So, I am aware that Timothy, or notes of an abject reptile got all kinds of positive notice, and that lots of people like it and all, but not me. Bits of it are nicely written, sure, and there is a certain novelty to the main character being a turtle, but most of it was either dull or annoying.
The most annoying thing, for Your Humble Blogger, was the tendency of the titular reptile to pontificate about Man. There’s one long section ridiculing the idea that Man is somehow different from the animals, discussing Man in animal terms and generally running down the human species. There’s an extended bit griping about religion, in particular the religious (Christian) sense of human exceptionalism, that what matters is what happens to humans, rather than what happens to the other, more numerous species. There is no Salvation for Timothy, which actually suits him just fine, but (for Timothy) invalidates the entire idea of Salvation. Turtles don’t go to Heaven, so there ain’t no Heaven. And then there’s another bit about how humans really are very strange and different from the rest of the animals, mostly in ways that make them look inferior.
And I have a sense, reading it, that the arguments about Man are supposed to be persuasive because they are made by a turtle. That is, a sort of argument ad testudines, valid because of who makes them, the turtle’s eye view, etc, etc. But the book wasn’t written by a turtle, you know. It was written by a member of the New York Times Editorial Board, a guy with a Ph.D. from Princeton. He’s just pretending to be a turtle. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a perfectly valid thing to do, if you want to. And I’ll grant that Verlyn Klinkenborg knows more about what a turtle thinks than I do, if only because he has paid some attention to turtles, and I have not. But it doesn’t follow that his insights into humanity are a turtle’s insights. They aren’t. That’s what we call fiction. Or lying. Or fantasy.
Which, by the way, brings up the matter of genre again, for those who want another stone to chew on. Nothing whatever happens in the book that is not absolutely naturalistic. Mr. Klinkenborg is meticulous in his realism, well-researched and carefully detailed. The only fantastic element—the only fantastic element—is a turtle who can understand spoken English, read written English (Timothy seems to have unfettered access to his master’s letters and journals, although we don’t see exactly how) and who maintains more or less the sort of memory and reasoning abilities we would expect of a human. Which is the whole book, actually. So the novel is a fantasy, without being in any way a fantasy novel, that is, without any of the genre conventions of the fantasy novel. Now, I would shelve it with the litchratchoor, rather than the fantasy books, without even thinking about it, but (a) any general theory of genre would have to allow for the fact that a book about (essentially) a talking turtle is not a fantasy, and (2) I wonder whether a person who is thinking about writing fantasy would learn anything from this particular talking-turtle book.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,