Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife

Some critics have bashed it, and some general readers have also bashed it because it contains "fantastic" premises, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. In fact, I've read it twice now. Is it the greatest novel ever written? Is it Moby Dick? No; but then, it's not trying to be.

Then again, I think a lot of critics of contemporary novels are full of crap, because they promote what they think the novel should be, rather than what it is. Their agendas are often highfalutin and are really veiled Critical Theories Seeking High Art, and they forget that a novel can be just a damn good entertainment, a satisfying read without needing to be anything more than that. If some Art Critic disagrees with me on this point, I invite them merely to not read the novel in question.

Niffenegger's is essentially an SF novel written from a mainstream literary viewpoint, or a mainstream novel with SF elements—and some critics just can't get over their prejudices about "genre" fiction such as mystery and SF. (Aside: no one who actually reads science fiction calls it "sci-fi;" insiders call it SF.) What those critics who dismiss "genre" fiction miss is a great deal of stellar, exciting, memorable, and brilliant writing that goes on in the literary "genres." Most mainstream fiction critics almost universally ignore genre writing.

I liked the Niffenegger novel because the characters were visceral and compelling: ordinary people trying to cope with the incredible difficulties posed by the novel's extraordinary basic premise, and discovering their strengths and their ability to love and laugh, while coping. I couldn't put it down. I also liked the premise itself, which is a unique take on time travel quite original within the history of time-travel stories in SF. The lead character has a biological mutation that periodically "resets" his biological clock and jumps him to locations and times that emotionally important in his life, not truly random jumps but rather strange attractors circling around key points in his life's story. None of his trips are voluntary; some are comical, some deadly serious. The writing is expansive enough to admit both horror and joy, and while some critics would say that the novel's tone is not consistent enough throughout, I think that that is one of the novel's virtues, as it thereby captures more of the range of human experience and emotion. The medical details are believeable enough—I say that knowing something about biology and medicine—and by the end of the novel we realize that his story is only the first among a wave of people who are becoming unstuck in time. The societal implications of a group of people who are travel unwillingly through time, without warning, are touched on in the book's epilogue, just enough to create some fascinating questions, but not enough to make the epilogue too unwieldy. Is this some next evolutionary stage the entire species will eventually have to deal with? What do the facts of being un-rooted in linear time imply about questions of epistemology and social change? I'm reminded to some extent of Alfred Bester's classic novel about what would happen to society if everyone was able to teleport, The Stars My Destination. Both novels also contain elements of mystery fiction, puzzles to be solved, some of which become survival issues for the lead characters.

I also find it intriguing that Niffenegger's female protagonist (the novel is alternately told in first person from both lead characters' viewpoints) is a paper artist, as is Niffenegger. That lends her descriptions of artworks, and museums, and galleries, and libraries, in the novel a certain versimilitude that is convincing to the mind's eye.

There are a few scenes that are padded for length, and could have been trimmed, or been stories told "offstage." But when you look at this novel through the lens of character rather than plot, you realize that it is at root a character-driven novel: the actions come out of the complexities of the lead characters' personalities, rather than being arbitrary plot twists or pre-planned structures with timed payoffs like most TV and movie scripts. Generating the patience to go with the flow, in this novel, and looking at it through the lens of character—it is in fact structured to be read as personal narratives or memoirs—provides a much more rewarding read. Leave at the door your assumptions about what a novel like this "should" be, and settle in for an interesting experience.

As for "genre" fiction writing that dares to step over the line into mainstream fiction—and vice versa—the critical rush to judgment smacks of the worst sins of social class stratifications of eras past: How dare these peons step over the lines we've drawn around them to keep them in their place?! Think about it: class structures in literature are usually about anything and everything except the quality of writing. Literary class is about what class structures are always about: social status, rather than individual merit. I thought Niffenegger's novel was at least as well written as anything on the best-seller list, and better than most. But because Niffenegger dares to break the boundaries of genre, she gets attacked. The literary class system is still in place. Niffenegger is hardly the first such case, nor is her story likely to be the last.

Let's look at literary class through the lens of a more "Literary" example: the Nobel Prize for Literature, given for both prose and poetry. I've read many of the Nobel Prize-winning fiction novels, and some are good, some are not. Looking over a list of Nobel laureates in literature, I realize I've read at least a few works by around two-thirds of the names on the list, and bits and pieces of many more, with some being among my favorite writers anyway, regardless of Nobel distinction (Beckett, Neruda, Paz, Elytis, Seferis, Camus, Lagerkvist, Gide, Kawabata, Kipling, etc.) I've probably read more of the poets than the prose writers, overall.

But the important thing one must always remember about the Nobel awards in literature is that they are given as much on political grounds as on grounds of artistic merit or pure writing quality. Some novelists who won Nobels won them completely for political reasons, and the other candidates who were "competing" nominees at that time were just as good or better writers. Octavio Paz deserved his Nobel, no question. But Toni Morrison? Joseph Brodsky? I doubt it very much. Jorge Luis Borges never won a Nobel, and if ever anyone should have won, because of their international influence on literary matters, it was Borges. Hemingway and Faulkner won Nobels, but Stein and Joyce didn't? Uh-huh. Okay. Seems a little odd. But okay.

Another list one might attempt would be those of "genre" novels published in the last decade or so, which stick out in my mind as being at least as good as any mainstream novels of the same period—or better—and which I have re-read, because I thoroughly enjoyed them. In fact, that's a fairly long list. I'll give just a few highlights:

Samuel R. Delany, Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand
Dana Stabenow, Midnight Come Again
Patricia A. McKillip, The Tower at Stony Wood
Robert B. Parker, Looking for Rachel Wallace
Robert Silverberg, Sailing to Byzantium (novellas)
Kate Wilhelm, Death Qualified: A mystery of chaos
Kate Wilhelm, A Flush of Shadows (novellas)

Several of these are as genre-bending as The Time Traveler's Wife, in that they don't stay in their genre cupboards but stretch the literary-categorical boundaries. (Wilhelm, Silverberg, and Delany in particular.) Also, I'm very fond of novella-length stories; I think that's an ideal length for much literature, enough room to tell a story completely but not so large that things seems padded. Most best-sellers are highly padded. Very few are exactly the length they should be.

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Blogger GiGi LeGault - copyright 2009 said...

Hello! I googled: "The Time Traveler's Wife literature criticism" and came upon your post (nearly two years after you'd written it). I felt compelled to write and say I agree that "a lot of critics of contemporary novels are full of crap" and should read novels without a poison pen in hand.

Personally, this is one of my favorite books, one I've read quite a few times since discovering it at a thrift shop.

To be honest, I never once thought of it as science fiction. Maybe it's naive, but I never thought in terms of genre until I began reading the criticisms. There is less of a fantastical approach to this novel than others I've read with time travel and a subtlety lacking in many romantic-themed books. It seemed to be unidentifiable to me in those terms...

Thanks for a great post!

11:08 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, thanks very much for the comments. I appreciate your take on the novel, and you're right to mention the romantic themes, as well, which are of course central to the entire story.

This novel points out how stupid the use of genre labeling can be sometimes. It's not that the novel isn't science fiction, because it is, but rather that to label it as such would guarantee that many interested readers would never encounter it.

This is not even the first example of a science fiction novel not being called as such, and therefore becoming quite the best-seller.

10:59 PM  

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