The Time Traveler’s Wife – Recap

And that was May. May’s book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, is the second (but not the last) book from 2003 we’re reading this year as part of a chronological exploration of the best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade which we are reading here at Torque Control over the course of 2011.

I looked at three of the book’s major elements: its wonderful inhabitation of the landscape of the greater Chicago area; the way in which the central couple strive for as much of a “normal” life as they are able to; and the book’s uneasy, if necessary, dabbling in the degree to which free will exists.

Thank you to all who joined in reading or re-reading this book.

Discussion: Part 1 (Chicago), Part 2 (Normality), and Part 3 (The Decline of Free Will).

Some other recent reviews
Beckah Cubed
Sherry Helms at Print Asia
Ellen Stodola on The Celebrity Café
Highlight of my Day
The Pegster
In My Books
 

The Time Traveler’s Wife – The Decline of Free Will

The role of free will is a challenge which any good time travel story at least acknowledges.  In some stories, the effect of time travel leaves ripples of effect on the future, radically altering that future. In others, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, a sliver of the future or the whole of the past has already been experienced. It will happen as it was always going to have happened, but the only way to make sure it does is to fail to give major spoilers.

Really, there are two major time travelers in this book. Henry, whose chronology is scattered across the past and future, but is primarily in the progressing present; and Clare, whose chronology is sequential, and who therefore knows about aspects of Henry’s future because they already happened in her past. Each is capable of, and generally avoids, giving away what the other’s future holds. But they regularly warn each other, or themselves, anyways, as when a future Henry tells Claire, “[I]t’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996. You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”(157)

The book also notes moments, such as New Year’s Eve parties, in which they, in effect, time travel together (in that case, from one year to the next), but Henry never really focuses on them as a normal human kind of time travel because his experience of it is so radically different.

(Henry) “Such decadence. It’s only 9:15.”

(Clare) “Well, in a couple minutes, it’ll be 10:15.”

(Henry) “Oh, right, Michigan’s an hour ahead. How surreal.”(161)

Henry is only so self-aware once, when he gets a haircut: “I’ve become the me of my future”, he thinks. (253)

As a sop to inevitability, a few parts of the book are spent debating free will. They must voluntarily choose to do what they have always already done. Henry wonders if it’s more specific than that:

“I was just talking about that with a self from 1992. He said something interesting: he said that he thinks there is only free will when you are in time, in the present. He says in the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there.”

“But whenever I am, that’s my present. Shouldn’t I be able to decide—”

“No. Apparently not.”(58)

And yet, having occasionally already seen himself do things in the future, he is also bound there to do them, or have them happen to him. That apparent free will cannot contradict the end of his story.

His likely ending is a gently looming element through much of the book which means, as he knows more about the how, why, and when, it loses much of the impact it might have had in some other book. We, following Henry, had not yet experienced his death directly, but it is a resolution so dependent on the natural of his time traveling such that it could never have happened that way to anyone else. It feels quick, cruel, arbitrary, and inevitable. And arbitrary and inevitable are, as concepts, uneasy together. His letter to Clare moved me in a way his ending could not.

I admire so much about The Time Traveler’s Wife and am absolutely delighted that I finally read it, thanks to this project.  It has wit, affection, an extraordinary love story, and a meticulously-constructed intersection of two complicated, rich timelines. It used its cultural references lightly but evocatively. There are subplots whose purpose I did feel were wholly integrated (Ingrid, Alicia), and an ending too telegraphed to bring home the impact it ought to have had. The journey, not the destination, was the masterful accomplishment.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Normality

The back of my copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife tells me it’s about “Henry and Clare’s struggle to lead normal lives”. I don’t often find insight through blurbs, but the more I think about this one, the more true it is.

Normal, everyday life as a dominant theme and setting for a book is, in my experience, a very rare beast in science fiction. Disruption, change, alteration of status – that’s the plot motivator for most of the genre; indeed, that’s the basic model for what a plot is. In contrast, this is a book where disruption is the constant and the attempts at normalization is the adventure, not just in an end-goal kind of way, but in all the little interactions along the way.

Looking over my shelves, I can’t see any other book quite like it, structurally. Lifelode comes close, in the way it treasures normality (and features ghosts from other times and places), but even that builds its crises around external intrusions.

The Time Traveler’s Wife begins when Henry meets Clare. Not vice versa, for she has known him, talked to him, learned from him all her life; at least, older, time traveling instances of him. Then we see her meeting him for the first time; again, he knows exactly who she is because he is from the future when he meets her for her first time. The story is not usually so scattered: it generally follows Clare’s timeline, her encounters with Henry and her waiting for him, getting on with the tasks of life.

The fragmentation of their timelines means that each of them must keep major secrets from the other in order to allow the other as much normality as possible. Each knows elements of the other’s future that they do their best to allow the other to discover through living, not telling, when that future becomes the present. Degrees of estrangement,  both literal and metaphorical, lie at their relationship’s heart.

Time travel is a kind of genetic defect for Henry, a physical impetus in his life akin to epilepsy, and to a large extent, they can deal with it as a disability. He looks after himself, running, fast and for miles, every  day. It’s self-defense training since he never knows when he’ll suddenly end up somewhere else in place and time,  naked and in danger. (Time travel is involuntary, and he can bring nothing with him, not even a filling.) Eventually, he has regular appointments with a doctor, trying to help him regularize his timeline or at least reduce triggers. Specific stresses or flickering lights are most likely to trigger an episode. Henry mostly manages to hold down a regular job, but his co-workers know there’s something not quite usual about him, a psychosis which drives him to nakedness in the book stacks apparently.

Normality, or at least the semblance of it, is hard work.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Chicago

What is it about Chicago and oddball science fiction genetics? This month, it was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife. Last month, for me, it was Richard Powers’ Generosity.

Generosity posits a bleak Chicago, full of the deep, dreary, grey wells formed by towering buildings, autumnal greyness, dysfunctional winter. When a winter storm brings the city to a halt, the joy of experiencing its midwinter glitter is abbreviated by the drudgery of dealing with iced-up reality. Mostly, however, Generosity bears its sense of place as backdrop. The city itself is not, in effect, a character in the book. Not the way the woman with the covetable genes is.

Niffenegger, on the other hand, clearly holds deep affection for Chicago, even if it is bitterly cold in the winters of the Windy City. Winter, in her Chicago, is more lethal, in its way, but leavened by parties, meetings, adventures.  Life goes on amidst the cold outside in the dark of the year and the air-conditioning of its heat.

Clare, the titular time traveler’s wife, yearns for the big metropolis from her rural upbringing across the lake in Michigan, not so far from Kalamazoo. She moves to it for art college, for the vibrancy of its art scene,  and to find her time traveler,  Henry. Together and apart, their lives unfurl in place. Drives are measured in specific, real streets and the changing of neighborhoods. As Henry observes of it,

Chicago has so much excellent architecture that they feel obliged to tear some of it down now and then and erect terrible buildings just to help us all appreciate the good stuff. (332)

Characters spend time in some of the city’s most significant destinations: the Field Museum; the Art Institute; the Lyrica Opera House; the Newberry Library. They live in recognizable neighborhoods, go to specific restaurants; I haven’t spent all that long in Chicago, but I have eaten at one of the restaurant eaten at in the book. Most, whether or not all, the others seem to be real places too, based on this map of city places from the book.

Niffenegger’s is a vibrant portrait of a lively city, a lived-in city, which I found so successful because of the way place suffused the story. Geography, in this book, is not just background, it’s landmark, the pin-points of orientation the characters, especially, but not only, the time traveler  himself, use to understand the nature of the moments in their lives. Place, time, and people are his means of orientation, which is why a briefer summary of one of his time traveling moments might comprise “I was in the Selzer Library in the dark, in 1989.” (275)

The city develops and changes with and around its characters, beginning – literally beginning – with long-standing cultural havens, the Newberry Library and the Field Museum, and moving outward:

I think about Chicago in the next century. More people, many more. Ridiculous traffic, but fewer potholes. There will be a hideous building that looks like an exploding Coke can in Grant Park; the West Side will slowly rise out of poverty and the South Side will continue to decay. They will finally tear down Wrigley Field and build an ugly megastadium, but for now it stands blazing with light in the Northeast. (332)

I suspect that anyone who grew up around South Haven, Michigan, that town across the lake near to which Clare grew up, would recognize their town too. I’ve only spent a couple of days in Chicago, but in the pages of this book, it came alive for me again, cohesively and expansively.

What was the sense of place in The Time Traveler’s Wife like for those of you who have never been to any of these locations?

London Meeting: Sarah Pinborough interviewed by Donna Scott

May’s London meeting will feature of Sarah Pinborough (author of The Language of Dying and The Dog-Faced Gods), who will be interviewed by Donna Scott (BSFA Awards Administrator).

Date: Wednesday 25th May 2011

Venue: The Upstairs room at the Antelope Tavern. 22, Eaton Terrace, Belgravia, London, SW1W 8EZ. The nearest tube station is Sloane Square (District/Circle) A map of the location is here.

All are welcome! (No entry fee or tickets. Non-members welcome.) The Interview will commence at 7.00 pm, but the room is open from 6.00 (and fans in the downstairs bar from 5). There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

Future London Meetings

4th June 2011 – BSFA/SFF AGM: BSFA Guest TRICIA SULLIVAN, SFF Guest MIKE ASHLEY
30th June 2011 * – GILLIAN POLACK interviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
27th July 2011 SOPHIA MCDOUGALL interviewed by Roz Kaveney
24th August 2011  KIM LAKIN-SMITH interviewed by Paul Skevington

* Note that this meeting is on the fifth Thursday of the month.

Reminder: The Time Traveler’s Wife

A week from today, I will start posting discussion of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Please read along if you have time for it!

Another Short Story Club

Just a quick post from me to say that those of you who enjoyed the last couple of years of short story clubs here might enjoy a project that Karen is kicking off over at the Locus Roundtable blog: a club to read some of this year’s award-nominated stories, on the following schedule:

  • May 22: “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, Aliette de Bodard [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • May 29: “Ponies”, Kij Johnson [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 5: “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”, Eric James Stone [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 12: “The Things”, Peter Watts [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, a BSFA, and a Shirley Jackson]
  • June 19: “Plus or Minus”, James Patrick Kelly [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, and a Nebula]

So the first discussion is this Sunday. See you over there?

(Actually, while I’m here, I’ll also point out the ongoing Tiptree Award book club, which is working its way through some work from recent honor lists; they’ve discussed “Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh, “Galapagos” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Lifelode by Jo Walton, and are currently considering “Beautiful White Bodies” by Alice Sola Kim.)

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