(Sorry about this; I know it’s been a month, and this is lame, but I wanted to make sure I posted something in the month of August. I’m teaching now, so therefore not doing enough of what I should be doing, reading and writing. I’ll try to get something better up soon. For now, here’s this.)
Time and Again
by Jack Finney
I bought this because Jack Finney wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is a science fiction classic, and one of my all-time favorite short stories, Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, which is just brilliant. Also, my copy of this is from the Fantasy Masterworks series; and, last but not least, it’s about time travel. I wrote a book – two, now – about time travel. Clearly I need to read this fantasy masterpiece by an excellent author about a theme similar to mine.
Now I’ve read it; I’m not sure I really needed to read it.
The book is the story of a government project to realize time travel. The concept is deceptively simple: based on Einstein’s theories that time is similar to space in that it is a dimension of the space-time continuum, which means it has an axis, and therefore just as you could move in either direction along one axis in space (up-down, right-left, forward-back), you should be able to move in both directions in time. I don’t want to get too far into it, but the government project is, I think, quite well done: they do things the government would do, in the way that government would do them. The main character is a graphic designer and illustrator living in New York City in the 1960’s or so (The actual date of the modern era is left vague), who eventually attempts to travel back in time to 1882. The key is to find a space that can be isolated from the modern era completely: in this case (though there are several different attempts going on at once), the central element is the Dakota, a residential apartment building/hotel in New York City that has remained unchanged from the 1800’s until now. It’s a clever idea, honestly, and Finney does it really well.
There are some things about this book that are incredible. The level of detail that Finney was able to summon and wield in order to capture the time frames, both the character’s starting point and the destination, is amazing. The world he describes is lovely, but not actually idealized – one of the very best scenes is a conversation the hero has with a wagon driver in 1882 who describes what absolute hell it is to have his job in the New York winters, and it’s a brilliantly dark moment – which just made its loveliness more impressive; reading the book feels like being nostalgic for an era that I never knew, and a city I have visited but never cared too much about. As much as anything else, this book is a love letter to New York City: the comparison between the Big Apple of the past and the modern one makes both cities seem glorious, from Central Park to St. Patrick’s cathedral to Madison Square, from the Museum of Natural History to the Dakota building to the Statue of Liberty. It’s all wonderful. The descriptions are specific and detailed and interesting, and Finney made liberal use of original photographs and drawings from 1882 New York, making his main character into an artist as a means of drawing the actual historical art into the narrative. Some of the reproductions in this paperback edition were a bit sketchy or blurry, but it did certainly bring the setting to life, and I loved that.
You know what I didn’t like, though? The characters. Not a one of them. The main character, Simon Morley, struck me as an arrogant putz, and they went downhill from there. The best people are the cast of characters in the past, but several of them are, as you might expect, a little too alien for me to relate to very well; I suppose I can appreciate gathering with the other roomers in my boarding house to sing songs together in the drawing room, but I can’t help but think it strange, too.
You know what else I didn’t like? The plot. The major conflict is resolved in the first 150 pages (of 400) when – spoiler – time travel works. After that it’s Simon Morley putzing around, making bad decisions and then following them up with worse decisions; it does, I admit, make him realistic, because I think most people would do a lot of the things he did – but they were stupid things to do, so I can’t like him for it. I do like his final decision, which I will not spoil here but which did surprise me; unfortunately, it made reference to an earlier detail that I had forgotten entirely, so the poetic denouement was lost on me. Part of that is because the book took me a long time to read: a slow plot and annoying characters, combined with the start of the new school year, dragged this one out for a couple of weeks, which is a long time for me.
Don’t let me ruin this one, though. The time travel idea is interesting, if in some ways far fetched (Yes, as compared to the far more realistic means of time travel from other books – like mine, where it is, y’know, magic. Reality squared, that’s what that is), the writing and the descriptions really are remarkable, along with the photos and the historical details. It’s a good book. I just wish Finney had written a better hero.