This reading group guide for An Ocean of Minutes includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Thea Lim. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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In 1981, a vicious strain of the flu virus has swept across America and the only treatment available costs more than many can afford. With the advent of time travel, there is the option of traveling to the future as a migrant worker, to pay for a loved one’s treatment. When Polly’s boyfriend Frank becomes sick, Polly is willing to do anything to save him, and agrees to travel to Texas in 1993 to work for his cure.
While Frank and Polly plan to meet each other, and pick up where they left off, when Polly arrives, Frank is nowhere to be found. Polly learns she has been rerouted to 1998, and finds a world drastically different from her own. With no friends or family, no money, and no citizen status, Polly is indentured by TimeRaiser, the company who recruited her, until she can pay off her debt. But Polly will do anything to find Frank and build the future they’d imagined, rather than the one she’s found.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. At the start of the novel, we join a 23-year-old Polly as she is about to make a massive sacrifice to save her boyfriend’s life. As the novel goes on, we know that Frank has a family with parents and siblings, but it is Polly who loses 12 years of her life to save him. At what stage does someone else’s life become our responsibility? To what lengths are we expected, explicitly or implicitly, to use self-sacrifice to help those we love? Is this expectation greater for men or women?
2. Frank manages to slip a photograph into Polly’s bra before she leaves, but upon finding it, Polly tears it up because she’s enraged that “Frank believed they needed props, aids, to remember each other.” Do you believe this is why Frank included the photograph? Did he already sense that they would lose each other? What other purpose can photographs serve? Why do you believe that photographs aren’t able to survive the time travel process in the novel?
3. Much of Polly’s appreciation of her time with Frank and her desperation to return to him stem from the loss of her mother. How does the death of a parent or loved one affect her perception of time and the future? Do you think she would still have volunteered to travel to the future to save Frank if her mother hadn’t died?
4. Baird’s character offers a counterpoint to Polly’s during her first few weeks in 1998, as he demonstrates what life might have been like had she not volunteered to sacrifice 12 years for Frank. Even though Polly and Frank do not end up together at the end of the novel, does Baird’s example prove that Polly still made the right decision? Was there any other decision that Polly could have made?
5. After Baird sets Polly up, Polly realizes that “she had lost the luxury of rage.” What does it mean to be able to have or express rage? Who in our society has that luxury? Are there other moments in the text when we see rage being enacted? What are the consequences?
6. TimeRaiser resembles many of the corporations in our world today. While it uses the technology of time travel to promote itself and gain power, it uses other techniques as well. What vulnerabilities of the people in the novel does TimeRaiser exploit for capital? What techniques does it use to do so? How much of this is dependent on technologies and how much is independent?
7. TimeRaiser’s mission and the structure of migrant labor in the piece mimic our present society and immigration. Despite the text taking place in an alternate future, many of the world’s prejudices and faults remain the same. What kind of things are universal throughout time? Can they ever change if human nature remains the same?
8. Once Polly is demoted to H-I status she notices more people mistake her for being Hispanic. Cookie comments that “you looked white until you went broke.” To what extent is Polly still an O-I worker, despite being given an H-I status? The text tells us that one way to acquire O-I status is to have experience in desired professions. Do you think it’s easier for some demographics than others to qualify for O-1 status?
9. When Polly asks Norberto what he’s imagining on page 211, he responds, “The same place. But a different time…I guess that makes it a different place.” To what extent is a place dependent on its time? Is it possible for a place, a person, or a relationship to remain the same after five years? Ten? Why or why not?
10. In the climactic scene between Polly and Norberto when he attacks her he claims, “I have no choice. If I do this, I’m free.” Later, Norberto feels guilty for his actions and so pays to free Polly from her commitment to TimeRaiser. What kind of action could really free Polly or Norberto from their situations? What actually defines autonomy? Is it possible for either of them to really be free? What is really constraining them?
11. While most of the novel is written in past tense, the memories of 1981 and before are written in the present tense. Why do you think the chronologically present-day events are written as having occurred in the past, while the flashbacks are portrayed as currently happening? What might it say about Frank and Polly’s relationship? About our relationships with those we love in general?
12. Polly and Frank spend a lot of their time discussing “next times”. But their trip to Washington D.C., where they acknowledge the limited time we all have, reveals their underlying understanding of how vulnerable these future imaginings are. What is so dazzling about the promise of a “next time”? Why do Polly and Frank continue to construct these futures, even after it’s clear they may not occur?
13. After finally finding her way back to Frank, Polly proclaims that, “Buffalo is gone.” Do you agree with this statement? What kind of loss is defined by lost time? When something has changed, to what extent is it “gone”? Can it ever be regained?
14. In the final pages of the novel, Polly comes to terms with the fact that what she and Frank had shared is over. This realization is tied to her realization that, “that scent, Frank’s smell, the rain and the sweetness, was gone.” When something, such as their relationship, ends, is it also gone? How does the novel’s understanding of alternative futures and timelines complicate this notion?Enhance Your Book Club
1. When Polly prepares to travel to the future, she packs light, taking only a set of baseball cards. While they might increase in monetary value, her real motivation for bringing them is because “they have the synecdochical magic of a beloved’s beloved.” Ask everyone to bring one object that they would take with them to the future. Then, try to explain the object’s “thing biography”. Where did it come from? Who did it belong to? Why is it important to you now, and why would it be even more important in the future?
2. As Polly works for her freedom in the future America, she remembers key moments in her and Frank’s relationship: their first date, the time he rescued her mother’s furniture, her first night in Worcester, their trip to Washington D.C., etc. Make a list of your top three “snapshot” memories. Who shared them with you? Where (and when) did they take place? What are the little details about these moments that you remember most? Why do you think they mean so much to you?
3. After finding her way back to Buffalo, Polly is desperate to get her hands on photographs of the Buffalo she remembers from 1981. Have everyone bring in photographs of themselves or their hometowns from at least 12 years ago and discuss what’s changed. Some things will be obvious – the clothes, the hair – but some things may be more subtle. Are the restaurants you frequented over a decade ago still there? What have they become? What does that say about how the place and people who lived there have changed on a more foundational level?A Conversation with Thea Lim This novel skillfully engages with a myriad of themes, both timely and timeless. Was there a primary question or theme that you were interested in exploring at the outset? How did that grow or change?
The idea I started from was that very human thing, where we know that everyone and everything we love will eventually either die or leave us, and yet we love anyway. So, very cheerful stuff.
But I knew too that I wanted to write a plot-driven novel. I had to find a way to animate grief – which is static and not plot-driven at all – so it was a bit of a puzzler. As a joke, I came up with the idea of time travel, because someone who is bereaved is stuck in the past. What if I actually stuck a character in the past? Very quickly, sending characters to the past created all sorts of sticky paradoxes, which didn’t help me to tell my story. So I stuck my character in the future. That’s when things came together: it turned into a time travel novel about the passage of time itself – its terrible, relentless self. That’s not to say that from there, everything was easy (it was not, it was awful) but at least I knew where I was going.If you were given Polly’s choice in the world you created, would you choose to travel 12 years into the future to save Frank?
Aha! A taste of my own medicine. This reminds me of one of the first times I described the plot of my (as-yet-unwritten) novel to a friend, and she said, oh man, why wouldn’t you just stay and die?
I’ve been lucky enough to never experience the kind of deprivation that forces someone into such a decision. That makes it very hard to imagine what I’d do. But here’s a related thought: in zombie apocalypse movies, the camera always follows the people who are fighting to survive, but the people who choose to die – maybe as a way to feel a sense of control over their own destiny and humanity? – are just as interesting. Hmm. Maybe that’s what the next novel will be about. If you were to travel 12 years through time as Polly does at the beginning of the story, what three items would you bring and why?
My passport so I can prove who I was (or am), a picture of my daughter the day she was born, maybe some Bitcoin?Despite its universal themes, An Ocean of Minutes tells the specific story of Polly’s experience, which is dependent on her identity as a white, female American who has a specialized skillset. Why did you create her as the lens through which to investigate a future America? How do you think your experience in the world you’ve created might differ from Polly’s?
Many immigrants have all sorts of privilege in their home countries – economic, educational, linguistic, ethnic – but in their new countries, they experience an erosion of status that happens both all at once and slowly, over years. Having Polly be white – or rather, white-passing, since she’s actually a mixed race Arab woman – enabled me to explore these speeds of decline. At first, Polly keeps trying to assert her privilege. She can’t keep up with the new world order. And her lack of smarts about where she fits on the ladder – how powerless and vulnerable she is – causes her to fall farther down. But once she accepts her position, she tries to keep her head down, as a way to keep herself safe. (Another story idehow keeping your head down can be an act of heroism.) Then eventually, this goes beyond acceptance, and she begins to feel great kinship with the other H-1 women, and leaving them behind is something that haunts her.
Immigration has shaped my own life possibly more than any other force, but I didn’t want to write autobiography. Writing about migrants from another time, instead of another place, was a suitable cover. But though I tried to escape memoir, it’s true that like Polly, I’m mixed race. And like many mixed race people, I’ve had the disorienting experience of discovering I’m read as one race in one place (for example, East Asian in North America) and a different race in another (for example, white in Southeast Asia.) Considering this slipperiness of identity, it’s tricky to predict how I’d experience 1998’s Galveston! I wouldn’t want to make the same mistake as her, assuming I can easily map the mores and power structures of an unknown place.While An Ocean of Minutes is a book that deals with future time travel, you chose to locate your characters in the past context of the 1980s and 1990s. What was the importance of these particular periods in time for you? What did they do that another period or a future, imagined time could not?
Nostalgia is a big theme in the story. I wondered if I could evoke nostalgia in the reader too, so they could “feel” along with Polly, Norberto, Cookie and Baird. Setting the book in the past and inflecting the story with cultural markers of our near-history, was a way to do this. An obvious observation: the invention that defines our current era is the internet. So I chose one of the last moments before the internet’s total takeover: the end of the 20th Century.
There’s another reason why I set the novel in the (alternate) past. Early drafts were set in the future, and my guinea pig readers immediately assumed I was writing that kind of dystopia that aims to offer a prediction of what’s to come.
But the working conditions the Journeymen endure are not a prediction, or something I imagined; they’re based on the way things are for migrant workers today, worldwide. By setting the novel in the past, I hoped to plant the realization that these abuses are already happening.
In truth, my book is an inverse-dystopithe real world is the dystopia, not my story. The world is already full enough of suffering, so as a writer I choose to make the plot only as harrowing as needs to be, for the story to get where it’s going. So many real-life stories are far more stomach-churning than anything that happens to my characters. If you are curious to learn more, there are many amazing organizations who advocate for these workers, who are amongst the most marginalized people in the world. To name just a few: Positive Negatives, the World Justice Project, and Justicia for Migrant Workers.While creating this world, what influenced your decisions about how the “future” America would look? Is there another version of a future America centered around different contemporary issues that interests you?
Like anyone, I have moments of wanting to control everything in my life, but the best way to ruin a story is to be controlling: trust me, I’ve tried it, many times. So as I was writing this book, I didn’t work from any particularly ideology or vision, other than that idea about love and grief. My approach was to try to follow a trail, rather than force a path. I started with grief, and then hopscotched to time travel, which got me into migrant work, which led to displacement, and of course love and what it means to love, underpinned the whole journey. The splitting of America rose organically out of the needs of the plot: there had to be a number of obstacles between Polly and Frank. But it made sense in light of American history, and now, I’m sad to say, it also echoes our actual present.
One thing I’ve been fixated on lately is how technology has vastly reconfigured our physical lives, but it isn’t clear how it has affected our emotional lives. Is the way we love different now, because of technology? Applications like Skype or WhatsApp enable us to keep in constant contact with distant loved ones. But has that truly changed anything? Many migrant workers are mothers separated from young children. Is that separation easier to bear now than it used to be, or is there something essential about that suffering that can never be eased, by anything?
In a separate and maybe opposite thought: technology makes it impossible to forget. You can’t lose touch with people anymore, because of Facebook. We get non-stop notifications from our photo apps beseeching us to “Remember This Day” with a photo collage from last Tuesday. I’m exaggerating, but I do wonder how technology mediates our relationship to the past.
So I speculate about other future Americas, where these kinds of interpersonal technologies have been around long enough to perceptibly alter our relationships.Some of the most striking passages in the novel are the present-tense memories describing Polly and Frank’s relationship. What was the appeal of writing these temporally past tense moments in the present tense, compared to the past tense narration of a more present moment?
Anyone who has lost someone can recognize that sensation where the past feels more present than the now. As Norberto says about Marta, “everything that’s happened since, I can’t believe it’s real.” Writing those moments in the present tense was a way of freckling the text with Polly’s ardent desire to make “then” her “now.”
But that way of living isn’t sustainable. You miss so much when you insist on staying in an imaginary “now.” And so when Polly finally finds a way to live within reality, when she gets a job at the library, “the more present moment” returns to present tense.TimeRaiser, unfortunately, doesn’t feel too futuristic when considering many of the corporations that dictate our world today. To what extent can we, like the characters in your novel, hope to be autonomous individuals in the face of such influence? What do you believe everyone can do to in some way remain autonomous?
Here’s one thought: for sure corporations may not control where we live, what we eat and how we access our pay, but corporate influence infiltrates our lives at every level. Learn about the process through which the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the books you read, came into your house. Don’t go along with processes that compromise your moral being.
And here’s another thought: it’s very hard to live a good life when you’re inundated by the pressures of just getting by. Maybe you are a parent with small children, maybe you are living with a chronic illness, maybe you are facing structural barriers that drain the colour right out of your dreams, maybe you are living in a city where you can hardly afford a place to live.
Just as my novel suggests that rage is a luxury, the autonomy provided by a purely moral life is perhaps also a luxury. So if you have that luxury, take advantage of it.
But if you don’t: something that is free is taking time to reflect on your “me-ness.” At one of her lowest points, Polly focuses on what makes her feel human: a cup of coffee with Norberto at the end of the day. It’s a tiny space that is wholly hers. So admire your toes in the shower. When you’re on the bus in a traffic jam, be the only one to see how branches move, nearly imperceptibly, in the wind. Rub the skin of a lemon. It’s not much, but it’s what we’ve got.Your novella, The Same Woman, deals with a woman coming to terms with her tumultuous relationship with another woman. How was the experience of writing a novel focused around a romantic relationship between and man and a woman different? Do you see anything in common between the two projects?
The two projects are opposites in a sense, because I started my novella with a very clear idea of what it should say about life, and I judged my characters: some of them were doing life the right way, and some of them were doing life the wrong way, and I used them as cautionary examples for the reader. I don’t write that way anymore. It’s a bad idea to start writing knowing exactly what you want to say, and to hew to that, no matter what. We don’t wake up in the morning knowing exactly what the day will bring, so any story that is conceived in such a single-minded way will fail to capture how it feels to be alive.
I used to think that the role of the writer was to make the world better. But I no longer believe that art is the best place for arguments about what constitutes better or worse. While such certainty has its place in nonfiction, in fiction it saps the life out of things. Now I think the role of the writer is to show us as truthfully and completely what a particular way of living is like, and then leave it up to the reader to decide what’s right or wrong.
When I realized my responsibility was different than what I thought it was, my writing got a lot better.In the novel, Polly returns to Buffalo only to find that the Buffalo she knew was gone. Has there been an important place in your life that you feel has disappeared over time? What do you remember most about this place and what has changed?
That section of the novel is perhaps the most autobiographical (dang, you got me). It’s inspired by my return visits to Singapore, where I grew up. Every time I go back to Singapore, it’s a small trauma. Once, after I’d been gone three or four years, I exited the subway to the street, and I had to turn around and check and re-check that I had gotten off at the right stop. The neighbourhood had been scrubbed so totally that I didn’t know where I was. What is most disorienting for me there is that the shape of the streets has actually changed. It’s technically the same space but a different place, and I can’t even find the contours of the space.As a teacher and an editor, you’re familiar with looking critically at other writers’ work as well as developing your own. What piece of advice do you think is most useful but under-utilized by young, aspiring writers?
As a young writer, a piece of advice that changed everything for me – once I could finally hear it – was the notion that you can trust your writing, and trust your reader. I spent so much time appending explanations to descriptions, characters, events, and dialogue in my stories, to ensure that nothing was misinterpreted. I missed that the point of storytelling is, how folks interpret something is out of the writer’s control: that’s where the magic is. There are days where it’s still a struggle to relinquish control, to just let the things speak for themselves, to open up that space for the reader to come in. I guess that fear of being misunderstood is my migrant heritage!This novel is particularly astonishing for its seamless intermixing of multiple genres. Is there a kind of genre that you haven’t engaged with much before that you would be interested in writing? Any other hybrid genres that you think produce opportunities for you?
Detective novels! I really want to write mystery. Poirot is my guy. And I think I should try to write something funny. I figure I owe everyone, after this one.