Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Why The Time Traveler's Wife? Why not The Time Traveler? Or better yet, why not The Time Traveler and His Wife? After all, it's the dashing librarian and accidental time traveler Henry who is the real focus of this novel, not his perpetually abandoned wife, Clare, or at the very least they should share top billing. Is the author, Audrey Niffenegger, trying to emphasize Clare's experience as the Other in this novel, the one left behind, the one who has to deal with the constant abandonment and frustration? That perhaps would have made a more interesting novel. Such are the things that perplexed me about The Time Traveler's Wife.

My friend Rachel Bethany bought this book for me at the Strand, hoping that I would love it as much as she did; I'm sad to say that I didn't much care for it. But, in deference, let's start with what the book does well: It's amazingly well-plotted. The plot centers around Henry DeTamble, who has the unique ability to travel through time, but not the ability to control when he goes or to when. As a result, he is constantly appearing in strange places and times, stark naked. He is married--at some point--to Clare Abshire, a beautiful redhead who is--or will become--an artist. But the nature of their relationship is unusual; she meets him for the first time when she is a child and he appears in the meadow outside her family's home, thirty years old and nude. He meets her for the first time when they are the same age; she jumps for joy because she has been waiting for years to meet him in her own timeline, and yet he has no idea who she is.

There's a sort of fascinating circuity here: Clearly Henry and Clare are meant to be together, but what is the force that drives them together? He appears that first day in the meadow because has a deep connection to Clare, but without that first appearance--and those thereafter--that connection would never have been formed. It's an interesting question that Niffenegger does disappointingly little to develop.

Yet, everything has been thought ought with the utmost care and precision; the overlapping timelines must have taken an extraordinary effort to map out. Nothing seems to be out of place; the novel is refreshingly clear of the little nonsense paradoxes that seem to creep into bad science fiction. Even more impressively, Niffenegger finds a way to arrange these time traveling episodes so that they have some semblance of true chronology, and yet still manages to ratchet the tension up considerably in the novel's closing chapters.

Now for the bad: I could not have cared any less about what happened to these characters, who were absolutely obnoxious. Niffenegger tries to impose some sort of troubled past on Henry through his mother's death in a car accident and his father's ensuing alcoholism, but Henry hardly seems to have any character flaws for it. He is an accomplished fighter and thief, but develops these traits only as a necessity due to his time traveling; otherwise he's just a dashing librarian. Clare is worse, little more than a cipher, with the personality of a sock.

Niffenegger substitutes taste for character. Over the 500+ pages of the novel, we're told what kind of music the characters listen to, what kind of art they enjoy, and what kind of fucking dinner they eat. Everything is so tasteful and cultured, it's hard to shake the impression that Niffenegger is, in some sense, projecting her own awesome tastes onto her characters, begging that we be impressed. Even when Henry and Clare differ, it's obnoxious:

How can Clare listen to Cheap Trick? Why does she like the Eagles? I'll never know, because she gets all defensive when I ask her. How can it be that the woman I love doesn't want to listen to Musique du Garrot et de la Farraille?

Barf. Here's another scene where we open on Clare:

I'm sitting by myself at a tiny table in the front window of Cafe Pregolisi, a venerable little rat hole with excellent coffee. I'm supposed to be working on a paper on Alice in Wonderland for the History of the Grotesque class I'm taking this summer; instead I'm daydreaming, staring idly at the natives, who are bustling and hustling in the early evening of Halsted Street.

Double barf. Henry and Clare teach a lesson to a couple "baby punks":

Henry sits down at the kitchen table, and Bobby sits down across from him. "Okay," says Henry. "You have to go back to the sixties, right? You start with the Velvet Underground, in New York. And then, right over here in Detroit, you've got the MC5, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges. And then back in New York, there were the New York Dolls, and the Heartbreakers--"

"Tom Petty?" says Jodie. "We've heard of him."

"Um, no, this was a totally different band," says Henry. "Most of them died in the eighties."

"Plane crash?" asks Bobby.

"Heroin," Henry corrects. "Anyway, there was Television, and Richard Hell and the Voidods, and Patti Smith."

"Talking Heads," I add.

"Huh. I dunno. Would you really consider them punk?"

A plane crash? Seriously, Bobby? Here are Henry and Clare at dinner:

Kimy gets up and clears our salad plates and brings in a bowl of green beans and a steaming plate of "Roast Duck with Raspberry Pink Peppercorn Sauce." It's heavenly. I realize where Henry learned to cook. "What do you think?" Kimy demands. "It's delicious, Kimy," says Mr. DeTamble, and I echo his praise. "Maybe cut down on the sugar?" Henry asks. "Yeah, I think so, too," says Kimy. "It's really tender though," Henry says, and Kimy grins.

It goes on like this, inanely. After 500 pages, I knew what magazines Henry reads, and what concerts Clare goes to, and what they like to eat for dessert, and I knew that Clare's family lives in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Why Frank Lloyd Wright? Why not?

In her review, Amanda complained that the novel is bogged down by unnecessarily pornographic material:

They just bother me when they aren't needed for the story to move forward, when they're in there for shock value. It feels completely unrealistic, for instance, for a new mother to lay on her bed, sigh, and say, "My cunt hurts." Who really says that? No one I've ever met, at least.

Usually I'm unsympathetic to complaints that a novel is too graphic, but I think Amanda has it exactly right, or at least part of it exactly right: Somewhere in here is a 200-page novel filled out with nonsense. These scenes aren't just unnecessarily graphic, they're unnecessary. Why does Niffenegger devote ten pages to Clare and Henry discuss how much more sex they have than other couples, and how great it is? To make the rest of us feel bad? Or just to make us think, hey, these two, they're cool, I wish I could be like them. Niffenegger certainly seems to want to.

And the tragedy is that, somewhere between Richard Hell and the Roast Duck with the Pink Peppercorn Sauce, is a story with tremendous symbolic power that speaks to the nature of fate, of time, and of love. I think that maybe if Niffenegger had spent more time thinking about those things, and less about how to convince us Henry and Clare are awesome, it might have been an infinitely better book.


Amanda said...

I have to admit, this is the first negative review I've ever read about this book besides my own. I don't understand why people think this book is so great. Or why it's supposed to be such a powerful love story. It irritates me, but I went on long enough in my review, so I won't repeat it here.

I didn't mean to imply in my review that the scenes were unnecessarily graphic. I meant to imply they were unnecessary and sometimes unrealistic (such as in "my cunt hurts"). I thought a lot of what was in the book was pointless. The fact that every time Henry and Clare get together they fuck each other, in great detail, does not make me think that they're more in love than other couples. It got old, very fast. Most of the book got old, very fast.

Carlton Farmer said...

It sounds like this book would annoy the crap out of me.

Nihil Novum said...

I own this book but based on the excerpts in this review, plus the review itself coupled with Amanda's, I don't think I'm going to read it.

billy said...

i'm plan on writing a longer review later, but let me just go ahead and take exception with some of the things you didn't like. (for the record, i really liked this book.) i feel like you missed the point a little bit. henry does have a troubled past, and his mom dying and his did falling apart messed him up, and as a result he DOES have character flaws (i.e. the drinking and whoring about). the point is that his relationship with clare brought out the best in him and made him the man that visited her in the meadow when she was young. it's true that niffeneger doesn't go into why henry and clare are so bound to each other, but i don't think it takes away from the book that much and anyway, how do you explain something like that without failing miserably? and again, the reason that henry and clare talk about how much they have sex is the same reason they mention how much he runs. sure, it's a defense mechanism when he's being chased naked, but it also connects him to the present and keeps him there, just as does having sex with clare on a physical and, more importantly, an emotional level. (i agree that ten pages spent on the topic is a little tedious. the 1-2 pages that they actually spent on it in the book was just fine, though).

i also disagree with your "barf" statements. i feel like the narration in the book is more than just either clare or henry telling us what happens. it's more like a journal type style. perhaps it switches around and gets muddled a bit, and that would be a legitimate criticism, but i know that i have thought/would say something like "how can meagan not care about sports? i'll never understand. how can the woman i love bring a magazine to the dean dome?" or "man, falling down that flight of stairs hurt like a bitch. my arms hurt. my balls hurt" (or whatever, i can't think of anything analogous to giving birth and having an aching vag, but it doesn't seem preposterous or unnecessary for clare to comment on the aftermath of childbirth).

sidenote: why did bobby's plane crash guess make you furious? i don't know how the heartbreakers died, and given the vast array of musicians who died in plane crashes, that seems like at least a logical guess...

there were a few things i did find unnecessary SPOILER ALERT(like henry's binge on christmas eve, clare and gomez's sexual history, or henry's later disability), but i feel like the description of henry and kimy's dinner time conversation merely brought me into the story more. i felt like i was sitting

here's what i'll give you: from a straight up, academic, literary standpoint this book may have a lot of flaws and i willingly concede that you are much more of an expert in that arena than i. however, for me the bottom line is that i enjoyed this book immensely, i was captivated by the characters and was moved by the love story (as cheesey as that sounds).

Christopher said...

The problem, Billy, is not that these are not things that people would say or like or do (though frequently they don't sound like real people--that's just not my point). The problem is that these little kitschy references--The Talking Heads, the pink peppercorn sauce, the class in the "History of the Grotesque"--seem to have no purpose. To know that Henry loves the Voivods tells us nothing but the fact that Henry loves the Voivods; it's insubstantive and seems, whether it is intended to or not, to be written only to show us that Henry has impeccable taste. I might be able to ignore some of that stuff if it weren't so banal, but it is.

By contrast, I could write a biography of you in which I used your love of sports to say something interesting and relevant about you: your loyalty, your obsessiveness, the sense of dual regionalism (triple, if you include DC) that defines you. If I wished, I could contrast that to Meagan and say something about her, as she differs from you, and what that means for your relationship. The lion's share of what we know about Henry and Clare lacks that functionality.

Christopher said...

Also, I think you're wrong about Henry's disability; I think that's one detail that really worked in the story.

grace crawford said...

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE is a highly original work from a seriously talented author. Niffenegger weaves her timelines with ease, never confusing the reader or leaving loose ends. She more than earns her place as a writer to watch.
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