REVIEW: The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Both saga and romance,
<em>The Steady Running of the Hour</em>, Justin Go’s debut novel, is an expression of love and angst
told in many locations and points of time, spanning a century and several continents. The quest begins when Tristan Campbell, a stereotypical, dissociated college grad with a fondness for heavy books and arcane history, learns he may be the sole benefactor of a vast estate by way of a complicated eighty-year trust. Dual stories are told as the book jumps between the present and the years surrounding World War I. Given slightly less than two months, Tristan takes a free ticket to Europe to unravel the past, living out of his backpack, rationing his life savings, following hunches, clues found in letters and via dumb luck.
The past centers around Ashley Walsingham, veteran of the Great War and accomplished climber, who dies in 1924 attempting to reach the summit on Mt. Everest. He is responsible for the trust in question, leaving everything to his former lover, Imogen Soames-Anderson. Imogen, stricken, betrayed, never collects. Decades later, it is Walsingham’s solicitors, as mysterious and closed as the yesteryears Tristan seeks to reveal, who uncover information suggesting Tristan’s grandmother as their natural child, making him the rightful heir. The burden of proof is his, and it comes with the unbearable weight of secrecy.
Go’s website states that
he traveled to every location included in the novel, from the fields of the Somme to the base of Mt. Everest
, proven through photographs. Like Tristan, Go risked everything to follow a dream, the dream of being a writer. The result is a sense of place that is unique in its exactitude, Southern California detailed with the same clarity as the Eastfjords of Iceland, and everywhere in-between. His research also appears beyond commendable. History’s social fabric is a viscid presence in each explored moment of time. The fervor of the Great War is felt as intimately as its understood futility. In the present, Tristan must call his girlfriend collect from a payphone, because it is 2004 and he cannot afford a cell.
The juxtaposition of climbing — the elements of raw earth and nature that remind us we are nothing except fragile beings on an indifferent planet
— with the utterly manmade brutality of warfare is brilliant. The way war affects us as a culture, collectively and individually, is as forceful as personal emotions. Tristan’s own sense of displacement mirrors many of the contemporary issues of first world liberal arts lovers. Go himself admits that he had no idea what the ending would be when he began writing and that much is clear. Sometimes a good plot requires occasional one-dimensional characters to progress. A grieving father, an unexplained stepbrother. Emotional attachment, however, demands elements of roundness, flaws and fantasy. The main characters are alive — Ashley is easy to mark, aloof, lonely; Imogen, eccentric and rash; Tristan, aimless — all except Tristan’s eventual love interest, who is flat, a dull, undeveloped blemish in an otherwise compelling and textured tale.
The diverse, geographical texture of Go’s debut makes the meat of the book itself a consummate success
— a fortune guarded by secretive lawyers; the utter disillusionment of war, portrayed in the gray tones of trenches overwrought with endless rain, colored only by blood spilt as often from machine guns as hand-to-hand combat; an impossible love; the awesome power of unforgiving rock. Time slips seamlessly between the conjoined plots, Tristan making discoveries alongside the progression of his great-grandparents’ twisted fates. In careful, eerie prose, battles are fought, hearts are broken, and mysteries unravel. The Steady Running of the Hour explores beyond the themes of survival and emotional fulfillment, and branches into how human stubbornness can create the elusiveness of both.
by Justin Go