Staff Chat: Thea Lim's AN OCEAN OF MINUTES

Thu: We are here to talk about Thea Lim’s new novel! Thea Lim is a fiction author who got her MFA the Creative Writing Program at UH. We’re here to talk about her debut novel, AN OCEAN OF MINUTES, which comes out today! We have an event for her on Friday the 13th of July.

Sara: Oooh, spooky!

TD: So basically, the book starts off with the main character, Polly, who is dating this guy named Frank. There is an end of the world situation, and a virus is spreading across America. The world falls into chaos, so Polly decides to sign up for a service that allows people to time travel forward through time. In return, Frank, who becomes sick with said virus, gets cured because he’s covered under her health care. In the end they make a promise to meet each other every Saturday of September. In time, hopefully the two rekindle their love and everything will be fine.

The novel is set pretty much in Houston-Galveston, so you see a lot of places that are familiar to us as Houstonians. That’s very unique and special about this book!

SB: It is! 

HOWEVER, instead of traveling forward to 1993, Polly is sent forward to 1998. Whoops. As you can imagine, chaos ensues. I’m curious to know, since we’re talking about Houston and Galveston, what part do you feel landscape played in the book?

TD: I think the most important — to me at least — was at the beginning, when they’re at IAH (the international airport). If you don’t live here or you haven’t traveled here, you wouldn’t know what it is. It sets a tone that this is a place where people are coming are going, and it lays out the story that time travel is different, but they use the metaphor of the airport and all the emotions and feelings you associate with it. Like Love, Actually

Katie: I really liked all the parts that took place IN Galveston. Polly’s working there in 1998 and everything is kind of different than she remembers when she left Frank. Buildings have fallen apart because no one has been around to really take care of them. While we’re used to looking at a big city in sci fi, this just gave off the feeling of being so close to the ocean and so separated from the city. It didn’t feel that far off from reality, but it was still dystopian!

SB: It made the setting really uncanny, because it was like Galveston-not-Galveston. 

I was thinking about it when she was talking about piers being demolished along the shore. I was thinking about Hurricane Ike, and how after Ike a lot of the piers were demolished by the waves. It was interesting to think about how many different ways the setting can change like that around us… How many ways things that are familiar to us can change. It made me feel closer to the book for that reason.

KV: I went to Galveston the summer after Ike happened. Everything was still… not really put together, homes were still a mess. Those sort of pictures unintentionally popped into my head.

TD: Like… Familiar, unfamiliar.

SB: I appreciated that. The book reached down to the Bolivar peninsula; I have friends who had a house there as well, up on stilts like the house one of the characters in the book has. It was obviously very sad to think about, because in real life a lot of folks had to leave. But a lot of folks rebuilt their businesses and were able to recoup losses. In this book, that didn’t happen as easily.  Katie, you were saying you were getting Handmaid’s Tale vibes from it?

KV: Towards the end, something happens and Polly gets dropped down a class. The book has everyone divided into a class system, and she gets dropped down. She starts having to work manually and keep her head down. She gets a group around her to support her, mostly older women. She does get out of that situation quickly enough, but it has a stipulation of a “marriage,” that isn’t really a marriage. 

SB: A different relationship model.

TD: To survive, basically!

SB: Definitely, it shows a lot about what we do to keep our heads above water. A lot of that has to do with where she is.

In this future she’s moved to, because this epidemic has had such widespread effect, about 93% of people in the southern states died. We see that the country has been split into America and the United States.

Then we see the parallel between her moving forward in time, and immigrants who move across land and borders. Like the airport, like you were saying earlier, Thu, there’s definitely a parallel between time and space as forms of movement and travel.

KV: Yes, and to get her freedom she has to work off a certain amount of time, which is very similar to being a migrant and having to work until you have a certain “status” in the country.

SB: It was pretty dark. there are all these moments where people around her are having the time they have to work off increased, and they can go into “time debt.” So there was very much the sense of an unethical class system.

TD: It’s strange how you can transform something so intangible into a value or currency, in this case time. It really measures a person’s worth, here. That’s very dark in a way. not to allude to anything else going on…

SB: …But to allude to other things going on. We’ll just say that this book is very timely. 

Like that news story recently about the French girl who was apprehended while jogging on the beach on the West Coast during her vacation. She accidentally crossed over from Canada to the US. It very much reminded me of that moment in the book where Polly’s initially trying to find Frank and they apprehend her.

KV: They beat Polly up. They don’t really wait for her to answer questions, They immediately think she’s bad, or trying to do something to get out. She doesn’t really know the rules of anything. It’s her first day, and she’s just trying to figure out why she’s ended up in the wrong time.

SB: Yeah, she ends up in the lower class accidentally because she takes the wrong bus the first day…

KV: And then she actually ends up in the lower class because she’s accused of a crime she hasn’t committed!

SB: Through the narrative once she’s in 1998, she has a series of individuals she works for (or with) that she relies on, like her initial boss in the upholstery room. Then Norberto, who is in charge of the building she lives in. What did you think of those characters?

KV: Polly wants to trust people really quickly, but wants to keep her head down at the same time. Not until she’s betrayed does she realize what she has to do to make it. She realizes, I have to put myself in a less moral position, but I need to get out of this . She learns it the hard way from some pretty deplorable men. 

We don’t see a lot of good men in this book. They might be good in the beginning, like Frank, or Norberto, who seems good AFTER he’s done something bad. You never really know what his intentions quite are. 

SB: I can’t read many of them. Norberto is really complicated.

Polly seems like a very forgiving person. Norberto — we keep alluding to something, if you read the book, you’ll find out what it is — but he does a series of things that are horrible in a variety of ways. Then he helps her out in a big way. She’s able to use that to move on with her life. but as a reader, I still found him hard to grapple with. 

With the boss in her upholstery job, he was pretty frustrating, and remarkably self-centered. I mean, he does say directly to her, I’m self-centered. But that doesn’t fix it. All these dudes, man. 

TD: It says a lot about how brave she has to be to go into a new place that she has no idea what will happen. I think it’s a part of human nature to want to find someone you can rely on, or a community. 

Going back to our migrant and immigrant theme, there are people coming to this country not knowing what will happen to them. Sometimes they have to do these things that are not necessarily in line with their normal moral code, but it shows how brave they are, how Polly as a character is… and how human she is, because she wants to be able to see the good in people. And she wants to be able to find that community. 

She’s probably a better person than a lot of people are. If she were on the other side, I know she would try to help another person in her situation.

SB: And she does try to help the other people! 

When she’s demoted to the lower class, she becomes friends with an older woman named Cookie. Cookie’s familial relationship is a real moment of hope. She puts in a request to find her son, and she’s not sure she will, but she does! It’s such a lovely moment, that really speaks to the fact that this isn’t a hopeless scenario. It’s really dark and unfair, but it’s not hopeless. Good can happen in this alternate timeline. 

What did y’all think about it being set in the 90s and not 2018?

KV: I’m wondering if Thea’s decision was because of technology. The internet wasn’t as advanced in the 90s, and if it was, I wonder how that would have played into her finding Frank sooner, or getting out of her situation sooner. It worked because i didn’t want that aspect of technology there. It was more remote. 

SB: Dial-up era.

KV: In such a destroyed environment, too.

TD: It really plays to the fiction of the storyline. 

SB: I’m reading BANTHOLOGY right now, that small anthology of stories written by authors from countries that fall under Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” In one of those, one of the characters is trying to make it to Sweden. In order to pay off someone who will help him cross the borders, he trades his smartphone in for cash and a “dumb phone’ — a Nokia or the like. It is interesting to parallel how being a refugee, or any group of people that’s not supported bureaucratically, can set you back in so many different ways. That was an interesting metaphor. 

In terms of time, I do want to make one more comment. There was a moment where I was reading it and thinking, “Oh, huh, an epidemic in the 80’s and early 90’s that wipes out a large part of the population…” 

In part because the upholstery boss is a gay man, to me, there was this really strong connection to a history of HIV and AIDS in our country. I was thinking, for a lot of people, the idea of an epidemic in that time period, one that wipes out all your loved ones and close friends, isn’t hypothetical. Like with the immigration theme and the class theme, there are all these facets that are way closer to reality than you might think at first.

TD: I love that in this book it’s not that blatant, though. You do have to think about what’s going on in this narrative. It makes for really good discussions!

I would recommend this book to lovers of EXIT WEST, by Mohsin Hamid. It’s a different culture, but i think it has a good sense of storytelling. 

KV: And it has a difficult love story, a bit like EXIT WEST. It’s a little bit STATION ELEVEN, too.

TD: It’s also a good foil to Peter Heller’s DOG STARS, because there’s so much isolation in the book, and then in this one there’s so much gong on. It’s a good contrast, but with the same sort of story, about this end of the world scenario.

KV: Yeah, it has MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE vibes too! The separation of the country of the United States alone is what gives it that kind of feeling. There is some time travel in that one as well! A different situation, but some of the themes are similar.

SB: We host Thea Lim on Friday, July 13 at 7pm. It will be a great time –– join us, and pick up a copy of AN OCEAN OF MINUTES!

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