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The Time Traveler’s Wife

_This entry is rather long I may be refining proofreading over the next several days – sgh _

The Time Traveler’s Wife is the finest modern work of literature I have read in recent memory.

First, a spoiler warning. I will discuss spoilers in the extended entry, so you can read this first part without fear of spoiling any twists and turns. In the extended entry section I will ruminate upon the plot action. If you want to stay absolutely free of any tampering, do not read furthur. PLEASE buy the book, read it, and come back :) It’s that good. In the vernacular of Jerry Seinfeld fat-free yogurt episode, it’s fuc <beep!> good! Mad thanks to James Dedman.

I started this book at about 11am while in Hawaii and I did not put it down until I was done. I stopped for lunch, a maui mist (er, two), a hop into the pool, but every minute of the day my mind was upon the action of this story. It’s haunting, captivating, and gripping.

TTW is a modern working of Classical Romanticism

I believe the key to understanding TTW is realizing it’s roots in what I call Classical Romanticism. While Romanticism as a movement is generally dated during the 18th century, its forebears run clear back to the origin of the Western canon of literature in Homer’s Odyssey. I shall first take a pedestrian definition of Romanticism, map that definition into the Hellenic Greek time period (thus explaining Classical Romanticism) and then describe the parallel between Classical Romanticism in The Odyssey and TTW.

The high-school definition of Romanticism (adulterated by my Philosophy BA) that I recall is that it is the artistic movement that, after Man defeated God in the Enlightement, realized that Man gets his ass kicked - psychologically, emotionally, literally, by the Unknown Forces that create majesty and peril (but, isn’t that the definition of God anyway?). In light of this state of Man, Romanticism celebrates his achievements in art and suffering and emotion.

{ Aside: One could argue that all literary criticism since then is merely an exposition from the foundation of “How do you interpret Romanticism?” So, TTW as a Romantic paragon shall, naturally be rooted in, “How does Steven view the Romantic project?” }

The scope of this entry is not to “characterize Romanticism in detail” - that’s the scope of work for a PhD and far beyond a simple blog entry. Nevertheless I stake three essential qualities underlying Romantic work, the Trinity of Romanticism if you will. These are the three superhuman forces we can’t avoid, that we fight tooth and nail when they enter into our plans without our being “ready” and that avoid us like moths to camphor when we seek to control then when we think we are “ready”: Time, Love, and Want.

Separation is the active side of want and will be frequently spoken of hereafter as synonymous unto want.

One of the books that most informs my views on love and romance is The Odyssey. I knew that while the action was about Odysseus - his game of “Nohbody”, his sexual enslavement to Circe, his agon and logos , the real story was his desire to return back to Ithaca and his faithful Penelope.

Ten years (Time), separated by Time and distance, Odysseyus and Penelope slowly work their way to each other. The field that separated them was “distance” (Troy, Charybdis, Circe all as landmarks upon the return). Thus the story of the Odyssey is Penelope waiting for her husband to travel the x and y of the grid lines of the sea.

Upon their reuniting we know that in a spiritual sense they have actually _ never been apart a day_. This quote tells us:

Their secret! as she heard it told, her knees / grew tremulous and weak, her heart failed her. / With eyes brimming tears she ran to him, / throwing her arms around his neck, and kissed him, (Odyssey, XXIII, 204-8, Fitzgerald trans).

This is the female’s version of the recognition, Odysseus' recognition is quoted by Niffenegger at the end of the volume:

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache / of longing mounted, and he wept at last, / his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, / longed for as the sunnwarmed earth is slonged for by a swimmer / spent in rough water where his ship went down / under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea…and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband, / her wihte arms round him pressed as though forever.

You see we know that while fortune intervened and separated the bodies of these two, their souls remained entwined across distance.

In the modern age, in the post-Einstein era we, as moderns, see time as just another ray upon a Catesian coordinate system, extending forwards and backwards. Time has become a field upon which we can pick times and arcs with (x,y) precision. Is it, as above that while fortune intervenes and separates the bodies of the two across time, do their souls remain bound together?

Niffenegger’s story says yes. Our male protagonist has a genetic condition that like epilepsy, suddenly takes control of him, and flings his body, naked, into an earlier time, in another location, generally within the timeframe of his lifetime. They first meet when he is 36 and she is 6, thus introducing this element of two souls “meant to be together” even if time and distance arent quite aligned yet. We know it’s only a matter of time (and distance!) until they do.

Early within the book we are told what that final alignment will look like, what the bliss of their Fated meeting will look like:

I turn, prepared to start explaining again, and find myself face to face with Henry. / I am speechless. … Henry is working at the Newberry Library, standing in front of me, in the present. Here and now. I am jubilant….I’m at a loss because I am in love with a man who is standing before me with no memories of me at all. Everything is in the future for him. (TTW, 4).

Could Niffenegger and Homer be literary Henry and Clares, lovers bound by a text about split lovers, separated by 3000 years?

So Niffenegger cruelly plays the part of time and distance (as she must). Our lovers are separated my the capricious hand of bitch-faced Fortune. Oddysseus and Penelope are rent apart by the forces of war and allegiance. Clare and Henry are split by time and distance the only thing that is left from our trinity is the beverage that slakes no thirst: want.

Thus this story is rightly understood as a Modern interpretation of Classical Romanticism.

TTW avoids irritations about the time-travel conceit by revelling in its mystery

Any story that involves time-travel generally rankles a rational reader. There are the inevitable plot loops, weird anomalies questions about free will and predestintation that get one into on existential fit.

Niffenegger has an ingenius solution: don’t deal with it. The characters don’t sit around like philosophy majors debating the matter. They don’t care. Henry and Clare have a phenomenological life. They care about these questions and discuss them from time to time, but they recognize that they are alive, this strangeness intervenes and that they can’t control it, and instead question how to find eudaimonia - the life worth living – or how to love each other better in spite of this intervening difficulty.

TTW explores an odd attribute of love, you do become a time traveler

When one loves someone long enough and is around them long enough somehow their life starts entwining itself into yours. Suddenly their stories become your stories. Their truama, their challenge, their victories, their flesh your flesh, their memory your memory suddenly you can in fact explore their history as if it were your own.

In this way, one can almost read the entire story of how your rememberance of your life without your lover seems incomplete and their lives seem more real because your mind had to dream it all. Your own life you can passively live while apathetically interpreting data, but theirs, due to the work, is hyperreal.

This, however, is but one study of the the nature of Love, Want, and Time that Niffenegger guides us through. I do not wish to explore them all here, I hope to merely have given you a tool and and an interpretation with which to examine this work and enjoy it more.

TTW features passionate scenes of intimacy

I’ll not dwell on this, but Niffenegger takes joy in vivid and real depictions of intimacy. Robert Solomon once lectured to my Existentialism class that sex is an activity with a million different meanings - not all of which are nice, decent, or beautiful. Niffenegger doesn’t fade to black in a series of pretty mattress-floppings; she explore manipulation, domination, release, and passion in a very adult and (generally) un-vulgar fashion.

The characters are flawed, wrong, and real

They do good things and they make bad choices - sometimes in spite of their relationship. This caused one of my biggest problems with Clare towards the end of the book (Read More if you like. I need the help understanding my anger on this one.).

Nonetheless, I like real characters and respect an author that can make you love a character despite being disappointed by them. I rather suppose that’s what it’s like to have children many times.

With this section I will close my generalized review. In conclusion, TTW combines a form of primal Romanticism which explores separation not in terms of distance in space, but distance in time. Through my “Romantic Trinity” different aspects of love and desire are explored, jubilated in, and wept over. It’s a beautiful odyssey Niffenegger takes you on.

Conclusion

I loved this book.

I can tell you that at certain points in this story I felt my stomach churn with sorrow, I felt my heart burn with desire. I jubilated with Clare upon finding Henry and listen to the ticking clock with her as I awaited his return. Right about page 520 I thought I was going to be sick: i felt my throat seize, my pulse race, and I could barely make it to the next page. It opens so many emotions and thoughts in such an intelligent way.

I hope that I’ve encouraged you to read this fine work. It is the first novel by Audrey Niffenegger and I look forward to many more great works by her.

I was so messed up by parts of the story that I had to buy a red notebook in Hawaii and write down my thoughts (I had no computer else I might have blogged it ;) ).

Be careful, there are some non-PG words and thoughts below. If you want to keep a pristine vision of yours truly (now why would you really want that?) then you may want to skip this..

Here is a transcription:

Well written sex

…Man TTTW was so hot. Lotsa hot fucking. Intelligently written, hot, spontaneously well described fucking. It wasn’t stupidly written fucking like the Marquis de Sade. More female authors should describe fucking. Historically they always overflower it and our only model for fucking is male-centric … it’s just unbalanced.

Vivid anger at Clare

Clare’s devotion was so beautiful. It highlighted the paradox of relationships - the need for space and privacy and the thrill of nakedness (like adam and eve, no clothes, but no distance emotionally).

But goddammit it she’s such a “goddess”, a paragon but she fucked Gomez! The fucking loser of the book! God I’m having such a hard time reconciling this. On the one hand she was widowed in linear time (so she’s OK! so what am i angry about!), but she’d fucked him once before, before she and henry were together and thus abetted his cheating on her roommate / friend (bad clare!)….and how could she reward his carrying a torch that long, just waiting for the chance to escape the leash of his marriage to fuck her. (that’s two bad for you Clare!).

I cannot believe I am so angry by this fictitious girl….I must be projecting from somewhere on this one. Maybe I’m kind of in love with Clare (boy this is not healthy) … maybe I identified with Henry and feel betrayed? I don’t know. I can’t sort it out. I feel betrayed by proxy.

But Henry told her to go on, he said live a full life. Don’t wait for me after I’m gone. OK. So….ok maybe 1 less bad point for Clare.

And I guess the cad-ish Gomez got his comeuppance as she uttered “Henry” in the middle of coitus. And she had done the same thing during their first interlude some 20 years prior….but still… it made the character less sympathetic. Maybe -1 bad point fol Clare…?

Is it wrong to pedestalize someone like this? Dunno. I need to find someone else who has read this so that I can get more peer socialization on the matter.