(HarperCollins Eos, $15.95, 368 pages, paperback, 1 March 2003; ISBN: 0380806452.)
I wanted to like Dennis Danvers's The Watch. In this novel, Danvers attacks the greed, bigotry, and short-sightedness of colonialist capitalism and does so with intelligence, compassion, and mischievous wit. Danvers's take on our self-destructive ills is so incisive and well-informed that I wanted nothing to stand in the way of his timely message. Alas, polemical novels are notoriously hard to pull off, and The Watch is a dreadful mess.
A mysterious traveller from the future reincarnates Peter Kropotkin in 1999. Kropotkin -- the Russian anarchist who lived from 1842 to 1921 and whose writings include Memoirs of a Revolutionist -- is shuttled off to Richmond, Virginia, where the reborn anarchist confronts consumer culture, remnants of the Confederacy, and a manipulative time-traveller. He befriends a time-lost African slave and a commune of vegan performance artists. And his very presence threatens to bring about revolution.
All this could have added up to a fun romp, a sharp satire peppered with hard-hitting polemics. There are many reasons why The Watch falls flat.
Much of the novel is consumed by an unconvincing love affair between Kropotkin and a Richmond social worker. Kropotkin himself is too good, too perfect, to be believable or taken seriously. In addition, all of the characters lack depth and texture, making Danvers's attempts to inject melodrama into his satire awkward. The time-travel/resurrection plot is left with so many loose ends and unanswered questions that it only ends up being an irritating distraction. And the final chapter, involving deus ex machina superheroics by a group of cats, reads like willful sabotage.
The Watch is an earnest effort sadly undermined by an overabundance of bad judgment calls.
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© Claude Lalumière 1 June 2002, 12 April 2003