REVIEW: Time and Again by Jack Finney
When this book appeared in the Daily Deals sometime last year, I snapped it up. I had first heard of it a long time ago and been intrigued. A time-travel novel with romantic elements? Right in my wheelhouse. I don’t read many time-travel romances, but two of my favorite novels – Outlander and The Time-Traveler’s Wife – feature time travel and strong romances. Checking the Amazon ratings – trepidatiously, to avoid spoilers – I saw that of the 600+ reviews, more than half were 5-star. I was sure that I’d love Time and Again.
I was wrong.
Simon Morley, our narrator, is a 20-something artist working in advertising in New York City in 1970. One day he’s approached by a mysterious man about a secret government project. Apparently based on testing that occurred years earlier, when Si was in the army, he’s been identified as a good candidate for the project. Cautiously agreeing to meet the man, Major Ruben Prien, at the project’s headquarters in Brooklyn the next day, Si quits his job and sets off on a venture into the unknown.
The project turns out to involve time-travel, accomplished not by futuristic machines or magic stones but by something much simpler: self-hypnosis aided by and combined with a recreation of period detail down to the smallest instance.
This was the first problem I had with Time and Again. Self-hypnosis? On the one hand, the mechanism is elegant in its simplicity. On the other, there are a lot of things about it that stretched credulity. For one thing, a lot supposedly depended on recreating an atmosphere of the time and place the time-traveler plans to travel to exactly. But I was never quite sure why – was it just meant to be a psychological aid to the self-hypnosis? If it had any more significant function, then the project leaders seemed to be overestimating their ability to recreate the past *exactly*. I mean, you can rent an apartment for Si in the Dakota building (as they do), and you can stock it with only the accouterments that would have been available in 1882 (the period Si wants to try to visit; more on that in a moment). But you can’t do anything about the fact that there are cars whizzing by outside his window or that the air quality is different than it would have been 88 years earlier or about differences in the weather or a million other little details that the story ignores in favor of going into minute detail about how Si dresses, what reproduced newspapers he reads and what period-appropriate food he cooks for himself (he settles into the Dakota for several days before attempting the self-hypnosis that will send him back in time).
My point, I guess, is that I’d have much preferred it if the story simply focused on the self-hypnosis angle without the endless excruciating minutiae detailing how the recreation was accomplished (unfortunately, this was not the last of the author’s penchant for endless excruciating minutiae – far from it).
Anyway, Si has a reason for wanting to travel back to that specific time and place, and the leaders of the project don’t mind him switching his destination from historical San Francisco (their first destination for him) to New York (they’re a little loosey-goosey, at least at first, with their goals; I didn’t find this entirely realistic for a government agency overseeing an expensive and top-secret project). Si’s girlfriend, Kate, has a family mystery that goes back to the mailing of a letter in NYC on a specific date in 1882. Her grandfather, who had killed himself in Montana years before she was born, died in possession of a letter that had been mailed to him (the date and location of the mailing were gleaned from the letter’s postmark) when he still lived in New York. Along with the seemingly innocuous business letter, the man left a suicide note stating that the sending of that letter had led to “the destruction by fire of the entire World.” This mystery has haunted Kate and has caught Si’s imagination too; he wants to see who mailed the letter that day in 1882.
After staying in his 1882-ified apartment for several days in 1970 Si attempts to self-hypnotize himself back in time. He is successful in making a very short trip, leaving his apartment and walking in Central Park briefly one snowy night. On the next, longer trip, Kate accompanies him and they witness the mailing of the letter (I never understood exactly the point of having her make the trip back with him; it didn’t add anything to the story and it detracted from the idea that the time-travel was something that certain individuals were constitutionally suited for and which needed to be prepared for scrupulously).
Between visits, Si debriefs the project leaders, who are naturally excited by his success. None of the other people involved in the project have had comparable results, though a couple have achieved brief success. Si becomes even more convinced that he needs to solve the mystery of the letter, so the next time he goes back he goes to the boarding house where the letter-mailer resides (he and Kate having followed the man after the mailing of the letter) and takes a room there. He discovers that the man is named Jake Pickering, and meets Julia Charbonneau, the niece of the boarding house owner. Si finds himself drawn to Julia, but Jake Pickering considers her his fiancee (though she hasn’t agreed to marry him yet), and he’s possessive and jealous of Si.
There were a lot of things that I didn’t like about this book, large and small. For one, I found the sexism and the male-dominated world hard to take. I mean, I guess this is not the author’s fault; it’s probably on me that I expected 1970 to be more like 2015 than 1870, but all of the project leads are men; the only women around are their “girls”, aka secretaries (there is one female training for time travel who is briefly seen and referenced). Further, Si evaluates and describes pretty much every woman he meets or even sees on her physical attractiveness. I got sick of hearing about womens’ legs or their figures or even just their faces. I know he’s supposed to be a healthy young heterosexual male, but I still didn’t want to hear it, after a while (actually, a pretty short while). It just rankled me, in a way that reading casual sexism in a book written in 1870 wouldn’t have (at least not as much).
In general, though the book was written in 1970, it feels more old-fashioned than that – the closest anyone gets to swearing is the exclamation “crysakes!” which several characters use (and which I’ve never heard of before). Also, the relationship between Si and Kate – one that he thinks is heading towards marriage – is oddly chaste. I wasn’t expecting (and didn’t need) a sex scene, but the one night they spend together in his Dakota apartment, the sleeping arrangements are oddly elided over, with Si telling Kate good night and that he would see her in the morning, implying that they wouldn’t be sleeping in the same bed. Maybe I’m overestimating the swinging atmosphere of end-of-60s metropolitan American life (if so, Mad Men has lied to me), but the puritanism felt artificial.
Honestly, this was one of those books that for whatever reason was just chock full of dozens of things that bugged me, large and small. This tends to happen when a story doesn’t engage me. (Though it’s kind of a chicken/egg proposition – are the little things bugging me because I’m not absorbed in the story, or am I not absorbed in the story because the little irritations make it impossible for me to be?) The plot seemed to have its own convenient internal logic that often didn’t make sense to me; the characters think and act in certain ways that end up being right because the book says they’re right.
One example: it was never clear to me exactly why Si was chosen for this project. Again, it’s implied that some sort of tests Si took in the army led the government to classify him as having potential. And it’s true that as an artist he has a good eye for detail, which seems to be a requirement for the self-hypnosis and mental recreation of different time periods. But late in the book he observes that he’s “not good under pressure”, and it’s true that from practically the beginning Si says and does things that make him stand out in the past; he seems to give little or no thought to being conscious of what he says (like, he literally doesn’t seem to care if he says and does odd things). He references Czechoslovakia (which did not exist in 1882), fingerprints, and a host of other things that make the people around him view him with suspicion. He shows poor judgment – letting Julia come along with him on a dangerous mission to spy on the villain, and later, when the two of them are on the run from the cops, never considering that he has a perfect hiding place in his apartment at the Dakota (I may have indulged in some yelling at the book at that point; the hiding place seemed so obvious and yet it’s never referenced or mentioned as a possibility).
If it were just Si that didn’t think logically it might’ve been less bothersome as a personal character trait (though still troubling considering that he’s our first-person protagonist), but all the characters are like this. The project organizers have a haphazard way of determining that the time travelers haven’t created any sort of “butterfly effect” with their travels (with the way Si bumbles through 1880s Manhattan, it’s a miracle that he doesn’t): during the debriefings, they check on a limited number of facts that the traveler remembers – for instance, a guy that a particular time traveler went to school with. If that person can still be verified to exist, then they figure everything is okay. But again, the number of facts they check are limited – seemingly ridiculously so, to me. I didn’t see the point of even bothering, and was annoyed that everyone seemed absolutely sure that the travelers hadn’t changed *anything* based on this less than scientific method.
Julia, also, lacks sense- late in the book she assures Si that she will be okay without his protection because she now knows a dangerous secret about Jake Pickering that she will hold over his head. This seems to ignore that: 1) maybe knowing a dangerous secret about Jake Pickering is exactly what you don’t want; it makes you a threat to him and 2) Jake Pickering has proven himself to be vengeful and a little unhinged, as well as creepily possessive of Julia. But sure, Si agrees that Julia’s idea is a fine one.
Another of the great irritants of this novel was Si’s idealization of the past. Everything in 1882 New York is just so marvelous! People are so happy and full of hope for the future! Even brief encounters with some more downtrodden historical New Yorkers fail to put much of a dent in his enthusiasm or his belief that 1882 New York is vastly superior to 1970 New York. It struck me as a very naïve and unsophisticated comparison of the two time periods. He doesn’t seem to put much thought into penicillin or advances in indoor plumbing, never mind the relative difference in societal inequities between 1882 and 1970 (as a white man, maybe he isn’t as concerned about that last issue, but that’s not really a point in his favor).
Another example of Si’s odd naiveté is his attitude, late in the book, to the villain. He seems more amused by him than anything else, as if he’s a character in a movie Si is watching, rather than someone who actually wants to kill him: “I’m smiling because Jake is such a villain. It’s the first time I’ve ever even used the word, but it’s what he is, all right…I guess I’m also smiling because in spite of everything, I like him.” It’s such an odd attitude to have to a person who wants you dead.
Later on Si is concerned about an idea the project leaders have, to alter history, because it will involve exposing the villain. He’s less concerned about the butterfly effect consequences; he just doesn’t think it’s fair to ruin someone’s life, even someone, who again, WANTS TO KILL HIM, and who would only be exposed for the liar and blackmailer he really is. Si’s attitude entirely baffled me, especially when a bit later, he himself
Spoiler (Spoiler): Show
The author obviously has a lot of enthusiasm for the wonders of 19th century New York. I wonder if I would have found some of Si’s musings more significant if I knew the city better. But as it was, so many words and pages are devoted to really, really detailed descriptions of the sights and sounds of the past. This is what Madison Avenue looked like in 1970! And this is what it looked like in 1882! And on and on and on… the streets, the buildings, the way people dressed, what they ate – it just goes on seemingly endlessly and none of it was interesting to me. Si’s obvious relish in his surroundings started to have the opposite effect on me as a reader – the more excited he got about some picayune aspect of life in the past, the more I wondered what was so exciting about it.
So, if the preceding 2,400+ words haven’t made it clear, I didn’t like the book. I’m hesitant on a grade. It doesn’t feel like an “F” book, even though my dislike for it was probably at an “F” level. I can’t help but be influenced by how many people seem to love it (Audrey Niffenegger herself wrote the foreword to my edition!). So I’ll bump it up one level on the theory that it’s a case of an extreme mismatch between author and reader. My grade for Time and Again is a D.
P.S. I forgot one last complaint! I was really tempted to dump the book at a certain point (actually, several points), but didn’t because: 1) I *hate* not finishing books; about the only time I can make myself quit a book is if it’s very early on and I convince myself that I’m just putting it down and may pick it up again and 2) I was interested in the mystery of the note and the phrase, “the destruction by fire of the entire World”, which led me to think there would be something bigger, something apocalyptic that was going to occur (rather than another description of a sandwich Si makes for himself). That turned out to be a total bust, more of a pun than anything. So yeah, that bugged me, too.