Author: Michael Landweber
Still Life in Thursday 1:17 p.m.
“Begin the Begin” by R.E.M. is the last song teenager Duck listens to before time stops around him in the middle of an intersection in Washington, D.C. It’s one day before his eighteenth birthday, but it appears that the universe wants to keep him underage—and a virgin—forever. Michael Landweber’s Thursday 1:17 p.m. is written as Duck’s guidebook to other unfortunate souls who suddenly find themselves trapped in a frozen world, a guide in which Duck gives practical advice in chapters like “Discussion: Your Digestive Tract and You.” Although confused, Duck initially delights in the freedom of indulging in last-man-on-earth activities, from eating off the plates of high-end restaurant-goers to riding frozen animals at the D.C. zoo. Duck begins to seek answers, however, and in the process we learn about his cancer-stricken mother, his mentally ill father, and the quirky friends he’s grown apart from after high school. Landweber keeps the momentum going in the novel by allowing Duck to answer smaller problems about the still life around him as the question of how to set the world spinning again looms large. Thursday 1:17 p.m. is able to balance the lightheartedness of Duck indulging in the freedom of a frozen world with the dark, philosophical questions that perhaps led him there in the first place.
At times the humor in Thursday 1:17 p.m. leaps off the page. Landweber’s comic sensibilities come through most clearly when he’s writing Duck’s instructions for surviving in a world stopped in time. Early on, for example, he explains that water in such a world is frozen in place: “This realization will lead to panic, which will make your throat go dry, which will make you considerably thirstier.” Duck reminds the reader that “you are going to do some things that are ridiculously off base” regarding the water situation—perhaps carrying a bucket around before realizing that bottled water exists. His practicality is infused with humor, saying not to worry about such mistakes: “in your frozen world, there is no one else to see you being stupid, so you should be able to not care. Unless you have serious self-esteem issues, in which case living in the frozen world is going to be really hard for you. Good luck.” Landweber’s characterization of Duck is spot-on—a wry, even smart-ass teenager trying to cope with his frozen world.
The images in Thursday 1:17 p.m. stand out as strongly as the humor. Landweber is able to paint a picture of D.C. as essentially a dollhouse that Duck navigates. For example, when Duck is traveling (on his bike, since motors don’t work), he eventually passes through a stalled rainstorm. The imagery is striking: “I got off my bike, running in circles around it. Poking my hands, my arms, my legs, my head into the water, making the rain fall. I was a child and the world was my Etch A Sketch. I erased the rain with a shake of my hand. I wrote my name in the sky. I drew pictures.” The world he’s stuck in might be frozen, but the prose makes it bounce with life. Reading the novel is a sensory experience. For example, at a certain point, Duck rips up an assortment of magazines and newspapers: “I looked down at my feet. The scraps of paper tickled my toes like freshly mown grass. Some had fallen face up, readable; some face down, inscrutable. And from the jumble, words popped out at me, phrases.” Duck moves through what could be a dead world, but Landweber brings it to life with creativity and light.
The humor and imagery in Thursday 1:17 p.m. are delicately balanced with the lonely reality of Duck’s situation. His quest to discover how to get the world spinning again coalesces with his darker thoughts and realizations about himself. He has a philosophical brain, honed by his intellectual parents, that attempts to ponder his situation without falling deep into a nihilistic rabbit hole. In one of his more contemplative moments, Duck takes a break from giving advice and says: “It might be better to be alone than to figure out how to live alone.” Instead of sounding out of character, or perhaps too old for his given age, such thoughts are believable as we learn more about his troubled family life. One flashback in particular sticks out as a character-defining moment—that of Duck caring for his dying mother. It’s the first instance in which he must help get her to the toilet, but she’s too weak to help. He speaks of the difficulty, both physical and emotional, and then the seconds that followed: “We were still. Each in our own way considering that this moment would now bound our relationship, that this moment would redefine far too much of our past, driving out an unacceptable number of fading memories. It was not fair, and we both knew it. There was nothing to be done except move forward.” It makes complete sense in a novel where questions abound that Duck would be able to philosophically engage with his situation because of the death and illness he’s already faced, despite being only seventeen years old.
Landweber is able to combine joy and darkness, lightheartedness and heartbreak in the slim novel Thursday 1:17 p.m. This balance is a delicate one, and readers can see how even Duck himself attempts to walk such a line in his lonely trek through a frozen D.C. and beyond. With the wry humor of a teenager, the vivid, sensory scenes, and a complex emotional range, Landweber’s novel provides both humor and food for thought. What would you do if the world around you stopped? Would you stop with it? Or would you push forward on your bike and draw pictures in the rain?
Reviewed by Melanie J. Cordova for The Quarterly.
Melanie J. Cordova is the Editor of The Quarterly. She has stories out or forthcoming with The East Bay Review, The Columbia College Literary Review, Ghost Town, and various others. You can follow her on Twitter @mjcwrites.