Rags of Time: Studies in Fictional Travels in Time

Robert McKean’s latest novel, Mending What Is Broken, was recently released and available to purchase through Amazon.

Time (Saturn) and Historia, Paolo Veronese

               Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
               Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
               Late school boys and sour prentices,
         Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
—John Donne, “The Sun Rising”

The cat is restless. The rooms are chilly. A gray light falls across the sofa where it lies. The outdoors summons, but the windows are curtained in frost and the animal does not trust the cold. Stretching, fore claws curled in the sofa’s upholstery, he goes in reluctant search of he who feeds him and transports him in a comfortable overnight bag on his excursions. Pete, the cat, leads Dan Davis to the door: winter indeed. Pete twitches a paw, sniffs disapprovingly, withdraws. Perhaps there’s another door? Alas, at the second door it is austere, bitter winter here, too. Is there another door? Where, Pete laments, as they travel to every one of the eleven doors in the Connecticut farmhouse, is the door that opens to summer?

Robert A. Heinlein, The Door into Summer (1956), the introductory scene of a favorite time travel novel of my teens. As typical of genre literature, the story is wonderfully complicated. Daniel Boone Davis, a visionary, iconoclastic engineer, invents a robot to do household chores, a revolutionary development that promises to be hugely remunerative, only to be swindled out of his fledgling company by his deceitful fiancée, Belle, and his partner, Miles. 

His mood darkening, Davis signs himself and Pete up at a cryogenics lab, to be suspended at the scientifically dubious temperature of 4 °C (32 °F) for thirty years, until futurism’s fin de siècle trope, the year 2000. Before taking the “Long Sleep,” Davis in a last stand confronts his betrayers, exposes their schemes, and exalts that he is going to regain his company. In an ensuing scuffle, however, he’s drugged and bound and reduced to watching helplessly as Pete is driven into the night and he is served up to the cryogenics lab after all, as a convenient way to dispose of him. An odd anomaly, as Belle is prepping the drugged Davis, Miles searches for Davis’ car and cannot find it. Where did his car go?

Wakening in the year 2000, Davis finds himself being administered to by a robot whose design could only have been derived from his. His inventions have become enormous successes. As Davis gamely adjusts to his new world, he is unexpectedly enthralled by its modernity. He takes avidly to the new millennia, although he encounters puzzling anomalies, too. Notably, one of these new robots is identical to what he’d sketched out only in his head before being betrayed, and, that invention is credited to a D. B. Davis. Coincidence? His ex-fiancée seeks him out. The thirty years have not been salutary ones for Belle; she has become pathetic, a blowsy lush. She confesses the failure of Miles and her schemes; chief among her reasons is that the prototype Davis designed mysteriously disappeared the night of the betrayal. Davis (from now on I am going to have to call him Davis #1) wishes he could go back to unravel these inconsistencies and find Pete.  

Davis #2 (I will now have to call him) does succeed in traveling back in time to a few months before his partners’ deception. In these months he works feverishly to create and patent the robots that will come to populate the working world. He also contacts what will become his love interest, the ten-year-old Ricky, Miles’s stepdaughter, who adores Dan and Pete. Davis #2 promises Ricky that at age twenty-one, if she wishes, she can take the Long Sleep, too, and, when they meet in 2000, he will marry her as she desires. On the fateful night of his betrayal, he lurks outside Miles’ house, waiting for Pete (what will become Pete #2) to be expelled. He gathers his pet in his arms and steals his prototype, cramming it in his car, and watches through the house windows. “I had a horrid thought then: what would happen if I sneaked in and cut the throat of my own helpless body?” But he draws away, not terribly interested because it is not an engineering problem. In 2000 he wakes again and waits for Ricky to wake, having found, at last, his door into summer.

Heinlein is a minor talent, but Davis’s gambols through time stir up perplexing puzzles, the paradoxes that arise from time travel. I’ll quote from Hauser and Shoshany’s mathematically rigorous paper, Time-Travel Paradoxes and Multiple Histories (2021): “These include consistency paradoxes, such as the famous grandfather paradox [in which a time traveler goes back and kills his grandfather, thus rendering his own birth impossible], and bootstrap paradoxes, where something is created out of nothing.” And so, by traveling back in time, has Davis brought about two adjacent but distinct historical realities, a Davis #1 reality and a Davis #2 reality? Are there now two Daniel Boone Davises? As Davis #2 recounts:

    I tried to explain it to Ricky, but she got upset when I told her that while we were on our honeymoon I was actually and no foolin’ also up at Boulder, and that while I was visiting her at the Girl Scout camp I was also lying in a drugged stupor in San Fernando Valley.
    She turned white. So I said, “Let’s put it hypothetically. It’s all logical when you look at it mathematically. Suppose we take a guinea pig—white with brown splotches. We put him in the time cage and kick him back a week. But a week earlier we had already found him there, so at that time we had put him in a pen with himself. Now we’ve got two guinea pigs…although actually it’s just one guinea pig, one being the other one a week older. So when you took one of them and kicked him back a week and—”
    “Wait a minute! Which one?”
    “Which one? Why, there never was but one. You took the one a week younger, of course because—”
    “You said there was just one. Then you said there were two. Then you said the two was just one. But you were going to take one of the two… when there was just one—”

In a scattering of places, Davis speculates whether his time travel has ruptured historical reality. But he doesn’t overly tax himself. If it’s not fit for a technical manual, it’s not fit for Robert Heinlein. Similarly, on another level that Heinlein scarcely probes is what it means to honestly reckon with oneself. As Davis witnesses his assault, that moment in conflicting realities becomes not exclusively a question of what might happen to the time-space continuum if he slashes his own throat, but what the moment itself signifies, what it offers: the unlocking of man’s eternal solitude. Davis is outside the house, yes, but, more extraordinarily, he is outside himself. He is experiencing himself as others experience him. That’s me in there, he might gasp, me! It is an unrequited longing born of consciousness: to see oneself as one appears to others. That is, not rush in and slash your throat, but rush in and confront yourself: a reckoning that contains as much foreboding as of yearning. And depending on how one does see oneself in such a fraught mirror, the experience might feel less of a blissful enlightenment and more of a crippling paranoia. Remember those bad LSD trips, the adulterated weed. 

But no, not a question fit for a technical manual. 

So, if works like Heinlein’s are hardly more than clever genre efforts, why are we fascinated by time travel narratives? Perhaps it’s just simple escapism. Think of film, the medium that can persuasively create simultaneous realities, Groundhog Day, 12 Monkeys, and, especially, Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s escape from Doc Brown’s killers in Doc’s souped-up DeLorean back to 1955. In a splendid borrowing from a novel we will consider, Marty’s return from the past is powered by a lightning bolt that Marty, as someone from the future, knows will strike the courthouse on a particular night—the same plot ruse that spares the life of Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,the privileged knowledge of the traveler from the future. 

But maybe there are more gripping reasons why time travel attracts us. Because we are time’s slaves, our lives flowing in but a single direction toward a single inexorable end, we find solace in imaginary scenarios that release us from time’s clutch—its sovereign fiat that time-past with its fragrances and songs, its pleasures and regrets, is forever forfeit and all that looms is remorseless future—and provide us the comforting illusion that we can travel back and rectify what has gone awry in our lives.

Without going into the detail that we have with The Door into Summer, let us look at some classic time travel narratives, first, and then some more imaginative treatments of the subject. But note before we begin: We cannot scour the entire genre. The Internet Time Travel Database lists 6751 titles, commencing with the Hindi epic Mahabharata (ca. 800 BCE – 400 CE); Goodreads lists 411 reader-suggested titles; and Wikipedia contains a lengthy list. Nor can we examine utopian or dystopian narratives set in a remote era but that only treat time as a static background or platform upon which to build a drama (e.g., works by Bellamy, Huxley, Orwell, Le Guin). What we are interested in are examples of narratives that regard time itself as a subject, as something pliable, pierceable, and, potentially manipulable, a partner, a challenge, or an adversary. Time in time travel novels is not background, but foreground and arguably a character in its own right. 

With that in mind, do let us take a spin on our own Time Machine.

Two Nineteenth Century Time Travel Narratives

We will begin with two novels as unlike one another as possible that are foundational to the genre: Samuel Clemens’ A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895). One might question the inclusion of Clemens’s work. It is not in any manner “scientific” in the way that sci-fi understands science and does not make play with time’s paradoxes. And to be sure, Connecticut Yankee is not genre writing. Clemens’s purpose is twofold: a parody of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), and, more broadly, an at-times savage trashing of the romantic image of Camelot, its legendary pomp and pageantry, the brave knights of the Round Table, the illicit pleasures of courtly love. 

Rubbish, Sam might say.

A quick summary. Hank Morgan, talented inventor and manufacturer, suffers a blow on the head and awakens in sixth century England. Among his first experiences: “At intervals we passed a wretched cabin, with a thatched roof, and about it small fields and garden patches in an indifferent state of cultivation. There were people, too; brawny men, with long, coarse, uncombed hair that hung down over their faces and made them look like animals. They and the women, as a rule, wore a coarse tow-linen robe that came well below the knee, and a rude sort of scandal, and many wore an iron collar. The small boys and girls were always naked …” His first sight of Camelot: “… the streets were mere crooked alleys, and unpaved; troops of dogs and nude children played in the sun …; hogs roamed and rooted contentedly about, and one of them lay in a reeking wallow in the middle of the main thoroughfare and suckled her family.” A scene interrupted by “… a distant blare of military music …; and soon a noble cavalcade wound into view, glorious with plumed helmets and flashing mail and flaunting banners and rich doublets and horse-cloths and gilded spearheads; and through the muck and swine, and naked brats, and joyous dogs, and shabby huts, it took its gallant way …” 

With his thirteen hundred years of acquired knowledge, Hank becomes a renowned wizard and counselor to the king. He recruits a cohort of young men and invents the telegraph, telephone, and modern weapons. His goal is to overturn the nobility and abolish chivalry, cast off the yoke of the Catholic church, introduce democracy and free labor, and deliver England’s barbarous feudal society from what Hobbes would call its “nasty, brutish, and short” state, excruciating scenes that Clemens does not spare us, e.g., a peasant family dying of smallpox and starvation. And he nearly succeeds. But in his final victory Hank realizes that he has lost, and, when Merlin infiltrates his encampment, the envious old conjurer casts Hank under a spell that returns him to Connecticut.

You might label Connecticut Yankee a dystopian novel in reverse time. Hank, the representative from the future, is revolted by the past. As far as he can see, the sixth century is squalid, ignorant, violent, and cruel. As the miseries mount, his tone becomes ever more acerbic. In passages, the novel reads like a Marxian screed. And this is why Connecticut Yankee should make an appearance here: The book is a time travel novel with a more serious intent than most science fiction writers can summon. Clemens blends burlesque (Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise, or Sandy, his love interest, reels off hundred-word-plus sentences that are hilarious spoofs of Malory) with poignancy and sorrow, satire, and biting commentary.

A casual comparison of Heinlein and Clemons. Hank is as much of an engineer as Dan Davis: “My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse-doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world …” This explains Hank’s skill in reproducing the nineteenth century in the sixth, but, unlike Heinlein, Clemens is not an engineer and makes no attempt to tell us how Hank goes about manufacturing gunpowder and telephones. Frankly, Heinlein doesn’t tell us how Davis’s robots work, either, but he throws around a lot of technical jargon that sounds impressive. Clemens, who is interested in more profound societal issues, doesn’t bother.

H. G. Wells’s novella, The Time Machine (1895), was an immediate success and has continued to inspire commercial adaptations. The Time Traveler (never named) invents a machine permitting him to travel into the future. In the year 802,701 he meets a race of simple, childlike humans, the Eloi, who inhabit an earth that has become a paradisiacal garden. The Eloi spend their days gathering fruit, playing games, and garlanding each other with flowers. Their Edenic life, the Time Traveler theorizes, represents the triumph of man over nature. Everything is provided, nothing remains but to play. But what the Eloi have paid for arriving at such a blissful existence is the loss of vitality, even intellect. They are simple-minded. But when he encounters the Morlocks, a race of near-humans living underground, he adapts his theories. He concludes that at some point the human race differentiated and that the Eloi are descendants of the upper, moneyed classes and the Morlocks of the servitude and laboring classes, an extreme upstairs, downstairs evolution. Finally, when he learns that the Morlocks are not the subjugated race, after all, but that they are practicing human husbandry, managing the Eloi as cattle to be butchered and eaten, he is forced to modify his theories again. 

Two points about The Time Machine. First, the writing is uncommonly fine. The narrative adopts a mock-serious journalistic-scientific tone that suits the story perfectly: The Time Traveler is an eccentric, solitary character, but a persuasively thoughtful narrator. His delivery is measured, reasonable, free of exaggeration, and his imagery, his descriptions of the future, are vividly drawn. Wells was wont to dismiss the novella as a minor work, but he possessed a facility even at a young age that British writers often have and American writers seldom have, that is, a smooth, intelligent, assured conversational flow. The book is literate and thus a pleasure to read. 

Second. All good science fiction draws us into the author’s dreamworld with a compelling story, but seminal science fiction possesses something beyond riveting plotlines, e.g., Ursula Le Guin’s early feminism and gender shifting, Kurt Vonnegut’s moral repulsion to the horrifying firebombing of Dresden, Ray Bradbury’s firemen who burn truth contained in books. The Time Machine is an enthralling story, but it is, as well, a demonstration and unpacking of political-social philosophies. The Time Traveler’s initial appraisal of the Eloi that they have entered a pastoral communism gives way to the realization what such an outcome has led to: men and women who amount to no more than goose-witted children. The Eloi can hardly be said to retain language. When the Time Traveler encounters the Morlocks, he surmises that what he is seeing is the manifestation of the remorseless dialectics of Darwinian capitalism. But that conclusion is undercut when he discovers that it is the underclass that is exploiting its masters. All in all, one emerges from The Time Machine with a sense of nihilism. Millions of years in the future the Time Traveler finds that earth’s landlords are enormous, repellent, crab-like creatures, and millions of years further along, he finds nothingness, the final bleak moments of the planet, a motionless sun, a dim red ball, resting at the horizon.

Two Contemporary Time Travel Narratives

In a turn-about from Wells, the most interesting aspect of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity is not his major thesis, but the complicated gyrations of his protagonist as he finds himself ensnared in a sinuously crafted plot. Andrew Harlan is a Technician, a high level of specialization in Eternity, a shadowy organization of self-appointed men who roam time from the 27th century to the 70,000th century. As founded, Eternity’s purpose was confined to supervising trade among the many centuries, but the organization has come to embrace an invasive, manipulative, even mendacious role: The Eternals monitor each era to ensure outcomes that are the “greatest good of the greatest number.” Should the Eternals encounter something that will endanger destiny’s proper path as they conceive of it, they introduce as subtle a change as they can that will divert history in a more favorable direction. Chaos Theory, or the Butterfly Effect,1 and the inspiration for Asimov’s use of it to graphically depict minute changes whose vast ramifications shake out over centuries, even millennia. Harlan making a reality change in the 2456th century:

    Harlan felt no hurry. The room would remain empty for the next 156 minutes … he took one step toward the wall, lifted a small container from its position on a shelf, and placed it in a carefully adjusted spot on the shelf below … The small container stayed where he put it. It played no immediate role in world history. A man’s hand, hours later, reached for it but did not find it. A search revealed it half an hour later still, but in the interim a force field had blanked out and a man’s temper had been lost. A decision which would have remained unmade in the previous Reality was now made in anger. A meeting did not take place; a man who would have died lived a year longer, under other circumstances; another who would have lived died somewhat sooner.

Acquiring a love interest in time is a common trope of time travel narratives, and, as do Dan Davis, Hank Morgan, and the Time Traveler, Harlan falls in love, something forbidden an Eternal, and finds himself caught in a suspenseful cat and mouse game in which sometimes he is the cat, but more frequently the mouse. In passages the novel reads like a thriller. Eternity has a covert mission, Harlan discovers, ensuring that the history of mankind wends its way around to creating Eternity itself. An instance of the second time-travel paradox, the bootstrap paradox, sometimes known as a “causal loop”; that is, the Eternals must engineer destiny such that a certain mathematician in the 24th century receives a tip allowing him to formulate the equations that a following century will employ to develop time travel and thus beget Eternity. Failing to close the loop will allow the future to diverge onto an alternative path in which Eternity never exists. Rather than benevolently protecting the civilizations they manage, the Eternals’ secret goal is to ensure their own selfish perpetuation. In the end, Harlan chooses to subvert his organization, refusing to follow his mission of facilitating the discovery of the critical mathematical formulae in the 24th century and introducing it instead into the 20th. What will result is the advent of the atomic age in the 1930s long before mankind possesses the maturity to use nuclear fission responsibly. The thermonuclear bomb will be developed, which will bring a conclusion to World War II, but will loom as a sword of Damocles over mankind ever after. 

Why would Harlan betray Eternity, the organization he’s devoted to? His impetus comes clear in the final pages. Noÿs Lambent, his lover, discloses that she is from the distant future, far beyond the reach of Eternity’s time machines, and that the future has realized that it is Eternity, by acting as arrogant overlord in eradicating all things that are exceptional, dangerous, deviant, or even too creative, that has held mankind back. For humans to fulfill their destiny of birthing a galactic empire, Eternity, whose managers Noÿs labels “psychopaths,” must be stopped. And in a supreme act of passion, riven by moral anguish, Harlan does just that: He brings about “the end of Eternity.” In an instant the entire future as he has known it disappears.

Which leads to Asimov’s thesis. Eternity has controlled men and women as if they were puppets on a string. Shaped their history, suppressed any worrisome nonconformities, and arranged their civilizations to be risk-free to such a degree that humanity has emerged as a creature of mediocrity. All to be understood, circa 1950s Cold War, as straightforward allegory, Asimov’s condemnation of the paternalistic authoritarian state, i.e., the Soviet Union, China, and his paean to more free-wheeling, democratic societies, i.e., the Western world. Yes, fine, hurrah for our side, but after two hundred and fifty pages of tightly coiled suspense, one expects something a little less reductive, a little more sophisticated.  

So, why read Asimov, or at least this particular Asimov? 

Because Asimov, unlike Heinlein, grapples with the moral issues his plotting has led to. Harlan, after making his first change to reality as a Technician by jamming a vehicle’s clutch, lies in bed sobered by his actions: 

    He had tampered with a mechanism during a quick few minutes taken out of the 223rd and, as a result, a young man did not reach a lecture on mechanics he had meant to attend. He never went in for solar engineering, consequently, and a perfectly simple device was delayed in its development a crucial ten years. A war in the 224th, amazingly enough, was moved out of Reality … Wasn’t that good? What if personalities were changed? The new personalities were as human as the old and as deserving of life. If some lives were shortened, more were lengthened and made happier… Yet that night Harlan spent hours in a hot agony of wakefulness …

Asimov also recognizes the existential moment that Heinlein chooses to blow off: “It was one of the first rules he had learned as an Observer: One person occupying two points in the same Time of the same Reality runs a risk of meeting himself… Somehow that was something to be avoided. Why? Harlan knew he didn’t want to meet himself. He didn’t want to be staring into the eyes of another and earlier (or later) Harlan.” By destroying Eternity, Harlan strands Noÿs and himself in a cave in 1930s Colorado, where she promises him, “We will remain to have children and grandchildren and mankind will remain to reach the stars.” 

And the beginning of Asimov’s great Foundation trilogy.

It seems as if every science fiction writer has succumbed to the temptation to pen a time travel novel. And it is a shame not to be able to linger over some of the major talents who have taken on the genre, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, Walter Miller, to name but three, but let’s swim upstream in time a little. 

Kate Mascarenhas’ The Psychology of Time Travel (2019) is a cross-genre work, a murder mystery wrapped in a time travel envelope. The book features a dizzying plot. At least ten principal characters, some of whom have multiple selves, carry out their entangled stories across eight time settings. And, as appropriate when time no longer needs to fit into a linear straightjacket, the novel’s basic chronology, these major time settings, is jumbled, as well. Characters’ lives interweave, collide, race ahead and backtrack; one scene features four characters who are the same person at different stages of her life. In trying to follow the complicated mesh of stories I took three pages of very small, tight script. 

In Mascarenhas no clock runs right. 

I will attempt but the most cursory synopsis. Four scientists—Margaret Norton, Lucille Waters, Grace Taylor, and Barbara Hereford—create a time machine and claim a monopoly on time travel. Their company, Conclave, grows rich and powerful, and, led by their narcissistic, bullying leader Margaret, becomes just as narcissistic and bullying. Conclave’s corporate culture is vindictive, it’s marked by poisonous gossip and brutal hazing. Margaret is murdered, and her bullet-torn body is discovered by Odette Sophola, who is so traumatized by the bloody scene that she becomes obsessed with solving the crime. The murderer, after much convoluted scheming, is revealed as Ruby Rebello, granddaughter of the founder Barbara who, early on, was cast out of Conclave and whose death was also the result of Margaret’s tyrannical bullying. Ruby survives her trial by ordeal, and Conclave, without Margaret, will splinter into separate time travel centers where the cultures can be cleansed and humanized.

The Psychology of Time Travel is a debut novel, and Mascarenhas’ inexperience shows in many of the story’s wooden scenes. Notwithstanding its title, I find little plausible psychology in the book. But the novel breaks some new ground. Without sensationalism, stridency, or any kind of fanfare really, Mascarenhas creates a world that is female-centric. Male characters are rare and play no significant role. In the world in which Conclave exists, this is simply the way it is—in exactly the way for centuries literature has assumed as backdrop a male-centric world. It’s refreshing and illuminating. Similarly, after more than a century of time travel writing, Mascarenhas can present traveling through time as another given. Within the first few pages Conclave’s founders invent their time machine. All the contortions that science fiction writers go through to explain how such a fantastic thing might be feasible, their theoretical and mathematical exertions, the gears and levers of the mechanical apparatuses they propose, the force fields they manipulate and exploit—all the furniture, in short, of science fiction—Mascarenhas’ characters take for granted. They’re not interested in machines. What interests them are the possible effects of time travel on the psyches of travelers, their neurological changes. And in fact, Conclave’s employees are emotionally damaged by their travels. They become deadened to normal human concerns. If they wish, they can watch their parents, spouses, and children die. They can do that as many times as they wish until those deaths are meaningless. They can descend to Conclave’s morgue and view their own remains. If in a playful mood, they can juggle their autopsied kidneys. Ghoulish, but intriguing. Mascarenhas poses the question, What would time travel actually mean? Making friends—or enemies—of your future selves? Making love to your future self? Witnessing the repeated follies of humankind? Mascarenhas’ time travelers know they must someday die, they can check in with the morgue to obtain the precise date if they’re curious, but Death, as we know it, understand and fear it, has for their warped personalities ceased to be the final arbiter, the great counterbalance of life. With Isaac Asimov having ended “Eternity,” we can append that Kate Mascarenhas has ended death.

Two Riffs on Time Travel 

If art is a mirror held up to life—and I understand we no longer believe that, even if it’s true—then, I will argue, the novel approaches nearest the optimal art vessel. What is in a novel? Everything. Everything that fits and, for too many novelists, too many things that don’t. The image in the mirror is always distorted. It is the distortion that enables us to recognize ourselves, and it is the seductive attraction of the distortion, its peculiar pathology, that draws us into an intimacy with a stranger’s life. As a rule, the more subtle the distortion, the better the novel. The more familiar the pathology, on the other hand, the more conventionalized or emotionally fraudulent the image, the more hackneyed the novel. And I can think of few novels that exhibit so maddeningly both of those extremes—the melodramatic and the authentic—as does Audrey Niffenegger’s best-seller The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003).

Henry DeTamble is genetically “chrono-impaired.” From the age of five he has experienced episodes described in words reminiscent of epileptic seizures, except Henry’s seizures, occurring at moments of stress, pitch him willy-nilly forward or backward in his life. Henry exercises no control over his time traveling. He simply erupts in various settings with no idea of where or when he is and, as often as not, smashing into things as he arrives stark naked. At an early age he learns how to slip wallets from men’s pockets and women’s purses, how to pick locks to burglarize stores, how to stealthily clothe himself for protection from the elements, even if he’s reduced to assaulting someone to pry the shoes off the man’s feet. And, he’s a librarian.  

The novel contains three major story threads and at least twice that sub-threads. We will concern ourselves with the major threads, listed here in descending order of interest: Henry, the relentlessly driven time traveler; Clare Abshire, his lover and wife and budding artist; and Henry and Clare’s grand love affair. I use “grand” intentionally, because the life-long bond between Henry and Clare is the fluff of High Romance: a schoolchild’s ideal of eternal love founded early (Clare is six when Henry shows up naked at her feet) and repeatedly thwarted by insuperable barriers. Sprawling over five hundred pages, the novel provides us scenes of death (cancer, suicide, a cataclysmic automotive accident, involuntary manslaughter) and near-death (desperate midnight flights to rescue Henry, who is freezing in Chicago’s Grant Park or a subterranean parking garage); amputations, miscarriages, and more gory miscarriages (six in all before the birth of a chrono-impaired prodigy daughter); sublime talent (Henry’s mother is a world-renowned diva before her gruesome death; his father, second violin in the Chicago Symphony before overtaken by grief and alcoholism; Clare, a rising sculptor struggling to keep her emotional tsunamis from drowning her fabulous art); and everlastingly, through all adversity, undying, unquenchable love. Everything’s soaked through blood and destiny. Way too much heavy-handed foreshadowing, too much hand-wringing, too much earnest conversation, and much, never enough, sex, let’s not forget the spectacular sex. 

A tear-jerker, a five-hanky story. 

So, why read The Time Traveler’s Wife? For Henry. Niffenegger’s time traveler is lovingly rendered, a heartfelt creation seldom encountered in genre literature. Henry stumbles through his challenges, he’s both vulnerable and ruthless and reacts convincingly as someone might having been thrust into baffling circumstances. He’s also an unwilling time traveler, a nice switch. And rather than gloss over that moment of recognition when a time traveler encounters himself, Henry, although at war with his separation from normal human existence, nevertheless, embraces the unique experiences that his fate awards him that residents of that normal life will never know. Here he is at twenty-seven after having given himself at nine his first lessons in petty larceny:

    … Afterwards we throw all the wal­lets in a mailbox, sans cash, and I get us a room at the Palmer House.
    “So?” I ask, sitting on the side of the bathtub watching Henry brush his teeth.
    “O ot?” returns Henry with a mouth full of toothpaste.
    “What do you think?”
    He spits. “About what?”
    He looks at me in the mirror. “It’s okay.” He turns and looks di­rectly at me. “I did it!” He grins, largely.
    “You were brilliant!”
    “Yeah!” The grin fades. “Henry, I don’t like to time travel by myself. It’s better with you. Can’t you always come with me?”
    He is standing with his back to me, and we look at each other in the mirror. Poor small self: at this age my back is thin and my shoulder blades stick out like incipient wings. He turns, waiting for an answer, and I know what I have to tell him—me. I reach out and gently turn him and bring him to stand by me, so we are side by side, heads level, facing the mirror.
    “Look.” We study our reflections, twinned in the ornate gilt Palmer House bathroom splendor. Our hair is the same brown-black, our eyes slant dark and fatigue-ringed identically, we sport exact replicas of each other’s ears. I’m taller and more muscular and shave. He’s slender and ungainly and is all knees and elbows. I reach up and pull my hair back from my face, show him the scar from the accident. Unconsciously, he mimics my gesture, touches the same scar on his own forehead.
    “It’s just like mine,” says my self, amazed. “How did you get it?”
    “The same as you. It is the same. We are the same.”
    A translucent moment. I didn’t understand, and then I did, just like that. I watch it happen. I want to be both of us at once, feel again the feeling of losing the edges of my self, of seeing the admix­ture of future and present for the first time. But I’m too accus­tomed, too comfortable with it, and so I am left on the outside, remembering the wonder of being nine and suddenly seeing, know­ing, that my friend, guide, brother was me. Me, only me. The lone­liness of it.
    “You’re me.”
    “When you are older.”
    “But… what about the others?”
    “Other time travelers? … I don’t think there are any. I mean, I’ve never met any others.”
    … When I was little, I imagined a whole society of time travelers, of which Henry, my teacher, was an emissary, sent to train me for eventual inclusion in this vast camaraderie. I still feel like a castaway, the last member of a once numerous species. It was as though Robinson Crusoe dis­covered the telltale footprint on the beach and then realized that it was his own. My self, small as a leaf, thin as water, begins to cry. I hold him, hold me, for a long time.

When Niffenegger writes this plainly and sensitively, absent the hyperbolized angst, she is an emotionally moving writer. Henry and Clare are in love, we never doubt the sincerity of their attachment. Despite the intransigencies of a capricious genome, they manage to live authentically within the shell of that enduring bond—and that’s almost wholly due to Henry, the castaway time traveler who is the distortion in the mirror in which we see ourselves, our own ineluctable particularity, the estrangement that forever walls us off one from another.

Our final selection, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, or the Nature of the Offense (1991), is by far the most brilliant, as well as most troubling, work to consider. In Amis’s world time runs in reverse, carrying along with it all life and physics. People are “born” at what we declare their moment of death and live their lives growing younger until they disappear up their mother’s birth canals. People walk into rooms backwards, they drive backwards, shattered cups reassemble their many shards from the floor, the spilt coffee returns in a large reverse splash to the cup, the intact cup ascends to the table where it meets the negligent arm. A crime might appear thus: The victim lies abed in a hospital, growing weaker and weaker. He is wheeled backwards into surgery, where surgeons un-sew his stitches and reinsert the bullet. They leave the wound open and bleeding, and the victim is transported to the emergency entrance and a waiting ambulance. The EMTs return him to the crime scene, where they abandon him writhing on the pavement. The victim rises, the bullet exits his chest, his wound instantly heals, the bullet reenters the barrel of his assailant’s gun, and both assailant and victim back away from each other.

Very disorientating, and I’ll spare you the descriptions of reverse bodily functions. The protagonist is the German, Odilo Unverdorben (the first of several names he will have), but, another oddity, the novel is narrated by a nameless speaker who seems to be resident in Odilo but who is not Odilo. Is he Odilo’s soul, as Amis coyly suggests? His conscience? It’s never resolved. We meet Odilo as Tod Friendly, living in the US, a retired doctor. The narrator implies Tod is repressing something, or maybe the narrator presciently senses something ominous ahead in Ted’s earlier years. And that something we eventually learn is that Odilo was a Nazi doctor practicing his evil in Auschwitz. Of course, for Odilo it is not evil: He marvels at how they invent Jews from smoke and flames, how bodies rise from mass graves, eject bullets from their mangled bodies, don their clothes, and ride backwards trains home. 

The implications of such a reversal are boggling. Not only do people walk backwards, they think and speak backwards, a nearly indecipherable representation that Amis mercifully spares us (a snippet of conversation—“How are you?” “Fine, thank you.”—would be—“Uoy knaht, enif.” “⸮Uoy era woh.”). But leaving aside the Abbott and Costello absurdity, our world, more seriously, is founded on cause and effect, as is our morality. If effects do not follow causes, then am I not absolved of responsibility for the cup that once lay shattered on the floor and is now intact on the table? If I raise my Glock and a bullet leaves someone’s chest and reenters my gun, how have I harmed that individual? Morality is turned on its head, killers restore life, doctors harm life. Moreover, without causality, there is no free will. Indeed, for Odilo—as his loquacious narrator reminds us—once someone “wakes” to life, then suicide or any form of death is impossible because life is predestined to return to the womb. And not only is the end of life fated, every action made during that life is also predetermined. Characters, who have no idea why they are doing something and no influence over what they are doing, become passive observers of their own inscrutable behavior. Why, a character asks, am I walking backwards into this room? Why am I turning and suddenly shouting to someone? Why am I lowering my voice and soon crawling backwards into bed and snuggling into the arms of someone whose name I don’t even know yet? Such a world, by removing volition and its resulting consequences, deflates the tensions and ambiguities that animate life—and literature.

The most remarkable conceit we have considered, and, for that reason, no doubt, why Time’s Arrow was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But for all the praise the novel received—and deserved—something bothered me when I read it in the 1990s and bothers me still on a second reading: the Holocaust. Telling a story in reverse time necessarily renders it anti-climatic. Climaxes precede actions, and characters, as I have said, become inert observers. Imagine The Tin Drum in reverse, all the pressurized, chaotic ferment of Oskar Matzerath’s tumultuous life neutralized, dissipated. And so, without some momentous revelation in Odilo’s life, I understand, we would not have much of a story, a man is born in his 70s, lives his years passively backwards, disappears feet first into his mother’s womb. But this is the Holocaust. Because of the conceit, there can be no empathetic sympathy, no intense revulsion, and I understand that, too. Odilo Unverdorben never comes to a reckoning of his complicity; as far as he’s concerned, they’re creating life. But neither is there any illuminating insight into the Holocaust, nothing that we do not already know of Nazi bestiality, of Josef Menegele monstrousness. And to claim that that is the point of the novel—that evil is the dark twin of joy—seems to me a commonplace point. There appears to be no reasonable literary grounds for the Nazi inclusion beyond furnishing the story an ersatz significance. It’s akin to Asimov’s gratuitous resting The End of Eternity on the development of the atomic bomb. The Holocaust serves no purpose beyond sensationalism: It’s a usage of that horror, and it sits uneasily with me. Amis admires Primo Levi, it is Levi’s words that provide the subtitle of the book, the Nature of the Offense. But I question whether Levi, who wrote so passionately about Nazi atrocity, would be pleased by being associated with the novel.

Some Temporal Conclusions

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.
—Ray Cummings, “The Girl in the Golden Atom”2

Stop time? Run the tape back? Peek at tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers, as Henry DeTamble does? Count me in. Certain golden moments of youth, certain embarrassing moments (more of those, I’m afraid), overtures that were too lightly passed over and lost, misunderstandings that could have been avoided, even those trains that departed platforms seconds too soon: To be able to revisit those scenes, to savor again what was transcendent and right what went wrong, if only to have another stolen hour to linger in bed with that special other, Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime.

For many years now my thoughts have returned to Pete the cat, Pete #1, who was driven into the night. The cat who liked ginger ale and riding around in an overnight bag. Who wouldn’t grasp at the chance to travel back to that night and rescue his forsaken pet? Who doesn’t have a quarrel with time? Its implacability, its irresistible undertow and drip-by-drip erosion of vitality and trust? Sir Thomas Browne cautions us, “Time which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things.” And so then, is our fascination with time travel at bottom a sort of pas de deux with death? A desperate feint to eke out a few more precious moments? Of the three spirits Ebenezer Scrooge is foretold that will visit him, it is the third spirit whom Scrooge addresses, “Ghost of the Future … I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.”

We are solitary creatures holding tickets to one unavoidable destination. There is never enough time. Or as Andrew Marvell rather more pungently puts it, “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace.” ∎

  1. Ray Bradbury’s time travel story, “The Sound of Thunder” (1952), is often cited as the source of the common name for chaos theory, the “Butterfly Effect,” although the term itself was introduced by Edward Norton Lorentz, mathematician and meteorologist.
  2. This epigram is sometimes misattributed to Albert Einstein.