On the over of Bob Smith’s new book, Remembrance of Things I Forgot: A Novel, writer Edmund White is quoted as comparing Smith to H.G. Wells and Oscar Wilde. The comparisons initially make sense when reviewing the plot: a comic tale of a time machine takes a guy back into his past, where he tries to change history to make his present a better place. Unfortunately, the comparisons pretty much end there. Bob Smith is a talented comedian and a solid writer, but this ambitious novel does not land as his other literary efforts have. There are solitary moments of inspired comedy and humor in the book, but the high concept, coupled with Smith’s limitations as a writer, ultimately torpedo the book.
The absurd plot has the protagonist, John Sherkston get zipped back in time to the mid 1980s after his boyfriend, Taylor, has perfected a time machine for the U.S. Government. The convoluted plot has then-Vice President Dick Cheney, cast as the book’s villain, who goes back in time as well, and hounds John. Our hero then meets up with his former self, and the two set off on an adventure to right all the wrongs of their dysfunctional family – namely, stop their sister’s suicide as well as their father’s early death from alcoholism. The two Johns (the younger nicknamed “Junior”) meet up with a young Taylor (sporting a New Wave blue stripe in his hair), and before long, the three agree not only to change John’s messed up family, but they will also travel to Midland, Texas and stop George W. Bush from ever becoming president of the United States.
And that’s when things get silly. I don’t mind political satire, and no one deserves skewering more than the George Bush (except perhaps Dick Cheney), but Smith’s political haranguing and obnoxious liberal posturing will have even the most lefty, hippie tree-hugger pine for Ann Coulter. Smith’s views of the Republican party are reductive and extremely limited – he paints Bush, Cheney and Ronald Reagan as evil masterminds – Cheney in particular is cast as an arch-villain in the Darth Vader mode – a once-clever gag that has worn out its welcome. And while I admire (and agree) with his vehement opposition to the War in Iraq, the timing of Remembrance of Things I Forgot is a bit off, as we see from the point of view of 2013 that things haven’t improved that much when it comes to foreign policy and our military intervention in the Middle East. The blanket “let’s blame Bush” song is tired and thin and doesn’t really hold up – Smith wants to conveniently lay all of our problems and issues at the feet of Dick Cheney, and it’s a terribly simplistic take on politics. Instead of being admirable, Smith’s voice comes off as annoying.
But this all would be tolerable if Smith’s exposition was stronger – again, he shines best when he throws in one-liners. Anyone who has seen him do stand up know that Smith is a funny guy. But as a writer, he starts to fail a bit – especially when he’s writing description – his redundant reminders of how hot and handsome John was and is will make the reader wary (after a while, it starts to sound like wish-fulfillment).
Readers will do well to read Remembrance of Things I Forgot after they read Smith’s excellent memoirs – Openly Bob and Way to Go, Smith, and even his solid fiction debut, Selfish and Perverse. Sci-fi and satire are not comfortable fits for him – and while it’s a noble and ambitious experiment, ultimately, it’s an experiment that is burdened with more misses than hits.