Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife

I loved this book almost unreservedly — it’s easily one of the 5 or 6 best novels I’ve read so far this year. The title is very literally descriptive: it’s the chronicle of Henry and Clare’s relationship. Henry jumps around in time (involuntarily, sometimes forward, mostly backward, mostly within his own lifespan); Clare moves linearly forward in time the way most of us do.

But I have some muddled thoughts about how the book was characterized and positioned in the marketplace. (I also just started reading Interfictions 2, the second Interstitial Arts Foundation anthology, so I’m also under the influence of Henry Jenkins’ excellent introduction, which has me seeing the world through interstitial-colored glasses).

Of course, The Time Traveler’s Wife has been wildly successful, with over two and a half million copies sold to date, earning Niffenegger a reported five million dollar advance for her following novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. So my remarks should probably be taken with a lot of salt; luck and celebrity endorsements may not have hurt, but Harcourt’s choices ultimately did well by the book. If there’s any value to my nattering maybe it’s that any fan of this novel who on principle refuses to read anything labeled “science fiction” is more than theoretically capable of enjoying science fiction. But then I think of what the science fiction shelves look like these days — clogged with media tie-ins and supernatural soap operas* — and I almost wonder if the marketing category “science fiction” is now excluding good writing to the extent that good writing with speculative elements should stop labeling itself as such. (Analogously, consider the expectations of books filed in the “romance” section vs. the expectations of books filed under “fiction” that deal with people falling in and out of love).

Anyway, I think The Time Traveler’s Wife is every bit as much science fiction as it is romance. It has at least as much in common with “pure” SF like (most particularly) David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself as it does with fiction that uses unstuckness in time and/or the subjective nature of memory as metaphorical tools to examine the shape of a relationship, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or 500 Days of Summer.

Niffenegger isn’t interested in exploring the nuts & bolts of how time travel actually works (although the character Henry DeTamble certainly is), but she does seem interested in examining how a relationship between people with objectively different timelines could actually work — what the emotional landscape of such a pairing would be like, and how foreknowledge would affect the unfolding of events (Henry’s approach to house-hunting is particularly funny and clever). It’s this decidedly speculative cast that makes me assert the novel is definitively science fiction.** On the other hand, the novel’s two first-person voices have a sureness and attention to detail that makes me think that the story would work (if perhaps not quite as well) if time were untangled for the characters to produce a conventionally structured romance plot. One of the classic “is it science fiction?” tests asserts that if all speculative elements are removed from a story, it must not still make sense. By this standard The Time Traveler’s Wife is definitively not science fiction.

I also really hate the cover, which features a soft-focus very young Clare (from the knees down) waiting for a time travel visit from adult Henry, whose shoes are laid out in expectation of his arrival. (Henry travels in time but his clothes do not.) It manages to look simultaneously be a book-with-woman’s-shoes-on-the-cover (a.k.a. signify ch–kl-t), seem a bit Merchant-Ivory-ish (fine on its own terms, but misrepresenting the amount of fisticuffs and punk rock the book contains***), and bring to the fore the creepy aspects of an adult man visiting a minor with whom he’s eventually going to have lots of sex (Niffenegger mitigates the premise’s inherent creepiness very adroitly, mostly by having Clare be the sexual aggressor at the junctures where it matters, and rigorously maintaining Henry’s refusal to commit statutory rape.) I found the cover so off-putting that I would not have read it if it had not be recommended by my wonderful fiancée.****

Coincidentally, said wonderful fiancée also just wrote about The Time Traveler’s Wife. What are the odds?!

*I read a few of these, but at least I have the grace to be embarrassed by that fact.

**When I was younger and more callow, the world of literature could neatly be divided into “science fiction” and “books I didn’t want to read.” Some of the genre critics implicitly reinforced this, not least with assertions that works by mainstream writers that incorporated sf elements were “bad” when evaluated as science fiction (Vonnegut in particular took a lot of heat). These writers were generally pilloried on two counts: for rehashing concepts already thoroughly explored within the genre, and for a lack of speculative rigor and internal consistency. It took years before I understood how jealousy-fueled these arguments were, but the latter point has some validity: a writer like Vonnegut isn’t at all interested in the mechanics of interstellar travel or whether Ice-nine could actually exists; he’s interested in using these devices as metaphors for examining the behavior (and misbehavior) of 20th century societies in the real world. Niffenegger may or may not be familiar with science fiction’s best time travel books, but she unflinchingly tackles causality and predeterminism, and has several tactics for minimizing the suspension of disbelief required by the novel. It is not “bad” when evaluated as science fiction.

*** Even the choice to include Henry and Clare’s Merchant-Ivory-friendly surnames DeTamble and Abshire in the back cover copy seems slightly suspect.

**** Not that being off-putting to me hurts a book in the marketplace, as established above. I do remember at least one mid-’80s experiment in which a publisher issued a novel with one cover for the science fiction market and another for the disaster novel market, but I don’t remember the book in question at all, so I suppose that experiment did not succeed. A similar approach probably wouldn’t have benefited The Time Traveler’s Wife much — but I would have read it sooner and with less hesitancy.

needs more demons? no.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

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