Book review: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Published on Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Book cover: The Time Traveler's WifeAudrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife isn’t the sort of book I’d expect to enjoy. In fact, I did everything I could to resist its premise for the first half or so, until I finally realized how much I liked the characters and wanted to learn what happens next.

Why was I so convinced that I wouldn’t enjoy it?

  • My sci-fi detectors were on high alert given the improbable premise.
  • I typically shy away from anything that could fit into the romance genre, however loosely.
  • The cover image is of the legs-and-feet variety, and thus makes me want to hurl.

Imagine my surprise when I stopped trying like mad to grasp the complicated rules of the time travel gimmick and was forced to admit that I really cared about the characters. (And, having stopped scoffing and rolling my eyes at the temporal mechanics, it all started to make perfect sense.)

Chicago librarian Henry DeTamble is the title time lord who meets Clare, his future wife, when she is a young girl and his 40-year-old self pays her a visit. Possessed of a genetic malformation that causes him to become “unstuck” in time, he jumps backward (and occasionally forward) to various points in his linear life, usually when under physical or emotional stress. The adult Henry, while visiting himself as a child, teaches the himself the arts of lock-picking and wallet-snatching — necessary skills for when he must quickly find clothing and money during his unexpected travels.

The foreknowledge his condition affords him is a blessing and a curse. It makes for some palpable tension as Henry and Clare encounter one another at different points in their lives — the teenaged Clare falls hard for visiting middle-aged Henry, who knows that they will wind up together but doesn’t yet know the circumstances. And their first “linear” encounter during their 20s reverses roles, since he hasn’t met her yet and is (happily) blindsided by her forwardness.

Their relationship, however steadfast and passionate, isn’t without trials. It’s touch-and-go on their wedding day whether Henry will actually be present to walk down the aisle. Clare never knows when or for how long Henry will be time-traveling. His taste for mood-altering substances verges on the immoderate. And Henry’s condition makes conceiving a child a difficult if not traumatic and near deadly undertaking for the couple.

Despite occasionally verging on the melodramatic, the characters are well-drawn, with complicated family histories and close (sometimes too close) friendships. Their dialogue is witty but not unnatural, which balances the suspension of disbelief the reader needs to accept the supernatural elements.

I was also gratified that my wonderful fiancé enjoyed it, too. This is probably a book I’ll read again, and I’m curious about her second novel, Her Fearful Suspicions, as well as the upcoming The Chinchilla Girl in Exile.

Thoughts on rereading Infinite Jest

Published on Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Or, wow, how did I miss so much the first time?

The bigger themes of choice vs. fascism, the paradox of infinite choice, the cycles of pleasure/satisfaction and pain/craving, the whole Marat-Sade angle, Hal as Hamlet paralyzed by indecision, the glorious hilarity of the Eschaton section, the incredibly satisfying Gaudeamus Igitur (i.e., Mario’s ONANtiad section), the heart-stopping tragedy of Joelle’s self-immolation, the theme of being caged (by desire, by addiction, by deformity), how a police lock would work to help one stand relatively upright, the whole looking and mirrors and light and reflections and film and angles, how the act of sticking with it, especially at the beginning when everything is all so new and a little perplexing and makes you want to chuck it just perfectly mirrors AA’s Keep Coming Back and Trust Us It Works, the deeper knowledge I now have of Boston informing descriptions and settings (before, I kind of chuckled at the Storrow 500; now, I can visualize the neighborhoods where the lowlifes and privileged and in-betweens make their way).

Other confluences:

  • Having seen the World of Warcraft documentary “Second Skin” (why can I never recall that title on my own?), I can’t help but connect WoW addiction with The Entertainment.
  • Having gotten a secondhand TiVo and completely loving how freeing it is (from having to sit still for a prescribed period of time at a specific date and time as well as from having to view advertising) as well as how beguilingly enslaving (I think I’m watching a lot more TV now than before). And the connection to InterLace and TPs and such.
  • And of course every mention of self-demappings of course reverberates and haunts.

I have had a tough time since David Foster Wallace killed himself. For months afterward, I’d glance at the fat faded-orange spine of IJ and kind of long for it, but feel too raw to even take it off the shelf. Matthew Baldwin’s Infinite Summer project seemed appealing but way too scary when it first kicked off, so now I’m interspersing sections of the novel with the amazing commentary and ideas from Infinite Summer, making the experience that much richer. I’m still deeply saddened that such an author is no longer here, but much of the fury about his suicide has dissipated from having re-immersed myself in his writing. As Mario Incandenza said when Madame Psychosis’ MIT-radio “60 Minutes +/-” radio show suddenly left the airwaves, “It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know.”

Bad transit

Published on Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

A new report on the MBTA finds that three-fifths of my commute is made of fearsome limb-rending deathtrack.

One example of an unfunded project that received the maximum safety score of “10” is the floating slabs and tunnel leak repair project between Alewife and Harvard stations on the Red Line.

This $80M project involves the complete removal and replacement of the existing system of floating concrete slabs beneath the Red Line tracks from Alewife to Harvard stations. “Floating” slabs rest atop a series of rubber disks that are designed to absorb the vibration of a train as it travels along the track.

Water leaking through the tunnel walls is creating several problems:

  • The leaking water is deteriorating the slabs themselves, causing sinking and misalignment of some slabs.
  • The water is corroding the fasteners that attach the track to the concrete.
  • In some areas, the fasteners are no longer holding the track in place, causing track to move out of alignment and presenting the possibility of train derailment.
  • In addition, the water is corroding the signal system along the track and compromising the cable and wire conduits.

The MBTA has been spiraling downward for the past several years, racking up astronomical debt and experiencing the massive fails in service and safety that go with it. I just hate to see a city that has the infrastructure already in place lose what might be its most vital mode of transportation for the majority of its citizens. I moved to Boston in large part because of its public transportation system, and it pains and frustrates me to watch as “signal delays” and “switching problems” and “disabled trains” become the rule rather than the exception.

This is rather nice

Published on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Has everyone already seen this?

Things I sometimes imagine against my will

Published on Monday, November 2nd, 2009
  • Ceiling tiles falling on my taxi while driving through any of the Big Dig tunnels.
  • Water flooding in when in any of the Big Dig harbor tunnels.
  • Someone hip-checking me off the subway platform into the path of an oncoming train. (Or even just onto the third rail.)
  • My hand slipping when I’m shaving my underarms and the blade slicing open my eye, all Chien Andalou-stylee.