Re-reading William Sleator; or, We’re All Living in a Steel Playhouse Where Time Speeds Up

Re-reading William Sleator; or, We’re All Living in a Steel Playhouse Where Time Speeds Up


I just reread, for the first time since I was a teenager, one of my favorite young adult novels: Singularity, by William Sleator. I didn’t remember the monster plot, or the neighbor girl who befriends the twin-brother protagonists: Harry and Barry. What I vividly remembered was the brothers’ discovery of a playhouse where time speeds up, and Harry’s decision to deliberately age himself a year by staying in the playhouse overnight.

After I finished the book in bed, I had my most vivid dream in months. I was visiting the house where I spent my adolescence — a house that now, in real life, is owned and has been significantly renovated by my sister and her family.

My nieces were there in my dream, but I couldn’t remember their names and kept confusing them with my sisters. The entire street the house is on had been replaced by a long ridge of infill, with houses and churches relocated to the ridge so they towered over my family’s house. At first I accepted this as natural, and then I realized with a shock that there was supposed to be a street there. Then, I realized that I’d slept through an entire work day and missed a bunch of meetings — and I couldn’t even check my phone to see what people were trying to say to me, because it was cracked, like a clock in the book that the brothers set in the playhouse doorway until it accelerates to the breaking point. Finally, in my dream, I was overwhelmed and just burst into tears.

When I woke up, I thought about the fact that when I’d last read Singularity, I’d been on the brink of adulthood, the age when you’re eager to be just a few years older. That’s why the book’s plot rang so true. Now, I reflected, I’m just on the other side of the things. At 43, I’m the age when you’d gladly twist back the clock to be just a few years younger.

I’m not normally one to dwell on the passage of time, but this year the subject has been hard to avoid. I’ve been going through my boxes of stuff saved from childhood — documenting, disposing, displaying. Then there’s the suggestion that time is passing on a species scale, with floods and famines caused by climate change that the U.S. administration seems determined to accelerate. The Predator is a terrible movie, but it’s also the first movie I’ve seen to treat the imminent extinction of the human race (due to global warming, not Predators) as an accepted fact. It’s not even the central point of the plot, it’s just mentioned almost offhandedly as a possible factor in the motivations of extraterrestrial beings.

In Singularity, Harry has to muster the discipline required to stay in a steel shack for 12 months. He spends the year reading classics like Moby-Dick and Anna Karenina, and ultimately he vanquishes time not by science-fictional means but in a manner that Melville and Tolstoy would recognize: self-mastery. Even when you can’t control the time that’s given to you, you can control what you do with it. “Strangely enough,” thinks Harry about developing a daily routine, “it made me feel free in a way I had never experienced before.”

When Barry sees his newly mature brother, he reacts the way I reacted, in my dream, to my profoundly changed surroundings: he cries. “He had never,” reflects Harry, “exposed so much emotion to me, so much vulnerability.” Being confronted with the reality of time passing will do that to you. For his part, Harry doesn’t cry until later, when he realizes how much he means to his brother, and how wonderful it is to be living your life at the right speed.

Jay Gabler