the book of all my hours
on living forever and obscure scottish novels
In October 2017, I realized I might have unknowingly been holding the key to immortality my entire life. When I cracked open a new copy of my favorite novel, Vellum: The Book of All Hours, a relatively obscure 2006 work from a relatively obscure Scottish author named Hal Duncan, a bizarre feeling washed over me—almost like deja vu, but far more intense. It’s not that I was transported to the first time I opened it back at the beginning of high school, nor was it like catching up with an old friend. The best analogy I have for the way I felt was that re-opening Vellum was like closing down a video game: For some amount of time, I had been operating under the rules of a life that was but an artificial extension of my own, and now I was returning to the real world. Within that subset, time moved impossibly quickly; in the pages of Vellum, no time had passed at all, and I was still what I had been when I began the game. It felt, to a degree, like coming home—not to a person or place, but to myself.
I think, on some level, I’ve always wanted to be immortal. Not in the sense of eternal life—though that’s obviously a concern—but in the sense of unchangeability. Poets of the past hoped that their works would be monuments to their personalities in the future; with the advent of mass, permanent communication, we suffer not from a dearth but from an excess of monuments. There are now records forever of my dressing up as Archie Andrews for Halloween before Riverdale was popular, as well as digital copies of truly embarrassing songs I wrote one summer when I thought I was deep. I cringe at these childhood faux pas, but in those moments would have fought tooth and nail to prove the validity of my emotions. For a risky decision to be met with a parental “are you sure that’s what you want?” would merit an exhaustive and inexhaustible defense of myself. Hallmark movies, moreover, warn that regret stalks even the most successful among us: All it would take to completely destroy my life would be just one magical night with my soulmate, or a missed offer from my dream job, or what have you. The last person I’d want threatening my legitimacy would be myself. And with Vellum, I think I found my magic cure. Side effects may include total self-alienation and reading one very good book.
Vellum’s conceit is simple in the same way that religions or political ideologies are simple: one clear-cut idea troubled by a hundred nuances and complications of putting it into practice. In Vellum, the world as we know it is but a single fold in the titular Vellum, the grand fabric of space-time on which all people, places, things, and ideas are inscribed. Rather than a patchwork of planets, the Vellum is a massive quilt of stories. Travel a few folds away and you may end up in a faerieland where the residents’ idea of Adam and Eve is the Shakespearean fairy monarchs Oberon and Titania; lying between your fold and that one would be a world similar to yours save for a few key differences that may cost you your sanity. Narrative is both description and transportation—a “fold” is as much a place as it is a moment, and some characters even learn to time travel by dropping cigarettes in puddles. This dropping is not a loophole in physics or an act of magic, but rather a method of accessing every time someone has dropped a cigarette in a puddle: The cigarette briefly becomes the very concept of a cigarette dropped in a puddle and you can change the time and space surrounding it to fit your fancy. Like I said, simple.
What differentiates Vellum from a run-of-the-mill multiversal story is the way the characters grapple with the Vellum’s existence. I’ve always had trouble with, for instance, multiversal superheroes—since so many of these heroes are so personally motivated, avenging a death or righting a personal wrong, it’s unclear to me how they could stand up to an infinity of possible worlds. Batman’s parents are alive somewhere, ripe for resurrection-by-dimension-hopping, as are Superman’s, and the Flash’s…I’m detecting a theme. The answers these stories give tend not to satisfy me, since even apocalyptic threats pale in the face of such an expanse. Who cares about the fate of one Gotham when there are countless others unaffected or facing threats of their own? How can you claim to serve as a symbol when you’ve seen worlds upon worlds where your symbol doesn’t exist? Vellum answers this problem by inverting it. The characters do not trespass from their multiversal backwater into the great infinity of reality, but are rather extensions of something within that infinity that reach every fold of the Vellum. They don’t meet up with their alternate selves so much as understand exactly what and who they are, getting a glimpse of everything their presence could and will mean—a glimpse of the Vellum. In one chapter, we see a character manifest as an escaped prisoner, a deserting soldier, a blues singer running to make a deal with the Devil, and a shepherd in the distance of an ancient cave painting. This character is not merely one who always runs away, but is also the embodiment of the concept of running away, and every time he gets caught, he slips free in some other time, some other place, some other story. He is beyond humanity: In the language of Vellum, he is “unkin.”
Reading Vellum felt like my first glimpse into the Vellum, my moment of becoming unkin. For the longest time, I’d felt like I wasn’t truly a real person. I had managed to be an outcast at a middle school with a graduating class of 19 students; I had substituted my lack of real desires with plots borrowed from Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts, removed from the real world. Yet seeing the grand patchwork of stories around me made being outside of them a blessing, not a curse, because it was only from the outside that I could see their true pattern. Circumstance of any kind became my enemy, and being “in” any group meant being outside of the transcendent truth. So long as I didn’t do anything a person would do, I was immortal.
Needless to say, this has made living as a human being somewhat difficult. Choosing concentrations, classes, plans for a Friday night—each has been fraught with intense knowledge of the sheer existential dread of insignificance accompanying the slightest wrong move. I had always thought that someday down the line, I’d regret being trapped in whatever fold of the Vellum I’d sewn for myself, wishing for the days when the vast expanse of possibility stretched out before me. And yet, in a moment out of The Bell Jar, I woke up one somewhat recent morning to find out I was running out of choices not to make and wished for nothing more than to go back in time and be able to grow and change. There was comfort in thinking that, in whatever passes for a real-world Vellum, my story had already been told and would be told and re-enacted forever, but I had forgotten how it felt to actually live and break new ground.
Immortality, it turns out, has its share of unforeseen costs. With that said, I still highly recommend reading Vellum. It’s a world concept I had never seen before and have never seen since, coupled with prose so suited to a poetic worldview that any passage captivates the heart. Beware, though, of time travel—the moment to which I was sent back was the first time I closed the book and said, “I don’t know how I can ever read another one.”