Friday, October 1, 2010

Intersections of Class, Ability, Imagination and Culture: Audrey Niffenegger's Perfect Debut

The Good: Incredible poetics, Wonderful plot, GREAT CHARACTERS, Execution of Concept, Pacing
The Bad: 2 pages (405 - 407 in the trade paperback)
The Basics: Audrey Niffenegger creates a new classic love story of a man who falls out of time repeatedly into the life of the woman he will come to love.

[Here's another retro review of a book I still love.  I opted to keep the language as the review originally stood because this is what I would say about it today.  Except I might mention the movie.  And I'd definitely nix the last line because the second novel by Niffenegger was terrible.  With a capital T: Terrible.  But The Time Traveler's Wife: Perfect!   Almost.]

Back in college, one of my jobs was working in a night cafe with a fairly easygoing drug user. He hated pop music and loathed that I kept the radio on a decent - at the time - pop-rock music station. Every now and then, he would attempt to expand my horizons by playing a new, obscure artist that was of a quality he approved of. One of those artists was The Fugees and for two months before "Killing Me Softly" started soaring up the charts, I was listening to their album. When the single peaked at the top of the charts, I turned to my coworker and friend and sardonically asked him if he now had to hate the Fugees because they were the top of popular mainstream. Instead, my friend shook his head and said, "No. Sometimes the masses get it right."

I mention this because those of us who despise such popular culture trappings like the Oprah Book Club or the Today Show Reading list might occasionally miss something of great quality in our disdain for such things. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is, as I write this, a national bestseller, a Today Show book club selection, one of People Magazine's top ten books of some year and the trade paperback includes at the end a series of witless questions for spinster book clubs to ask one another. Sigh.

It's not Niffenegger's fault; sometimes popular culture gets it right.

Henry DeTamble is a fairly ordinary guy, save that from time to time, he falls out of time and ends up in the past (or very occasionally the future) where he finds himself naked, alone and exposed to whatever he pops into. Frequently, he pops into the clearing near the mansion owned by the Abshire family and there he meets Clare, a girl who he is able to convince, fairly easily, that he is a time traveler.

Clare is easy, in some ways, to convince; Henry knows all about her, as he is married to her in the future. Henry, time traveling from different points in the future, becomes an integral part of Clare's childhood simply because he ALWAYS did. Clare is sees Henry as an angel, a mentor, a potential boyfriend and an occasional chew toy as she grows up. And when they meet for the first time in Clare's future, she discovers that Henry does not know who she is and she has the joy of reversing the relationship. And their love comes to span each of their lives in a story that is clever, convoluted and ambitious.

Let's start at the beginning. Almost two years ago, I was going through a terrible breakup and was wandering through Media Play when I saw The Time Traveler's Wife on the bookshelf and was intrigued enough by the title and cover to open it up. As I was going through a rough time, it was easy for the poetics of the first line to capture me, "CLARE: It's hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one who stays." Bang. She had me. Such simple expressions of such universal sentiments as the longing to be loved. It took me a while to get the book, but from the moment I stood in the book store and read the Prologue, I knew I was going to.

The strength of The Time Traveler's Wife is that it takes a concept that could simply be a clever idea and it executes it well without it ever feeling forced. Henry and Clare have one of the most intriguing relationships in literature and the way Henry is forced to relate with younger versions of Clare throughout his adult life is brilliant, especially as both characters experience anxieties and desires based on who they are and where they are in life.

This is definitely not a "just before bed" book, though - like all great literature. The Time Traveler's Wife demands attention because there are a good number of plot threads and characters to keep track of. Understanding what the characters are going through at various points in their lives has tremendous impact on how they treat one another at various points in time. So, for example, as Henry gets older in real time, his relationship with Clare becomes strained - and it's pretty obvious why, despite Henry keeping the truth from younger Clares - and yet he finds himself with Clare in the past having to be around her in a way that will continue to shepherd her toward their common future.

And philosophically, The Time Traveler's Wife takes a firm stance and manages to stick with it from the beginning; Henry cannot change time because everything has already happened. This is not an element of fate, but rather history. When Clare was six, a thirty-six year old Henry appeared to her in the clearing. That's how it happened, which cements certain aspects of Henry and Clare's reality; Henry will live until at least thirty-six and Clare will begin to look forward to his odd visits.

One of the things that makes The Time Traveler's Wife clever is that, despite the length, the reader is given pretty much only the essentials. There are episodes that are missing from the book, like Henry spending - what is implied as days - tutoring Clare in French and an episode where Clare hides Henry's clothes as punishment for him not putting out. They are mentioned but we do not need to see them. Similarly, Henry ends up at various times and places traveling and running for his life. We don't see random episodes, which keeps the story brilliantly focused on the relationship between Clare and Henry.

The only exception to this is the only non-typo problem with The Time Traveler's Wife. Niffenegger foolishly dates the novel by including a witless "September 11, 2001" episode. Nothing happens to Henry or Clare that day, nor anyone they know. The story has nothing to do with anything and wasting two pages with having Henry and Clare watch footage of the day along with Henry's witless statement, "I wanted to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer" (406). This dates the novel in two ways; 1. This book is not about the world, this is pretty much the only historical event mentioned and because of the insular quality of Henry and Clare's relationship, it seems a ridiculous one to cite, and 2. It has a very dated view of history; tragedies like the attacks on September 11, 2001 are often viewed more by their effects than the actual event. So, just as reading a book set in the 1940s might mention the attacks on Pearl Harbor, citing that as THE world-changing event (as opposed to the Americans entering World War II, the end of the war, the collapse of Nazi Germany, and the dropping of the bomb) would make readers question it. Fortunately, it's two pages out of 537.

Niffenegger is clever, as well, in what she withholds from Henry and Clare's relationship. The final time the two meet, the scene is truncated and leaving it open to the imagination is brilliant.

A great novel has great characters more than a clever plot ploy or technique and Niffenegger creates two wonderful characters and surrounds them with a bevy of supporting players that is diverse and intriguing. Henry DeTamble is funny, tragic, acerbic and intelligent. The novel works in large part because Henry is sympathetic as a man with a disorder that is uncontrollable and potentially deadly to him.

If Henry is the sympathetic generator of the plot, Clare is the empathetic heart of the theme and the character who most grabs our attention. Clare is sweet, intelligent, strong-willed and essentially human. She is a woman in love, from a young age until her end. And she is the core that makes all of the fantastic plausible in The Time Traveler's Wife.

I was having a discussion with someone who took the very pedestrian view that if a book (or movie) had time travel or space ships, it was science fiction. This book has been mislabeled as science fiction by some. The book is a strong, character-driven novel that uses time travel as a technique to explore love, loss and longing. It is as much science fiction as Sports Night was a sports show.

Niffenegger has a wonderful style that is eminently readable, alternating between long, flowing poetic descriptions and quick, banter-like dialogue. The book moves at a good pace without ever sacrificing the realism or the time necessary to explore the depths of the themes. It is an ambitious debut novel and I'll confess to some professional jealousy over Niffenegger's success with such an out-of-the-mainstream concept. Kudos to her!

There is more that could be said about The Time Traveler's Wife, but little that ought to. This is a truly classic piece of American literature and it ought to be read and the reader ought to enjoy the surprises, poetics and emotions of it, with little influence from reviewers, Oprah or a circle of book club buddies beforehand.

I eagerly await Niffenegger's next.

For other wonderful novels or novels with fantasy elements, please check out my reviews of:
Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth
Vineland - Thomas Pynchon
The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner - Stephanie Meyer


For other book reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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