Booktext, May 07--The Time Traveler's Wife
Spotlight: The Time Traveler's Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Length: 550 pages (appx.)
Publisher: Harcourt Books
Ah, The Time Traveler's Wife. I'll give Audrey Niffenegger one thing: it really does take talent to handle an interesting idea so poorly. An amateur would have written, essentially, a bland but inoffensive book that wouldn't be remembered any longer than it took to read. But Niffenegger's stink lingers, upsettingly...it follows you around like a cloud and you'll start to worry that maybe people will think it's you.
The Time Traveler's Wife has all the right ideas in starting off. Niffenegger might have spent years assembling the situational details she intended to base her book on. Or she might have had a moment of inspiration that assembled everything right there for her, instantly. Either way, she sure had a heck of a creative idea to work with...and the fact that it turned out so atrociously is almost a feat in itself. It's like a magic trick in which someone waves their wand around and turns a mouth-watering buffet into a musty communal latrine. Yes, it's an impressive transformation but it's not one we'd ever like to see repeated.
Well, let's get to it. Let's take a few moments to discuss the book in objective terms before we...well...before we toss it into the sea and watch it drown.
This is the story of Clare Abshire and Henry DeTamble. When she is a very young girl, Clare meets Henry while he is time traveling. Henry time travels against his will. He finds himself cast forward or backward in time, but he ends up with Clare (at various ages) a disproportionate amount of times. They both construe this to be fate, or something, and fall in love, kind of, and everything that could have been interesting about the book is swept under the carpet for the sake of unconvincing romantic cat pee.
Right, that's the objectivity out of the way...
Basically this novel commits a lot of crimes against literature (and its readers). Dealing with them all would require a series of columns, and I'd have too much fun writing them to ever work on anything else again. So allow me a brief trot through the cardinal offenses instead.
#1: Not giving the reader enough credit.
Strictly speaking, this should be phrased "not giving the reader any credit," but it should be applied more generally than to Niffenegger's folly alone.
How would you like to be led around by the hand by someone who isn't really smarter than you, but sure does love to act like she is? How would you like her to show you around town, showing you things you've already seen, pointing them out to you, leaning down and saying loudly into your ear, "Look, so-and-so. That is a church. That is where some people go to pray. Praying is when someone talks to God. Can you say God? On Wednesdays they play Bingo. Do you like Bingo, so-and-so? Do you want to come back and play Bingo?"
If this sounds like a pleasurable way to spend your day, by all means, pick up a copy of The Time Traveler's Wife. If you'd rather pass on the heavy-handedness, pass on the book as well.
There are many instances of Niffenegger telling (and re-telling, and re-re-telling) the same information to her readers that they will already have figured out themselves if they are older than six and don't have paperclips lodged in their brains, but the most common (and obtrusive) example would be the section headings. Every section begins with a variation on the following:
Wednesday, July 12, 1995 (Clare is 24, Henry is 32)
Which is very annoying to say the least, because it immediately robs the book of what should be a selling-point: the disorientation of time travel. When Henry travels through time he doesn't know where he is, what year it is, or what else is happening around him. It would actually be nice to share in that, some of the time. It would be nice to figure something out with him, rather than having it told to you at the start...especially since we still have to cope with Henry figuring it out for himself. Yes, even though we already know the year and how old he is and all that other junk, we still have to follow him around as he checks newspapers and gauges clothing styles and asks people what day it is...
Niffenegger, honey, it's one or the other. Either you tell us everything and then go from there, or you tell us nothing and let us figure it out along with your characters. You do not tell us everything and then leave us to trudge through the tedium of your characters discovering what we already know and have known for pages. It is not fun, and you are not using it in any original or interesting way.
#2: Overvaluing current events.
I hate this. Most of the offenses on this list I just dislike...but overvaluing current events is something I hate. Nothing dates a work of literature more quickly than pop-culture.
Yes, yes, I know that television programs do it all the time. In fact, we can easily compile lists of programs that would be nothing without references to pop-culture. But far, far shorter is the list of enduring literature that has allowed itself to indulge quite so freely.
There's a reason certain works of literature endure longer than others, and it's the simple fact that it appeals to generation after generation after generation. A good story is a good story, and that's that. Strong characters will always be strong characters. But Violent Femmes will not always be a recognizable band. They will mean nothing in ten years. And guess what? That means the reference to Violent Femmes will mean nothing in ten years. And what about all those bands that mean even less that you spent so much time writing about? Gone.
Is it amusing to see characters debating the merits of a Bob Seger song? Sure it is. Because we know who he is. We know that song, too. Will our grandkids know that song? Will their grandkids? If not, you've just assigned yourself a shelf-life. Congratulations.
Literature is not meant to be suffused with flavor-of-the-day components. Literature has been one of mankind's most timeless art forms. Don't devote 40 pages to a concert event nobody will remember, especially if you aren't going to do anything interesting with it yourself...because those will just be 40 completely immaterial pages just a few years down the line.
The 9/11 scene, by the way, is just appalling. Henry wakes up early on 9/11 before the attack on the World Trade Center. Why? Because he wants to "enjoy life being normal for just a little longer."
Yes, because we all know how much the world changed after 9/11. The only thing that changed is that false patriotism went sky-high and the word "corrupt" earned an underscore on George W. Bush's tombstone. What's more, Henry has already traveled all through time and should know that life was no more normal on 9/10 than on 9/12. Furthermore Henry doesn't ever refer to the event again, or even react to it, in any of the novel's scenes that take place post-9/11. He already knows his life doesn't change. Why is he pretending that he's going to care?
It's a gratuitous scene inserted to pull at pre-existing emotions in her readers. Niffenegger doesn't earn it and doesn't do anything but use it to exploit heartache that she didn't artistically create. It is, genuinely, shameful, and it's something that any writer should be embarrassed of doing.
#3: Characters contradicting their own natures.
With painful regularity, you will find Niffenegger's characters being written more as components of a scene than as any flesh and blood individual who makes decisions and reacts like humans do. She forces them to fit whatever situation they are facing in a very artificial way that not only pulls you out of the book, it reduces her characters to names that you could, ostensibly, hang on any other hook in the book.
Early in the novel Henry explains that he was never interested in music. Not much later in his life and we have a huge set-piece during which he corners a "young punk" at a party and explains all the great music this kid missed...he makes him write down bands and albums to seek out...suddenly he's passionate about music. Not only that, but he seems to have a whole history with these bands that goes much deeper than, "Oh, yeah, I heard that on the radio."
What's more, we are told time and time again that Clare is an "artist." What kind of artist? Doesn't matter! She does some kind of...drawings and sculptures...well, the details are just distracting anyway so Niffenegger doesn't tell us much about it. She just tells us Clare is an artist and has always wanted her own studio and so we are supposed to believe that Clare is an artist who has always wanted her own studio. We are also supposed to disregard the fact that Clare doesn't talk or act like any other artist who ever lived, or that (aside from some token throwaway passages) she doesn't create any art at all. Clare seems too ordinary. I have never, in my life, known an artist that I can call "ordinary." If I could call them ordinary, I probably wouldn't be calling them artists.
We are also told that Henry has a complete disregard for the law and a very skewed idea of morality. This, at least, is demonstrated frequently. But why, then, when he travels back in time does he refuse to have sex with Clare until the day she turns 18?
Alright, I'm fine with accepting that he wouldn't want to have sex with a younger version of his wife. I'll accept that; I'm sure it'd be weird. But he does want to...he just waits until her birthday. Which is, come on now, an arbitrary date. It means nothing. Is she less equipped to make a sexual decision at 17 and 11 months than she is at 18? Of course not. But he waits. Because 18 is legal. It's a senseless appeal to the law-abiding blandness in America's closed-minded lower tier. It's a detail insisted upon so that some old ladies who are given the book as a gift can say, "What a sweet boy." It's didactic and it's not neccessary. Further, it's not the sign of a very brave author when she won't even take chances with fictional characters.
In reality, yes, the law is there for a very good reason. In fiction, I want a good reason for someone who disregards the law in every other instance to follow it blindly for the sake of following it in this one instance. I want to know why. I am a reader, Ms. Niffenegger, not a student. Convince me.
#4: Lust = love.
A-and following right on from "convince me," we come smack into the least convincing thing about the book: the love story.
We are reminded constantly that Henry and Clare are in love. Constantly. Every character tells us that those two are in love. Even characters that don't tell us directly tell us with their eyes or their swoons or some such nonsense. We are reminded of it so obviously because Niffenegger isn't a good enough writer to convince us otherwise.
In much the same way Clare is an artist without the reader having any reason to believe that she's an artist, Henry and Clare are in love without the reader having any reason to believe that they are in love.
And you know what? They aren't in love. Not by a long shot. They have constant sex. For Niffenegger, I guess, that's close enough.
Forgive me, but I figured there'd be more to love than that. I think most people over the age of...oh...19 will know there's more to love than that. Sex is great. Constant sex is better. But it's still a far cry from love for anyone who might happen to exist outside of the confines of The Time Traveler's Wife.
I'm a romantic at heart. Okay? It doesn't take much to convince me that two people are in love. Not much at all. I'm one of the easy ones to win over. You know that scene in The Great Muppet Caper where Kermit confronts Miss Piggy about pretending to be Lady Holliday and she argues with him and it turns into them arguing about her acting instead, and Kermit says something mean about her lack of range and Piggy gets upset, so Kermit apologizes and they say each other's names and then both the bad acting and the lying are forgiven and they go ride bicycles?
I cry at that part. Do you hear me? I. Fucking. Cry. That's how easy it is to convince me two people are in love.
On the other hand, if Kermit and Piggy spent 9/10 of the movie humping each other's brains out they'd have a long way to work convincing me it was something other than lust.
Love is, hands down, the second easiest way to trigger emotion in a reader. The first is probably suicide. Any good (or even decent) writer will avoid bringing either topic to the fore unless they can handle it, and handle it well. They're fine for the background, but if you focus in on them too strongly, and you don't know what you're doing, readers are going to see that there's nothing really there. It was a cheap appeal made by an author not talented enough to handle it any better.
That's what we have here. This is a love story about two people who aren't in love. Sounds interesting, right? Well, it'd only be interesting if the author had any idea that that's what was happening.
#5: Poor novel construction.
A vague crime, I know, which is intentional...because there's a lot I haven't been able to address above.
Niffenegger uses two narrators for this story. Two. Henry and Clare both get to tell the same story. How exciting to hear everything twice from interchangable characters who don't speak much differently from each other, or see things differently, or interpret things differently. The book would have been instantly more interesting if we had one character to follow rather than two...we'd get deeper into things...we'd become aligned with someone. What's more, Niffenegger might actually have had to write creatively in order to get around certain important scenes that a single narrator wouldn't have been present for.
Instead she takes the easy, amateur way out. Multiple narrative voices are not a good idea. It is, often, not a sign of good writing. And, yes, you can point to a dozen great authors who handled it with aplomb, but they are all the exceptions...because for every one William Faulkner there are a hundred thousand Audrey Niffeneggers.
We've also got some truly awful "foreshadowing" in this book...possibly the worst I've ever read. Very, very late in the book Henry notices a big steel cage in his library and Niffenegger "foreshadows" that, one day, his time traveling might land him inside of that cage and he'll have to explain himself to whoever finds him.
Only instead of proper foreshadowing, we have Henry look at the cage and say, essentially, "Holy smokes! I sure hope I don't accidentally get stuck naked in that thing on page 503!"
The entire novel is episodic to a fault. This is, without question, the work of someone who's spent exponentially more hours in front of the television than on a couch with a good book. One might think that the very mechanism of this novel (a man who skittles through time in a non-linear path) would naturally avoid an episodic account...but no, Niffenegger pounds it into a familiar, dead, unimpressive shape.
Every event in this book is singular. It begins, is explored, is wound down, and ends, and is never referred to again. You almost expect to see the credits roll when the "weekly installment" is over. It's terrible, terrible writing.
"In this week's The Time Traveler's Wife, Henry finds out that Clare was almost raped when she was 17."
Really? Was she? Who knows! Niffenegger gave no hints before and she'll never talk about it again, so let's just enjoy Henry traveling through time to tape the rapist to a tree, tee hee, let's all handle serious social issues the way they might be handled in a Revenge of the Nerds film; that'll be fun. And in this one they try to get married, only Henry sure picks an inconvenient time to beam out! What's gonna happen! Stay tuned, we'll be right back after the break.
I could say more...and part of me wants to...but there is seriously another part of me right now that wants to put this novel in the trash and never think about it again...and that's easily the more seductive option.
There will be no Papercuts section this month because I devoted all my time to reading The Time Traveler's Wife again (yes, this was its second chance), weighing its merits, deciding if I was too harsh on it the first time through.
If anything, I was far too easy. This is, genuinely, extremely poor writing, and I look forward to the fact that Niffenegger's next books--happens with all fad authors--will sell gradually less and less until she's never heard from again. The Time Traveler's Wife will be buried unceremonially in an unmarked grave. And that's the real happy ending to this story.