Sunday, November 25, 2012

Travelin' Man

Some aspects of long plane rides are not fun, but I do appreciate having a huge, unbroken period of time with nothing better to do than read through a novel. Ordinarily it might have taken me weeks or longer to finish The Time Traveler's Wife, but instead, I read through almost its entire length during a San Francisco - Chicago flight. I think I still would have enjoyed it regardless, but having a shorter duration probably did help me stay on top of the pleasingly complex plot and track what what each of the characters knew and when they knew it.


The Time Traveler's Wife is based around a sci-fi conceit (time travel, natch), but it doesn't really read like a sci-fi book. It's much closer to a character study, or even a romance. Time travel isn't some amazing super power that lets people go on adventures; instead it's a frightening, uncontrollable, often painful malady that Henry, the protagonist, must endure. Time travel creates much of the tension in this book, and Henry and his eventual wife Clare work hard to limit its damage.

That said, I deeply appreciated just how thoughtfully the author approached the concept of time travel. It isn't some hand-wave-y plot device like what occasionally crops up in Star Trek or Superman. It follows very specific rules, which are explained early on and consistently adhered to throughout the book. Most theories of time travel either follow a multiverse model, where traveling through time essentially creates a new reality based on the changes you make out of time, or a universe model, where the time traveler is prevented from making changes to history. This book follows the latter model very closely, with some interesting wrinkles. The concept of time travel raises the uncomfortable problem of paradox: what happens if you travel back in time, and make some change that prevents you from being able to travel back in time from the future? In The Time Traveler's Wife (henceforth TTTW), Henry is constantly showing up in his own past, but it's fine since he's always shown up in his own past. In other words, when two versions of him meet himself, the older version will remember the meeting from the first time, and it will be new for the younger version.

In a few ways, this book kind of reminds me of the movie Primer, which remains the best time-travel movie I've ever seen. TTTW has more heart, and is more focused on relationships, but both offer very sensible thoughts about how time travel could work, and much of the pleasure of both works is figuring out a very complex puzzle that extends through time in interesting ways. Whenever you see a person, you need to figure out whether you're seeing someone who is existing in "prime" time, or if they are a traveler from another period in time. Unlike Primer, though, I think you end a first read of this book with a very clear understanding of how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

While time travel is cool concept, it's not the most important part of this book. That would definitely be the relationship between Henry and Clare. It's a love story, but thanks to the time travel aspect, it's a very unique love story. In real time, Henry is 8 years older than Clare. They eventually get married when Henry is 30 and Clare is 22. After marriage, Henry travels back in time and meets Clare on multiple occasions while she's growing up. He first meets her when she's a little girl of six; this is the first time she's met him, and he knows everything about her: her family, her studies, her toys, her house. Over the years, he helps her with her schoolwork, listens to her talk about her friends, and watches her grow up to a young woman. Eventually she moves to Chicago where she meets him... but since she's 20 and he's 28, he hasn't yet met her, so he is meeting her for the first time. Their situations are now reversed: she knows a lot about him since she grew up with him, but he doesn't know anything about her.

That sort of thing is complicated, but also quite lovely. Every piece of it makes sense even if the situation as a whole seems impossible. The book directly addresses the questions of free will, causality, and determinism that are raised by Henry's excursions. Henry seems to have a pretty solid handle on it: things happen once, and they happen a certain way. You can't change anything, since whatever happens, has already happened. The characters don't spend too much time trying to fight this; out of curiosity they attempt once or twice to do something that would change the future, but the future always ends up happening anyways.

Incidentally: the idea of an adult man meeting a young girl for whom he will eventually have a romantic relationship might sound rather skeezy, but the author (who is female) really makes it work well. Henry has matured considerably by the time he meets Clare in the past, and is always very well behaved (while being very self-aware of the oddities of the situation). The book very forthrightly describes the physical aspects of their relationship, and it's impressive that it comes away as so heartwarming. I found myself thinking of the Ben Folds song "The Luckiest," which described a somewhat similar scenario of encountering your true love out of time.

I'm now realizing that I haven't even mentioned the supporting characters, which is a shame. Henry and Clare definitely form the core of the novel: the sections alternate in viewpoint from one to the other, with each taking turns narrating the story. Not as much time is given to the rest of the cast, but they're still really well-written, variable in personality and role, drawing out interesting aspects of the two leads and pursuing their own agendas at the same time. Several are sad: Henry's father, Clare's mother, and Ingrid all live pained and somewhat self-destructive lives. (Even then, though, one of the interesting aspects of the book's construction is that you can shift in time to see periods when they were happy. The book's emotional narrative arc need not follow its emotional chronological arc.) Many others are good friends, who might know about Henry's problems, and support the couple. It's interesting to see other peoples' reactions to time travel: generally they flat-out disbelieve him, but after seeing it in action (for example, being confronted with two versions of Henry), they update their view of what is possible, and become surprisingly nonchalant about the situation.

Most of the book is very uplifting. There are moments of tragedy throughout, though, and the book grows gradually darker as you approach the end. Again, thanks to the unusual construction of the book, the author can get away with some interesting narrative choices: Henry knows in advance what will happen, and so you as the reader know what is coming, which actually raises the tension and creates a palpable sense of dread that looms over the reader. (I'm somewhat reminded of the best Kurt Vonnegut novels, where he tells you in the first page or so how the book will end, and yet the story becomes even more gripping as you approach the inevitable conclusion. But here, there is no omniscient narrator "spoiling" things for us, but an actual character inside the text yet outside of time.) I was happy with the very very ending of the book, which kept it from being as bleak as it might otherwise have been. Again, with this sort of story, you could choose to end it at any point along the timeline, and I appreciated the last act of grace.


I realized as I read this book that I really don't read many romances. Obviously I won't ever read from the genre of the romance novel, but the novels I read typically don't even have that strong of a focus on romantic relationships. The most recent example I can think of is 1Q84, but even that was... well, there was very little exploration of romance, more of a single moment of intense kindness in childhood that radiated out through all realities to bind two souls together across being and un-being. Erm. Where was I? Oh, yeah... weirdly enough, I've probably spent much more time on romances in video games (Baldur's Gate 2, Dragon Age, Mass Effect trilogy) than reading romances in books. I enjoyed this one very much. The concept of the book let the author create something that has never happened, and can never happen, and yet allows her to deeply engage with the subject in a unique yet veracious manner.

Apparently a movie was made from this book. I've been warned against it, so I doubt I'll see it. I loved the images I got from the book, and will be happy keeping them unadorned in my head into the future.

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