Thursday, January 28, 2010

"The Cults of the Famous and the Dead"

Todd submitted this article in response to two recent novels about men out of place in the modern world. He fears the Internet and disavows new technologies; follow him on Twitter! To contribute a review or other literary musings to Attic Salt, e-mail


I finally got around to Audrey Niffenegger’s oft-recommended The Time Traveler’s Wife this week. By coincidence, this immediately followed the new Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed, making two-in-a-row post-White Noise novels about the effects of debilitating disease on otherwise loving and fruitful marriages. What I’m left with is that Ferris knows his pathos, while The Time Traveler’s Wife gets added to the list of wildly popular entertainments that make me feel like I’m living alone in a nation of people speaking a different language.

What do people see in The Time Traveler’s Wife? I’d love to know. Is it the sense of accomplishment at getting through a 500-plus-page book that spells everything out in the first 50? Is it the on-the-nose statement of themes? Niffenegger treats book-club hot topics such as “free will v. predestination” and “true love v. adversity” with all the nuance and subtlety of a slasher flick serial killer opening wounds with a large kitchen knife. “…sometimes you tell me something and I feel like the future is already there, you know?” muses the 13-year-old Clare to the 36-year-old Henry, her future husband, early in the book. “Like my future has happened in the past and I can’t do anything about it.” Henry replies, “That’s called determinism. It haunts my dreams.” Much later, when adult Clare has taken up painting pictures of birds in cages, Henry wins the lottery for her. Hooey.

In Niffenegger’s unwillingness to toy with her “chrono-impairment” premise, she sets up an internal logic where the entire story is laid out in the first 50 pages of the book. She uses the rest of her ink telling you things you already know, throwing around dramatic miscarriages that are all the more unbearable for the knowledge that Henry and Clare will, in fact, have a beautiful, perfect, time-traveling daughter. This is a love story wrought with tension but devoid of mystery or possibility. The dual narrators’ extreme angst is borne of a happy and loving relationship that actually lasts quite a bit longer than most (from Clare’s age 6 to age 82, at least). I fail to see anything interesting in this, especially when stretched over 500 sensationalist pages.

Niffenegger, presumably paid by the word, fills entire chapters with thinly-veiled semi-autobiographical indulgences. Step-by-step descriptions of Clare making fancy paper in her art studio regularly perforate the already-flimsy forward momentum of her story. Niffenegger also gives Clare her own hometown (South Haven, MI) and adopted home city (Chicago) to serve as the two major settings. The book regularly reads like a series of Yelp reviews, detailing “Clare’s” favorite restaurants, museums and clubs in the Chicagoland area: “The waitress arrives, and we hurriedly consult our menus. I don’t want to bicker in Katsu, my favorite sushi restaurant, a place we eat at a lot. I reflect that Henry is counting on this, in addition to the intrinsic happiness of sushi, to placate me. We order goma-ae, hijiki, futomaki, kappamaki, and an impressive array of raw things on rice rectangles.” It’s one of the more graceless attempts that I’ve read by an author to shoehorn irrelevant agendas into a fiction— the book will even give you directions to some of these places, and their owners all get thanked in the acknowledgments.

But if you want an example of successfully integrating the setting into the mood and character of a piece, go to Ferris, who used Chicago pretty decently in his first-person-plural debut, Then We Came To The End, and sets most of The Unnamed in and around New York City. The hero here is Tim Farnsworth, an over-worked lawyer who doesn’t spend enough time with his family anyway but spends even less when afflicted with an unheard-of illness that drives him to set off on compulsory, involuntary walks. His legs have minds of their own, and his disease is weird, hilarious, pitiful and impossible to diagnose or cure.

The Unnamed takes the right note from White Noise, the paranoia-fueled college campus of which mirrors the suburban upper-middle class malaise of Tim and his wife and daughter. Pre-apocalypse looms throughout the book; nature itself seems to be whispering in Tim’s ear that though he may feel alone, he is not. The city of New York is Tim’s comfort zone and he is often stricken to leave it, on foot, to nowhere and for no purpose.

You take these two afflictions at face value and they are pretty much the same thing:  Tim and Henry are forced to cope with implausible, unbelievable diseases that threaten to destroy their marriages. The compulsory walking and the compulsory time travel relentlessly destroy everything from their physical bodies to their emotional well-being. But even as Henry’s chrono-impairment is unlikely to ever strike in our real world, Tim’s walking takes on a fantastical quality that actually anchors the story in its dying-world setting. The phrase for this is “internal logic,” in which Ferris could give Niffenegger a lesson or two. The Unnamed feels like a more inventive fiction than a story about time travel, and then manages to strike at our very real heartstrings in the exact same way The Time Traveler’s Wife fails to. The threat to Tim’s marriage, sanity and body is palpable, the dénouement heartbreaking. The Unnamed is a fable of our times, dealing in personal disconnection, technophobia and globalization with a deep empathy. The Time Traveler’s Wife is just cheese, and Swiss at that, full of holes and short on ham.


  1. Your arguments against "The Time Traveler's Wife" are pretty spot on. In an attempt to figure out why people (and seemingly very intelligent people) love this book and recommend it all the time, I would say it's the kind of timeless quality of the love story. That Clare and Henry manage to stay together despite the time traveling, when it would probably be easier for them to break up, appeals to the die-hard romantics. That would be my guess, though I can think of some amazing love stories that are also brilliant. "Love in the Time of Cholera" for one.

    I think Niffenegger's second book, "Her Fearful Symmetry," shows great improvement in her writing, but it's ultimately the similarities to 19th century sensation fiction that pulled me in.

  2. Wouldn't take much to improve the writing.

    As for the timelessness of the love story, yawwwwn. This doesn't appeal to die-hard romantics, or I'd love it. This appeals to- ...wait, no, I'm gonna stop there. I'm really trying to work on my ad hominem attacks.

  3. I loathe ttw. Its right up there with bridges of madison county in terms of sap. Then again, I didn't like girl with the dragon tattoo or lovely bones and twilight or dan brown anything. they're all tinny.

    have you read let the great world spin? what did you think?

  4. I haven't read it, but it's one of those books I keep seeing around and it sounds great. Have you picked it up yet?

  5. Oooh, well, I wouldn't include Larsson on that list. But here's to cheering down low common denominators anyway.

  6. I think I liked this book because I am sucker for stories about time travel and books involving dead parents that leave behind messy families that ultimately get fixed. I liked Henry's story enormously, Claire bored me, and I must own that I didn't really notice the writing while reading it-- although the bits you've exerpted here are truly attrocious.

    I'd chalk it's enduring popularity up to the fact that medium-smart 20-something women need romance novels too, only they don't let themselves read actual romances. This book is easy to read and unintimidating (unlike Amy's example of One Hundred Years of Solitude), but it looks like a real, live grown-up person's book. It's shelved in the regualr fiction section, and has an innocuous title. Because it really grew slowly, being handed from friend to friend, it never had a only losers like this book stigma attached to it (like The Bridges of Madison County and Twilight). There's just enough weirdness in it that it doesn't just feel like a love story, which women aren't supposed to like.

    That said, women (and I'd imagine men too, if they gave themselves permission to) find great satisfaction in well-resolved romantic plots. I'd say this book has all the guilty pleasures of a good romance novel, but gussied up with enough middle-brow literary pretension that middle-smart girls don't actually have to be guilty when they tell their friends they loved it, and pass it along.

    At least, that's my theory, lengthily articulated.

  7. Sorry, that post is riddled with [sic] attrocious [sic] typos. Only one worth correcting immediately, though, is that "which women aren't supposed to like" should have read "which smart, 20-something women aren't supposed to like."