The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger, 2003

When I worked for CBS, I was compensated partly with savings bonds and partly with gifts. One of the gifts I received was a disc camera. At one point my mom found me wandering around the house snapping photos of empty rooms, and scolded me: "Stop taking pictures of nothing! That film is expensive!" So I did. I don't even remember whether I got that disc developed. Of course, now I would pay many many times the cost of that film for the chance to see what my house looked like in 1983.

And to travel back to 1983? Even if only to be a temporal tourist, to drive around looking at storefronts with logos that have since been replaced many times over? Sign me up. I often fantasize about being able to swap minds with past and future versions of myself; I've lived in many towns, been ensconced in a number of different routines, and being able to shuttle among them would add some variety as well feeding my endless appetite for nostalgia. I could pet cats who have long since vanished into the canyon, see my sister, eat at restaurants before they went downhill, gawk at haircuts that once passed as normal, try my luck with girls who, I would discover an adolescent lifetime later, had had crushes on me. (Meanwhile, my past selves could come play with Google Maps.)

I have mentioned in other articles that I have a pretty hard time staying focused on the present in any case; if I'm not using Google and Youtube to maunder through my past, I'm tossing and turning in bed for hours autistically counting down my dwindling future. So temporally displaced am I that I went ahead and read this book as part of the ifMUD Book Club even though it's been effectively defunct for ages.

The time traveler of the title is a guy named Henry who, at times of stress, physically teleports to other places and times. He can't bring anything with him, meaning that wherever and whenever he appears, he's naked; our society being one in which people freak out and go crazy at the sight of the human body, Henry's nakedness becomes a huge logistical problem that forces him to beat people up, break into houses, etc. in order to steal clothes. In fact, it's so much of a logistical problem that Niffenegger has to spend a fair amount of ink on it, despite the fact that, unlike Memoirs of an Invisible Man, this isn't really a book about the logistics of its gimmick. No, this book is soulmate porn.

Henry is married to a woman named Clare, and visits her in the past every so often from the time she is six until she catches up to their first real-time meeting when she's twenty. I suspect that one of the reasons this book has been so popular is that it addresses so many fantasies at once. Clare gets a more definitive answer to the "Whom will I marry?" question than that obtained by her MASH-playing friends. Henry not only gets an answer to the question "Where have you been all my life?" but gets to go there. If you've ever wished you could have known your lover as a kid, ever bought flowers for someone you doubt you'll meet for years, ever sat in a friend's backyard talking her ear off about whether your current partner is really The One, there's a lot of wish fulfillment here. Of course, there's also a temporal loop involved: Henry visits Clare because Clare is his wife, but Clare is his wife largely because she bonded with him during those visits. The characters talk a lot about time paradoxes and free will vs. determinism, but ultimately the book doesn't have a lot to say about them.

Instead, once you take away the time travel gimmick, this seems to be a Write What You Know book; much as Memoirs of an Invisible Man was actually a securities analyst's story about an invisible securities analyst, The Time Traveler's Wife is a book about the romance between a visual artist from South Haven, Michigan, and a librarian from Chicago... written by a visual artist and Book Arts professor who comes from South Haven, Michigan, and now lives in Chicago. She spends a lot of time name-checking '80s bands and rattling off El stops. It's hard to escape the feeling that to a great extent this book boils down to "Privileged thirtysomething Chicago bohemians, represent!" Believe me, I understand the temptation. But I have come to believe that a story should have more of a point than "looka me."

One stretch during which the book is about something is the middle section, when it takes up the issue of the Baby Crazies. Elizabeth reads a lot of Metafilter, and there have been at least a couple of occasions when a woman has written in to ask, "Am I weird for not wanting to have children ever?", only for hordes of respondents to converge on the thread to attest, "I never wanted to have children either but then I turned 28 and then suddenly the Baby Crazies hit and I wanted to get pregnant immediately and at one point was halfway to the nearest bar to pick up some dude to knock me up!" Not all the responses are exactly like this, but they're pretty similar: woman is happily childless, indeed can't stand children, then turns 28 and suddenly starts sobbing at diaper commercials, fantasizing about swiping babies out of shopping carts at supermarkets, etc.

This is all slightly incomprehensible to me. My feelings haven't changed much since 2002 when I said that I found babies kind of repulsive. I hope that my feelings will change, but right now it seems as though infancy is the stage you have to soldier through in order to wind up a few years later with your reward: adorable tykes who will opine about Jackson Pollock and speculate about what qualifies as a parrot noise and who a few years after that will make your month by asking about the inverse-square law and Iran-Contra. Thus I found it somewhat interesting that in the middle section of The Time Traveler's Wife, Clare is stuck by a case of the Baby Crazies, dreaming about babies, suffering through six miscarriages and still insisting on a seventh attempt, while Henry jumps straight to the year 2011 and meets his daughter for the first time not as a newborn but as a ten-year-old prodigy, "Athena sprung full blown." Talk about wish fulfillment!

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