At the start of my first ballet class after a three-year hiatus, I attempted a grand plié and felt the muscle fibers in my thighs misfire and quake as my brain sent the then-unfamiliar signal to my body to give in to gravity, but not at the standard pace gravity had negotiated.
In a ballet class, the instructors sometimes offer esoteric corrections:
“Grow taller as you lower yourself down.”
“Push down as you lift up.”
Like the War Against the Machines that spans the Terminator franchise, the War on Cars that urbanists are supposedly waging is unavoidable, and essentially unresolvable. Battles are won and lost, the hardware changes, but drivers and their pedestrianist foes are fated to forever be at each other’s throats, vying for control of the city streets. Perhaps because it’s a conflict that, like so many others, has become bitterly politicized, it’s hard not to despair of the final outcome.
I recently spent time in Venice, Italy, which was like entering some alternative timeline where this war never happened. Venice’s Centro Storico is Europe’s largest car-free space, a medieval city that somehow managed to make it into the 21st century nearly untouched by internal combustion. And, lemme tell you, it’s weird.
When I wanted to know how to see clearly and speak honestly, Diana Athill was there to show me. When I wanted to see the fireworks produced when cynicism and idealism collide, in strolled Martin Amis, cigarette dangling from lip. When I needed courage, Andrew Solomon pulled me to my feet. When I wanted to exult in the beauty of nature and solitude, Sara Maitland stood beside me. When I could do nothing but laugh at the absurdity of the whole damn shooting match, Jonathan Coe and David Nobbs did not forsake me. And when I grieved, C.S. Lewis reached out across the decades and said, Here, take my hand. You are not alone.
But maybe it’s just a case of whistling past the graveyard. Time is among the slipperiest concepts in physics. It is a dimension (number four) but not one you can visualize. It speeds up and slows down — subjectively, but also by the clock, if you go fast enough. Its exact nature has baffled philosophers for ages: “What, then, is time?” Augustine complained. “If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” Physicists call it t, for use in their equations (where, unlike its behavior in the real world, it is reversible), and seem unworried by its insubstantiality.
In Now: The Physics of Time, Berkeley physics professor Richard A. Muller sets out to trap this enormous will-o’-the-wisp. An experimentalist rather than a theoretician, he has seen things in the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory that would curl your hair. He is not free to live in his mind as the theoreticians are; he has actually manipulated time by, for instance, accelerating pions to just below the speed of light.
But mostly, Ms. Cusk’s novel bears down on topics like power and powerlessness, freedom and fate, love and its opposite. The most important thing we have in this world, “Transit” suggests, is other people, and it’s very hard to find the good ones: “They were like expensive paintings hung in the safety of the museum. You could look as hard as you liked, but you weren’t going to find one just lying in the street.”
Say what you will about the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder; the hamburger patty is made of nothing but USDA-inspected beef. The McNugget, by contrast, is an amalgamation of over 20 discrete ingredients — rib meat, breast meat, botanicals, chicken skin, sodium phosphates, autolyzed yeast extract, sodium acid pyrophosphate, safflower oil, dextrose, and other oddities — that are mixed, cut, molded, and fried in vegetable oil laced with the ominous-sounding (but innocuous) anti-foaming agent known as dimethylpolysiloxane.
And yet, the McNugget is the more delicious creation. Biting into a Quarter Pounder mimics the sensation of chomping down on an oil-soaked sponge. But dipping the engineered and salted protein disc that is the McNugget into a peel-away plastic-container filled with pure honey (and nothing else) is nearly a peerless fast-food experience. Until you try a better version at Wendy’s.