January 7, 2009

Time Waits For No Woman

There are two schools of thought about the nature of time traveling. First, there is the Back to the Future school. Proponents of this type of time traveling believe that you must constantly guard against changing the present by meddling in the past. Of equal importance, under no circumstances must you ever allow your past and future selves to meet. The consequences will be dire.

The second school of thought is explored in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. In this form of time travel, events have already been played out. If you want to get out of jail, sometime in the future, you can time travel to the past, and steal your dad's keys and leave them in a convenient location so they will be accessible at the appropriate time and place. And since the keys are there when you need them, you need not worry about remembering to put them there in the future. You already know that you have put them there. And, of course, meeting your future self is all in good fun.

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, definitively falls into the latter category. It tells the love story of Henry and Clare. He is a time traveler, but rather then having a time machine at his disposal, he has a genetic disorder beyond his control, and he pops in and out of time at random. She meets him when she is six, and she grows up falling in love with him during his numerous visits. The novel is a tightly woven patchwork of moments, as Henry passes into and out of Clare's life, and his own past and future. As he is constantly running into different versions of himself, Henry soon learns that his future has already been written, and there is nothing he can do to change it.

Fate is an important theme. Clare is likened to a sailor or soldier's wife, a modern day Penelope, always waiting for her husband and unable to control his comings and goings. She is an educated, talented, independent minded woman, but she is faced with the same predicament shared by women through out history, forced to watch passively as events are shaped by forces beyond her control. Except in this case, Henry is equally helpless. He has no control of his time traveling. It is difficult to know who has the harder time dealing with the unpredictability. Henry is forever scared of popping out at the wrong time, never knows where he will land, and is constantly forced to steal clothes and food and flee the police or whatever over testesteroned bully takes offense at a stark naked man running around the streets of Chicago.

What Clare most struggles with, and Harry as well, is the knowledge that their fate has already been determined. If they know their own future, and are helpless to change it, do they really have free will. I can imagine in many ways their experience is similar to what it is like for a women or minority in our society, where the circumstances of your birth limit your options from the start.

Eventually Clare embraces her fate. Her love for Henry outweighs her lack of free will:
Today is not much different from all the other days. I get up at dawn, put on slacks and a sweater, brush my hair, make toast, and tea, and sit looking at the lake, wondering if he will come today. It's not much different from the many other times he was gone, and I waited, except that this time I have instructions: this time I know Henry will come, eventually. I sometimes wonder if this readiness, the expectation, prevents the miracle from happening. But I have no choice. He is coming, and I am here.
I would not recommend reading The Time Traveler's Wife if you consider yourself a cynical person. I think Niffenegger is very sincere and earnest in her story telling. This is no straightforward story mind you. It is complexly woven, with a lot of frank and graphic situations like miscarriages and physical abuse, and does not have a traditionally happy ending. But these situations could verge on the edge of sentimentality for some. For me, it is real. This love is real love. It is imperfect love, it is love fraught with peril, with the fear of loss and the threat of being misunderstood. But it is deep and full and strong and Henry and Clare fight for each other and even if there is something of the melodramatic in their story, a heightened reality that verges on fantasy, I can relate to it. I am a sucker for sincerity every time, especially when it is combined with a compelling story.

Lyric of the Day:

Hear silver trumpets will trill
in the Arabic streets of Seville
Oranges roll in the gutter
And you pick them up
And pull back the skin
To the red fruit within

But the flavour is...Tart
And the flavour is...Tart

Is it something you crave
And you say that you
only feel bitterness
When you know it's a lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie

-Elvis Costello

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