There’s more to dreaming than meets the eye. Scientists still aren’t exactly sure what it does, why it happens, or why we need it, but they’ve uncovered some peculiar aspects of dreaming along the way. Some people are capable of having lucid dreams, in which are conscious of their dreaming and can manipulate what they perceive in the dream. Skeptics of alien abductions point to waking dreams—a specific type of dream experienced by only a fraction of the population—to explain their shared “abduction” memories. No other common experience comes close to unsettling the foundations upon which we place our faith in reality, and from Descartes to The Matrix we’ve always had suspicions about just what happens when we dream. The Houses of Time, while not treading any wildly new territory, more than adequately explores the metaphysical possibilities of the alternate realities present in our dreams and in so doing develops its own ideas of what makes us what we are. As a piece of fiction, a flesh-and-blood story, it mostly disappoints.
David Grant, the novel’s protagonist, is a well-off middle-aged lawyer who has the emotional maturity of a college student. He also experiences lucid dreams, and his lessons from Dr. Thotmoses’s Trans-Humanist Institute have granted him the full potential to explore these landscapes, which he predictably uses to imagine life with the perfect woman. When he meets Kat, an exact look-alike of his dream girl who turns out to be the perfect girlfriend, he starts to lose his grip on reality. After a somewhat lengthy exposition, the novel spends about 150 pages describing Grant’s spiral as he awakens inside dreams, holds contradictory memories, and becomes unable to parse the real from the imagined.
The last third of the novel reveals the source of Grant’s confusion: that he has been traveling through slightly differentiated parallel universes—all equally real—during his dreams. Thotmoses’s real motives are unveiled as far more sinister and bizarre than his new-age rhetoric suggests, and Grant is forced to decide how much he believes Thotmoses’s claims about the universe and how far he can be trusted. As he explores these parallel realities and wrestles with his conflicted feelings, Grant also begins to ponder the fundamentals of human identity and our perceptions of reality. Just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on Nasir’s surreal metaphysics, wait for the delightfully ambiguous ending which perfectly underscores the immutable problem of how little about our world—or ourselves—we can ever know for sure.
Anyone who has spent time thinking about the propositions popularized by The Matrix will not find any of these issues all that new, but Nasir puts enough spin on them to make them his own. When Grant asks Kat why she doesn’t just travel to an alternate universe where all her problems are solved, she responds, “Sure. I could go house to house, to wherever good things happen, regardless of whether they have any consistency, until my continuity index goes down to zero and my life has no story, and I go insane. Just go wherever it feels good. Break down all meaning, all causation, all goals.” Grant’s journey forces him—and us along the way, once we’ve caught on—to decide how these fairly abstract issues become immediately important to him.
As a 40-year-old skirtchaser, Grant has fallen into something of a limbo fantasy dream, and establishing ties to reality eventually becomes a mission to form real bonds between himself and those around him. Confronted with the possibility of indefinite happiness through endless alternate possibilities, Grant chooses the one available option to give his privileged life a sense of purpose, even if it means a form of self-destruction. Nasir’s greatest success in The Houses of Time—though not completely successful—is to personalize these abstract metaphysical questions and make them relevant. Though not the best of novels, it’s plenty more than a mere thought experiment (more can be said for too much science fiction).
Yet Nasir seems to have deemed his philosophical and literary goals mutually exclusive, making for dry reading. Grant’s 150-page breakdown feels viscerally true-to-life, but Nasir’s failure to generate any emotional ties between the reader and the protagonist make the reading mostly tedious. Grant’s not a very likeable guy, so even when his life falls apart it’s hard to care. Likewise, any character-building moments or more “literary narrative” come off as stereotypical or merely trying too hard. In both cases, it’s hard to reconcile this unintelligent language with the agile speculation of other parts of the novel. Here’s about all you’ll find in terms of literary flair, at least until the very end: “Afterward he lay next to her, happy the way a man can only be when he has laid claim to the woman of his dreams by making love to her.” Oh dear.
The final nail in Nasir’s storytelling coffin is his awkward pacing. The first two thirds of the novel are painfully sluggish. The reader learns little here and is forced to suffer through uninspiring prose. Nasir does a great job of conveying Grant’s confusion about reality directly by making the reader just as uncertain, but without something to reward this plodding, it soon becomes frustrating. The last third races through the bulk of the plot elements, which seems like an especially large mistake given how outlandish Nasir’s plot becomes. There is a distinct sense of disappointment that after 200 pages of plodding, the answers to our plot-based questions are just beyond the bounds of believability. This last part of the novel—by far the best-written section—would have been far better served by a tighter story arc as opposed to an extended exposition that winds up taking the first two-thirds of text just to establish the basic story ground rules.
It is possible to enjoy this story by considering the cast as mostly human philosophic characters rather than flesh-and-blood people—though the clunky pacing makes even this difficult. While their emotional problems hold little interest to the reader (only aided by Nasir’s sleepy tone that generally fails to excite even at most moments of tension), their intellectual conflicts remain understandable, if not relatable. For enthusiasts of both alternate reality theories and stories about the struggle to discern what’s real, The Houses of Time certainly has something to offer. It’s a shame there is no good novel to back that up.