NOTE: This post discusses, in general terms, aspects of The Man from Primrose Lane you should ideally not know before reading the novel.
A few years ago, I read Long for This World by Michael Byers. It’s about a doctor researching the fictional Hickman Syndrome, which causes cells to deteriorate, making those afflicted with the disorder age rapidly and die before they reach adulthood. During his research, the doctor discovers a remarkable boy whose cells don’t seem to deteriorate at all. This boy could be the key to curing Hickman, and potentially to stopping death itself.
Byers get to the border of some really interesting territory in the book—what if we could life forever?—but instead of exploring it, he stops. The remarkable boy dies, and life (and death) goes on as it always has.
I had selfish reasons for wanting Long for this World to go in a more fantastic direction—I’m writing a novel about a world where people don’t have to die—but I can understand why Byers cut off his plot where he did. If he had not, it would have pushed his novel onto the science fiction shelves, and since Byers teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan, he probably doesn’t want his name to end up there. (I don’t have time to go into it here, but genre writing and MFA programs usually don’t mix.)
I was reminded of Long for this World when I read The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner (I first heard of Renner in the video below, where he explains the book publishing process using Star Wars figures). Renner’s book is about a true crime author’s search for a serial killer, which is, of course, a completely different plot than Long for this World.
The similarity is that Primrose Lane also comes to a point where is could either follow a more traditional story arc or take a turn toward “the genres” (Junot Diaz’s phrase), and where Long for this World stops, Primrose Lane leaps headfirst into crazytown. I don’t mean that as a insult; I rather enjoy leaps into crazytown.
The strange thing is, though, I felt somewhat cheated when I realized where Renner’s book was going. I thought I was reading a straightforward crime procedural, and ended up getting a time-travel saga that plays like a mashup of Primer and Timecrimes, both of which you should watch if you haven't already.
I imagine this is how a lot of people would have felt if Long for this World had followed its eternal life rabbit hole all the way through to its natural conclusion.
The reason for my reaction, I think, had to do with how my expectations had been groomed through the early sections of the book. You don’t find out what’s “really going on” until halfway through the book, by which time I had already decided what sort of book I thought I was reading. (Primrose Lane isn’t being marketed as a science fiction novel, even though it really is; the jacket copy calls it “genre-twisting,” but wisely doesn’t mention which genres it twists.)
I read enough books and watch enough movies that it’s hard to surprise me, so I’m usually grateful when it happens. But when I got to the big reveal in Primrose Lane, I was somehow disappointed to discover I was reading one of “those” books.
I kept going, though, and while I ended up liking Primrose Lane, I’m a little mad at myself for not liking it more than I did, since it really is the kind of book I want to write.