions as you're reading. Could be fun...

    ATONEMENT, while very romantic at times, definitely does not count as a Romance if speaking in genre terms. However, that is a pairing wherein I liked the book much better because the number one most interesting aspect of the book (almost the only thing that rescued the book for me) was not used in the movie. And, of course, Kiera Knightly is not in the book. :)

  5. I absolutely LOVED this book! I liked the movie as well but not as much as I liked the book. I liked all the details, however mundane, in the novel-it made the book seem much more like a real narrative dictated/written by Richard Collier. I like how Matheson writes the book and makes the reader question whether the story really happened or if it was a delusion. I actually dislike most romances as I find them boring and commonplace. I see 'Bid Time Return' as more of a psychological or a supernatural adventure, much more intriguing than most romance novels.

  6. P.S. Perhaps Matheson made the character of Elise more one-dimensional than that of Richard because she COULD be a complete figment of his imagination (because of his temporal lobe brain tumor) and an imaginary character tends to not have as much depth as a real life person. It's up for the reader to decide. There are a lot of parts in the book to make you think Elise may not be real. But then, there are parts of the book that make you think, or at least want to believe, that Richard's account really happened.

  7. I absolutely LOVED this book! I liked the movie as well but not as much as I liked the book. I liked all the details, however mundane, in the novel-it made the book seem much more like a real narrative dictated/written by Richard Collier. I like how Matheson writes the book and makes the reader question whether the story really happened or if it was a delusion. I actually dislike most romances as I find them boring and commonplace. I see 'Bid Time Return' as more of a psychological or a supernatural adventure, much more intriguing than most romance novels.

  8. Hi Debbie! Welcome, and thank you for the very thoughtful comment. Very interesting point regarding the lack of dimension in Elise and the possibility that it's deliberate. Coincidentally, I was recently having a conversation about love affairs in scifi situations and it was noted that so many of them didn't have much explanation, for lack of a better word, behind them and that they were often these immediately in love sort of things. I wonder if this was following in that tradition. Thanks again for sharing your perspective!