Look: I don’t get on with humour in literature. It discomfits me. I struggle to parse it. What is this author trying to say, beneath their knowing winks, their ironic displacement of meaning? Do they have anything to say at all?
So I am very not the right audience for Liz Jensen’s time travel novel My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time. Our heroine, Charlotte, is a sex worker in nineteenth-century Copenhagen who, along with Fru Schleswig, a woman who she strenuously is her mother, takes a cleaning job with the preeningly middle-class housewife Fru Krak. In Fru Krak’s basement, they stumble upon a time machine that whisks them away to 21st century London, where they find a community of Danish time travellers all relying on them – or, rather, on Charlotte – to keep their tenuous link to home open. See, Fru Krak is about to remarry (her husband, Professor Krak, having abandoned her for the delights of The Future, being the inventor and builder of the time machine), and she is sure to get rid of the machine in her basement as she prepares for her new man to move in, stranding the time travellers in the 21st century in the process. Only Charlotte has the wit and the wiles to stop her doing so!
It’s all very…postmodern-ironic. The plot is high melodrama, smushing as it does a tropey time-travel story into a cliched rom-com love story (Charlotte begins pursuing 21st century archaeologist Fergus for his money but soon realises it’s him she loves, etc., etc.); Charlotte’s first-person narration, though, is arch, knowing and just occasionally probably a little bit unreliable. “Dear precious darling reader, you are looking so attractive today, if I may say so”, she gushes, often. She refers to classic texts with varying degrees of anachronism: “Last night I dreamt I went to Østerbro again,” the novel begins. Such metatext! Such wit! It’s exhausting.
And here’s the kicker: I’m not convinced there’s any substance under the humour and the irony and the knowingness. Like, what is Jensen trying to do here? Irony for irony’s sake is old now; the postmodernist work of destabilising the Word and the idea of the immutable text is thoroughly done. I have a feeling that Jensen’s portrayal of Charlotte as a sex worker who enjoys the sex is meant to be ~edgy~ and ~feminist~, but it’s an attenuated nineties-girl-power form of feminism: you’ll notice she stops the work once she’s safely ensconced with her True Love; and her career in Copenhagen is more or less entirely sanitised, no mention of the dangers and uncertainties of sex work in a misogynistic world. Plus, once again, hasn’t it been done? Is it not now a bit of a cliché?
But, says the sympathetic reader, it’s supposed to be funny. You’re not supposed to take it seriously.
But if we can’t take anything in this text seriously, then what we get is just an infinite recession of meaning – and since I’m pretty sure the novel isn’t doing this intentionally, ultimately what we find is that My Little Book of Stolen Time doesn’t mean anything. It’s just – extruded literary product, to coin a phrase: all style, no substance.
As I said, though, I’m a bad reader of humour, and so not a good reader for this novel. It might be your thing, and if it is, more power to you! I am just Not A Fan.