Book Report: Timothy

      4 Comments on Book Report: Timothy

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,

4 thoughts on “Book Report: Timothy

  1. Matt Hulan

    Sounds like Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which a friend recommended to me, and which gets rave reviews by those who rave about such things, but which I found unreadable. There seem to be a number of books written by people who fancy themselves to have found the answer and want to share it with other people. Fortunately, I read Douglas Adams when I was receptive to such things, and I know perfectly well that the answer is 42.

    Enlightenment is So Easy, people! I swear.


  2. Jed

    Well, there is a whole subgenre of science fiction that consists of an alien coming to Earth and talking about all those wacky customs that those wacky humans have. Like, they still use internal combustion engines! Isn’t that quaint? And they have this strange concept that they call “secks.” And so on and so on, ad nauseum. Some authors love to write this kind of thing — we used to get one or two such stories a month, before we put the concept on our stories we’ve seen too often list — and they do once in a while get published (but not at SH), but I hate it.

    It sounds like the turtle book isn’t quite the same, but it also sounds like it does share some aspects.

    …There’s also a subgenre, or maybe a trope or something because it’s not exactly a subgenre of fantasy per se, of stories that are completely naturalistic but are from the viewpoint of a sentient animal (where being sentient doesn’t change its behavior in any way). Mostly these are stories for kids, but sometimes they’re more or less for grownups. One hallmark of these stories is that the dog (or whatever) protagonist tends to make up descriptive terms for human things. “The Master made me get into the noisy-box-that-moves today and go to the Bad Place Where They Stick Things Into You And It Hurts. Why does the Master do this? I thought he loved me!” And so on. The author usually seems to think that writing from the PoV of an animal is an original and surprising idea, but almost all such stories are basically the same in tone and fairly similar in plot.

    But some of them do sell as fantasy, and there’s a wide range of those. There are the fluffy CatFantastic! sort of stories (generally very much along the lines I just described, but usually featuring magic of some sort); there’s also Watership Down and all its many imitators (“Does for gerbils what Watership Down did for rabbits!”). I think giving the animals a culture and history and mythology makes it feel more like fantasy somehow.

    Oh, and one other example of sentient-animal pieces, though these aren’t labeled as fantasy: the archy columns. Those do the satirical commenting-on-human-foibles thing too, but the insights are interesting and the writing is good and the pieces are short, so I withhold my usual distaste for such stuff.

  3. Vardibidian

    Well, I agree with you about the Alien-describing-wacky-earth-people stories, and I’m glad you don’t publish them. I think Timothy has a lot in common with those stories (although Mr. Klinkenborg would be horrified to hear someone say so). I think you are right that Watership Down is fantasy, and that it is the culture/history/mythology that makes it so. Another way to look at it is that nobody really thinks (or is supposed to think) that rabbits tell each other stories about El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle. That’s not the result of research but of imagination. Considering that it’s a book about a sentient turtle, there’s remarkably little imagination in Timothy.

    I should, by the way, have said that what is really very good about the book is its portrayal of rural/village England in 1790 or so. Not the people, really, but the land and the birds. I think it’s intended to be a pastoral, rather than a fantasy. But then, talking turtle.



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