Clare: Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warening. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why has he gone where I cannot follow?
Henry: I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going, and she cannot follow.
There is something perfectly simple, and - by certain measures - simply perfect, at the heart of The Time-Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This may not be immediately apparent from the premise, which runs roughly like this (slight spoilers herein, although to be honest it's nothing you won't see coming 100 pages off)... Girl meets boy (well, man; 30 years her senior, in fact). Boy disappears. Girl meets boy again, repeatedly, at random intervals. Boy is often naked in fields. Boy turns out to be an involuntary time-traveller from the future. Girl spends life dreaming of boy (time travel being, after all, really quite attractive). Girl grows up and marries boy (younger version). Boy keeps (accidentally) leaving girl and coming back. Boy eventually sees future without him in it, draws obvious conclusion. Boy decides to keep this information from girl, so as not to upset her (yeah, that'll work). Boy dies tragically and girl is left, bereft, for the next fifty-odd years of her life. Exeunt.
Perfectly simple? For the most part, yes: the prose is unremarkable but smoothly readable; the central conceit works as both neat relationship-dynamic metaphor and the ultimate in 'high concept' one-line pitches. The narrative is essentially an angsty love story, trained like a laser sight on the emotional lives of its two main characters (who share first-person narration duties), with very few divergences: they love each other, but circumstances frequently force them apart, with poignant results. Can't say simpler than that.
Simply perfect? Conceptually, there is much to enjoy. There's the sheer fun that Niffenegger has with the plot engine, for example, which occasionally lands our time-traveller, Henry, in situations like this:
I am standing across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago on a sunny June day in 1973 in the company of my nine-year-old self. He is travelling from next Wednesday; I have come from 1990. We have a long afternoon and evening to frivol as we will, and so we have come to one of the great art museums of the world for a little lesson in pickpocketing.
"Can't we just look at the art?" pleads Henry.
As an examination of a life-shaping romantic relationship, moreover, the novel provides both delightful wish-fulfilment and quiet, perceptive, telling moments. I was particularly taken with one side-effect of Henry's uncontrollable leaping in time: both he and Clare, at certain points in the story, experience a sort of double-vision of the other, a layering of past and present (and future) within a single moment. Henry repeatedly (and involuntarily) visits Clare in her youth, and when he speaks to her he can see the woman she will become - the one that he, in his own present, loves and has married - and all the intervening stages. Sometimes, the simultaneity can be very direct, and disorientating:
She is standing before me completely naked. It is a sort of miracle: all the little marks I have become fond of have vanished; her stomach is flat, no trace of the pregnancies that will bring us such grief, such happiness. This Clare is a little thinner, a lot more buoyant than the Clare I love in the present. I realise once again how much sadness has overtaken us. But today all of that is magically removed; today the possibility of joy is close to us.
Similarly, Clare has met older, future versions Henry many times before, at the age of 20, she finally encounters Henry as he is in the present - a rather feckless, (unsurprisingly) commitment-phobic 28-year-old, whose time-travelling has yet to take him to her. (Thus he has no idea who she is, yet, although that doesn't hold her back for long). Clare falls for the Henry of the present because she already loves the person he will grow into; she has known him all her life. She continues to see past- and future-Henries even after this; on one occasion, encountering his 33-year-old self from the future, she confesses to him that she prefers him a little more mature, and longs for the day when her present Henry gets there. There is a particular vivid joy to all this - and a poignancy, of course - like being able to interact with memories that one never previously possessed. The past is always very tangibly within reach, even if neither Henry nor Clare have any control over when it will manifest; renewal and rediscovery are constants for them.
Where things get more interesting (for me) is in the less-rosy picture lurking beneath. Clare and Henry, at different times of their lives, are both having a relationship with someone who knows them in the future. Someone who knows what they will do, what they will say, how they will think, how they will change: the person that they will become. When 13-year-old Clare asks Henry about fate, and God, Henry immediately recalls the range of opinions that Clare will have on the subject - from unconsidered faith to scepticism to outrage - at different stages of her life. The obvious problem of determinism thus arises:
Clare pours the rest of her coffee into the Meadow and takes a doughnut. Then she says, "You're making me into a freak."
I don't have a ready reply for this, since the idea has never occurred to me. "Uh, no I'm not."
"You are so."
"Am not." I pause. "What do you mean, I'm making you into a freak? I'm not making you into anything."
"You know, like telling me that I like coffee with cream and sugar before I hardly even taste it. I mean, how am I going to figure out if that's what I like or if I just like it because you tell me I like it?"
Niffenegger fudges this issue, I feel - the debate continues with Clare complaining that she wants to know the future, but not to be told what future-she likes; Henry replies that she still has free will, whatever he tells her. Yet the question of how she is influenced by his knowledge of her as a person is largely sidestepped; even if it is implicit elsewhere in the story, it is not directly engaged with. Henry might not be able to make Clare like her coffee in a different way, perhaps (although here I think Henry underestimates the pervasive strength of a teen crush bordering on hero worship, especially one as experientially and emotional unequal as Clare's for him - how could she not emulate him, and his image of her?), but he is surely shaping her in a multitude of intangible ways. The same happens in reverse, to a lesser extent, when Clare meets Henry in the present, before he knows her - Clare now has the advantage of a host of memories the other does not yet share, and she, too, seeks to mould Henry to the image of him that she has cherished her whole life, the older, more mature man she idolised and waited for.
The legacy of this is clear in the (more than merely impulsive) way 20-year-old Clare latches onto 28-year-old Henry, and in the whole way that she thinks about the two of them together:
"I love him. He's my life. I've been waiting for him, my whole life, and now, he's here." I don't know how to explain. "With Henry, I can see everything laid out, like a map, past and future, everything at once, like an angel [...] I can reach into him and touch time...he loves me. We're married because...we're part of each other..." I falter. "It's happened already. All at once."
There is something more than usually stifling about this; it is as if Clare has no will or volition of her own, but is content simply to surrender to her fate. Indeed, we see repeatedly how Clare has built her whole life around Henry. Virtually every passage from Clare's point-of-view deals with her interacting with Henry at some stage of her life; on the few occasions where he does not feature, she is thinking about him (longingly).
A plot device (relatively) simple and (almost) perfect, then. I may have my reservations about the dynamic between the characters, but this disquiet, at least, seems to be intentionally evoked by the author. My real caveat is that I don't think I'm the right kind of reader to fully appreciate the specific type of perfection of The Time-Traveller's Wife. I have friends who were reduced to floods of tears by the ending, but I'm afraid I just wasn't feeling the bittersweetness. The novel is undoubtedly a page-turner, despite the lack of suspense imposed by the back-and-forth structure, in which several plot developments are necessarily revealed ahead of time, and others are fluffed for no apparent reason (step up, FutureHenry talking to current Henry about the couple's efforts to have a child). The characters are often engaging (though neither quite as remarkable as they perhaps ought to be, for the eternal-love-across-time aspect), the various details of their milieux well drawn, the angst and tenderness all present and correct.
But over 500 pages of two people gazing, lovestruck, at each other - or, when apart, thinking, lovestruck, of each other - is about 200 pages too many, for my taste. I found myself longing for something to offset the relentless romance (I realise this probably makes me a cold, heartless absence of a human being; 'tis a cross I must bear, etc). There are moments of poignance, but too often the attempted tear-jerking crosses over into simple jerking-around: Clare's multiple miscarriages are a blunt weapon, in terms of plot and tone, when they should be an achingly-precise blade. My enjoyment, and emotional engagement, were slowly smothered by such revelations as the thuddingly-dull way Clare spends the rest of her life (fifty years!) after Henry's death (not that I'm suggesting for a moment that she should forget him, but has she really so little life of her own?):
Clare: [I] sit looking at the lake, wondering if he will come today. It's not much different from the many other times he was gone, and I waited, except that this time I have instructions: this time I know Henry will come, eventually. I sometimes wonder if this readiness, this expectation, prevents the miracle from happening. But I have no choice. He is coming, and I am here.
What I really wanted was a little more of this:
Henry: When I am out there, in time, I am inverted, changed into a desperate version of myself. I become a thief, a vagrant, an animal who runs and hides. I startle old women and amaze children. I am a trick, an illusion of the highest order, so incredible that I am actually true.
Time travel as a way of exploring separation and loss in relationships is all very well (and, as I have said, is very well done) - but time travel that also provided a few more episodes with a different pace and tone, woven through the central story for contrast and light relief, would have been even better.
(who has been waiting since Alexandria's inception for an excuse to use some Tool lyrics as a post title)