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The Time Traveler's Wife
A Novel
Audrey Niffenegger

Published by MacAdam/Cage/CA in 2003
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2006


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I'm too late — I'll come back earlier.

That is not a quote from this novel, but it might have been. We are treated to a dizzying array of spontaneous time traveling by Henry. His wife and close friends' usual question when Henry appears suddenly, stark naked, is "When did you come from?" Diagnosed with a new genetic illness to be called Chrono Impairment, Henry lives by popping in and out of his past, present, and future to the discomfort of himself, his friends, and his long-suffering wife, Clare. To his discomfort because he leaves behind all his clothes and possessions when he time travels and must immediately locate clothes and food when he re-appears. To survive he teaches himself lock-picking, pick-pocketing, and various schemes of acquiring shelter and food while staying under the radar of the disbelieving public. Yes, this story, novel as it is, is unbelievable and that is Henry and Clare's challenge in life: to live an unbelievable life as it unfolds for them, never knowing where or when things will change. Clare doesn't know when Henry disappears where or when to find him. Henry never knows where or when he is either and must ask that silly question, "What year is this?" of someone in the absence of any other chronological references in his surroundings.

Luckily Henry works in a large library where he is such an esteemed employee that his long absences and strange behaviors, like being spotted naked in the back stacks when he returns from a travel, are excused. Given such a strange existence, how does Henry ever find a woman and become married? Well, he meets Clare when she is six in a meadow. He befriends her and asks if she would get him some food and clothes, which she does. Upon further visits, Henry finds a stash of food and clothes in a nearby bush left by Clare. Through various stratagems as this he is able to sustain some of the time dislocations with minor inconvenience.

How the author keeps track of the time dislocations is ingenious. The entire novel is written from Henry and Clare's perspective in the first person. If Henry is the narrator, the segment which may be pages or a sentence or two long is prefaced by the annotation, "Henry:" and similarly "Clare:" for the time traveler's wife. But the date and the age of the couple must be added as well and that is done by an italics entry set off by blank lines before the chapter or segment of text, e. g., the chapter "Experiencing Technical Difficulties" on page 396 begins with this time and age stamp:

Friday, May 7, 2004 (Henry is 40, Clare is 32)

That just happens to be the present for Clare as she is 8 years younger than Henry. A couple of short chapters later on page 402 it is Clare's birthday. The chapter heading is "Birthday" with:

Wednesday, May 24, 1989 (Henry is 41, Clare is 18)

And so it goes, Clare ages and Henry jumps into and out of her life at various ages. One naturally wonders about what might be called the Prime Directive of Time Travel, "Thou Shalt Not Report on the Future to Anyone in the Past." The author dispatches that chimera with elan, having Henry aver simply that nothing one can learn of the future will change the past. Even so, Henry is stingy with his use of future information, opting once to win a lottery to provide a large studio for Clare's sculpture works, but otherwise rarely shares it with anyone, even Clare. Clare picks up hints about her future life and Henry's future death from presuppositions in things Henry says, and that's about it. If one is able to "remember the future" — as I postulate in Matherne's Rule #36 "Remember the future. It hums in the present." — then we are each of us privy in unconscious ways to our own future and make decisions based on the feelings which arrive as time waves from the future, just as Clare does when Henry arrives as a real-life time wave from the future.

The story of the Time Traveler's Wife opens with this short setup:

[page 1] Clare: It's hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one who stays.
       I keep myself busy. Time goes faster that way.

Time goes faster in this story because it jumps around constantly and unexpectedly. Henry's first words, interestingly, are "How does it feel?" and he answers the question. Since time waves from the future arrive, not as conscious memories, but as feelings, it makes sense that Henry would focus on "How does it feel?" He answers:

[page 1, 2] Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant. Then, with a start, you realize that the book you were holding, the red plaid cotton shirt with white buttons, the favorite black jeans and the maroon socks with an almost-hole in one heel, the living room, the about-to-whistle tea kettle in the kitchen: all of these have vanished. Your are standing, naked as a jaybird, up to your ankles in water in a ditch along an unidentified rural route.

This was Henry's lifelong challenge: to find himself popping up naked in the middle of nowhere recognizable and to find a way to procure clothing, food, and shelter without raising attention of people who would naturally want an explanation for his unusual predicament, but would certainly not believe his true explanation. He became, along his way through the years of the past and future, an expert in lying and stealing as the only avenue available to him for simply surviving without being locked up as a lunatic.

Their first date is memorable. Clare is 20 and Henry is 28 and he hasn't met Clare yet when she was 6, but Clare shows up at the library where Henry works and she knows him from 6 and many times in the years between 6 and 20. She is in love with him, but he doesn't know her. She squeals with delight and he recoils with fright. Clare:

[page 8] "Henry!" I can barely refrain from throwing my arms around him. It is obvious that he has never seen me before in his life."
       "Have we met? I'm sorry, I don't . . . " Henry is glancing around us, worrying that readers, co-workers are noticing us, searching his memory and realizing that some future self of his has met this radiantly happy girl standing in front of him. The last time I saw him he was sucking my toes in the Meadow.

Clare strives to persuade Henry to have dinner or a coffee with her and in her head expresses this hope for success, "Surely he has to say ye, this Henry who loves me in the past and the future must love me now in bat-squeak echo of other time." It is those "bat-squeak echoes" which reach us as a time-wave from the future and influence our decisions in the present. Henry reluctantly agrees and describes how he feels when he says yes to her dinner invitation. He is overwhelmed by a feeling and has no clue as to why. Henry:

[page 10] As I stand in the elevator, dazed, I realize that a massive winning lottery ticket chunk of my future has somehow found me here in the present, and I start to laugh. I cross the lobby, and as I run down the stairs to the street I see Clare running across Washington Square, jumping and whooping, and I am near tears and I don't know why.

When we meet someone for the first time, we feel things which hit us as a time wave of feelings from the future. As feelings, they are not accompanied by knowledge. Someone who does not respect or notice feelings as they arise, will not know what I'm talking about. Take the process of "Love at first sight" — how easy it is to understand it if we recognize that time waves from the future hit us when we meet someone who will become an enormous part of our life in the coming years? It is as if all those good feelings from the future enter us in waves and lacking any consciousness of the cause, we may be puzzled and yet still attracted to someone who makes us feel so good.

When we meet someone we already know who pops up in our lives unexpectedly, we are likely to ask, "Where are you coming from?" With Clare, when Henry pops up in her life, she asks him, "When are you coming from?" This would become an idiomatic expression in a world in which Chrono Impairment were a reality. On their first date we hear the curious construction used for the first time(1). Henry:

[page 14] I stop eating and look at Clare. She looks back at me, serene, angelic, perfectly at ease. "Are we going to get married?"
       "I assume so," she replies. "You've been telling me for years that whenever it is you're coming from, you're married to me."

Henry asks Clare about her family and Clare tells him about Mark and Alicia, her siblings. In a short sentence Clare is able to express her fondness for Alicia and her neutral attitude toward Mark. How does she do it? It's certainly not in her words. Henry: (Clare speaks first, then Henry.)

[page 16] "Mark is twenty-two and finishing pre-law at Harvard. Alicia is seventeen and a senior in high school. She's cellist." I detect affection for the sister and a certain flatness for the brother. "You aren't too fond of your brother?"

How does Henry detect this difference in Clare's affectation for her sister and her brother? "It must be something in the air," Richard Bandler told us in a hypnosis seminar back in 1981. Do you know what it is? The simple answer is "tone" but that raises the deeper question of how can the tone of one's words allow another person to detect whether someone likes another person or not? This detection process is doylicly based. Doyles are physical body states stored from events before five years old in everyone. During those first years of our life, we learn how we feel when we like someone and when we don't like or have no affection for someone. Our internal body states of muscle tension determine how our voice will sound. If you don't believe this is true, try this quick experiment. Tighten your stomach muscles and try to say something softly and sweetly. It's impossible. When I do it, my voice gets high and squeaky. When you think of a person in the course of a conversation, the memory of them triggers a doylic memory of like/dislike and your bodily states and muscle tensions change due to the unconscious doylic memories which arise. When you listen to someone else talking, your own body triggers similar doylic memories in you and your own bodily states of tension change. You recognize those changes and you are able to deduce from the way your own body changes whether the person speaking likes the person they are talking about or not. Thus when Clare spoke three short factual sentences about Mark and Alicia, Henry knew that Clare liked Alicia better.

When Clare confides in Grandma that she is going to marry Henry and that his time-traveler nature is just the next step in evolution, she gets this reaction. Clare:

[page 126] Grandma shakes her head. "That is just as bad as being a demon. Goodness, Clare, why in the world would you want to marry such a person? Think of the children you would have! Popping into next week and back before breakfast!"
       I laugh. "But it will be exciting! Like Mary Poppins, or Peter Pan."
       She squeezes my hands just a little. "Think for a minute, darling: in fairy tales it's always the children who have the fine adventures. The mothers have to stay at home and wait for the children to fly in the window."

When Henry meets Gomez in 1991, he confides in him that they will be good friends in 2000 so Gomez asks about his future. Henry declines and in the process explain how time travel works in a deterministic fashion — knowing what's going to happen can't change it anyway. So the best way to avoid the weirdness which accompanies this fact is not to share other people's fates with them. Henry:

[page 142] "Gomez. Things happen. Knowing about them in advance makes everything . . . weird. You can't change anything anyway."
       "Causation only runs forward. Things happen once, only once. If you know things . . . I feel trapped, most of the time. If you are in time, not knowing . . . you're free. Trust me." He looks frustrated. "You'll be the best man at our wedding. I'll be yours. You have a great life, Gomez. But I'm not going to tell you the particulars."

Gomez asks for a stock tip and Henry relents and tells him to buy technology stocks when the Internet arrives on the scene, especially in 2000. Later Henry comments about his weird life, "Just another routine day at the office for Library Boy." (Page 143) Gomez would not really believe Henry until he did his disappearing act — that seemed to be the only convincer for most people. Clare asks why Gomez believed Henry's story. Clare: (Gomez speaks, then Clare)

[page 145] "Well, he's so fucking nonchalant. I could tell that he absolutely knew me, through and through. He had my number, and he didn't care. And then he — vanished, and I was standing there, and I just . . . had to. Believe."
       I nod, sympathetically. "The disappearing is pretty impressive. I remember that from my very first time, when I was little. He was shaking my hand, and poof! he was gone. Hey, when was he coming from?"
       "2000. He looked a lot older."

What happens if Henry goes back into the past and meets himself? It's pretty much like having some old friend you owe a lot of favors to drop in unexpectedly and makes himself at home, or as in this episode "makes himself at bed." In episodes like this one, the author makes the reader face oneself as if someone else and learn about what it is to be oneself.

[page 148, 149]

Saturday, December 22, 1991

(Henry is 28, and 33)

HENRY: At 5:25 a.m. the doorbell rings, always an evil omen. I stagger to the intercom and push the button.
       "Hey. Let me in." I press the button again and the horrible buzzing noise that signifies Welcome to My Hearth and Home is transmitted over the line. Forty-five seconds later the elevator clunks and starts to ratchet its way up. I pull on my robe, I go out and stand in the hall and watch the elevator cables moving through the little safety-glass window. The cage hovers into sight and stops, and sure enough, it's me.
       He slides open the cage door and steps into the corridor, naked, unshaven, and sporting really short hair. We quickly cross the empty hall and duck into the apartment. I close the door and we stand for a moment looking ourselves over.
       "Well," I say, just for something to say. "How goes it?"
       "So-so. What's the date?"
       "December 22, 1991. Saturday:'
       "Oh — Violent Femmes at the Aragon tonight?"
       "Yep. "
       He laughs. "Shit. What an abysmal evening that was." He walks over to the bed — my bed — and climbs in, pulls the covers over his head. I plop down beside him.
       "Hey." No response. "When are you from?"
       "November 13, 1996. I was on my way to bed. So let me get some sleep, or you will be sincerely sorry in five years."
       This seems reasonable enough. I take off my robe and get back into bed. Now I'm on the wrong side of the bed, Clare's side, as I think of it these days, because my doppelgänger has commandeered my side.
       Everything is subtly different on this side of the bed. It's like when you close one eye and look at something close up for a while, and then look at it from the other eye. I lie there doing this, looking at the armchair with my clothes scattered over it, a peach pit at the bottom of a wine glass on the windowsill, the back of my right hand. My nails need cutting and the apartment could probably qualify for Federal Disaster Relief funds. Maybe my extra self will be willing to pitch in, help out around the house a little, earn his keep. I run my mind over the contents of the refrigerator and pantry and conclude that we are well provisioned. I am planning to bring Clare home with me tonight and I'm not sure what to do with my superfluous body. It occurs to me that Clare might prefer to be with this later edition of me, since after all they do know each other better. For some reason this plunges me into a funk. I try to remember that anything subtracted now will be added later, but I still feel fretful and wish that one of us would just go away.
       I ponder my double. He's curled up, hedgehog style, facing away from me, evidently asleep. I envy him. He is me, but I'm not him, yet. He has been through five years of a life that's still mysterious to me, still coiled tightly waiting to spring out and bite. Of course, whatever pleasures are to be had, he's had them; for me they wait like a box of unpoked chocolates.

And what happens when Clare finally meets Henry in the present time, after so many years of having him pop up from anywhen at odd times in her life and never knowing how to contact him or where he might be living? She likens herself to Dorothy who tells her dog, "Toto. I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." She talks about how it's different being with Henry in real time. Clare:

[page 160] When I was growing up Henry came and went, and our encounters were concentrated and dramatic and unsettling. Henry had a lot of stuff he wasn't going to tell me, and most of the time he wouldn't let me get anywhere near him, so I always had this intense, unsatisfied feeling. When I finally found him in the present, I thought it would be like that. But in fact it's so much better, in many ways. First and foremost, instead of refusing to touch me at all, Henry is constantly touching me, kissing me, making love to me. I feel as though I have become a different person, one who is bathed in a warm pool of desire. And he tells me things! Anything I ask him about himself, his life, his family — he tells me, with names, places, dates. Things that seemed utterly mysterious to me as I a child are revealed as perfectly logical. But the best thing of all is that I see him for long stretches of time-hours, days. I know where to find him. He goes to work, he comes home. Sometimes I open my address book just to look at the entry: Henry DeTamble, 714 Dearborn, lL, Chicago, IL 60610,312-431-8313. A last name, an address, a phone number. I can call him on the phone. It's a miracle. I feel like Dorothy, when her house crash-landed in Oz and the world turned from black and white to color. We're not in Kansas anymore.

At one point Clare asks Henry, "Do you ever have déja vu?" and Henry sighs. "My life is one long déja vu." (Page 173) At another point, Henry's dad asks Clare, "Why on earth would a lovely girl like you want to marry Henry?" Her answer reveals the sense of humor that the characters in this book evince and which adds to the reader's enjoyment as one paws through its five hundred plus pages. Clare:

[page 232] Everything in the room seems to hold its breath. Henry stiffens but doesn't say anything. I lean forward and smile at Mr. DeTamble and say, with enthusiasm, as though he has asked me what flavor of ice cream I like best: "Because he's really, really good in bed." In the kitchen there's a howl of laughter. Mr. DeTamble glances at Henry, who raises his eyebrows and grins, and finally even Mr. DeTamble smiles, and says "Touché, my dear."

Henry's doctor, Kendrick, refuses to believe Henry until at last he sees Henry disappear. It was another time trip to see himself, this time at age 8, as Henry blithely explains to Kendrick after he returns to where and when he left him to retrieve and don his clothes. Clare:

[page 308] Henry sticks his head in the driver's side door. "Hello." He grabs his clothing and starts to get dressed. Kendrick gets out of the car and trots around to us.
       "Where were you?"
       "1971. I was drinking Ovaltine with myself, as an eight-year-old, in my old bedroom, at one in the morning. I was there for about an hour. Why do you ask?" Henry regards Kendrick coldly as he knots his tie.
       "You can go on saying that as long as you want, but unfortunately it's true."
       "You mean you became eight years old?"
       "No. I mean I was sitting in my old bedroom in my dad's apartment, in 1971, just as I am, thirty-two years old, in the company of myself, at eight. Drinking Ovaltine. We were chatting about the incredulity of the medical profession." Henry walks around to the side of the car and opens the door. "Clare, let's vamoose. This is pointless."

Later on Henry makes a trip into the future and meets his daughter Alba at a museum where she is on a field trip with her fifth grade Catholic school class. She recognizes Henry and breaks away from the group in a sprint to her father's arms, saying "Daddy" repeatedly. The teacher asks, "Who are you?" and Henry replies, "I'm Henry DeTamble, Alba's father." The teacher doesn't know what to think. Henry:

[page 373] The teacher is almost wringing her hands. "Sir, Alba's father is dead."
       I am speechless. But Alba, daughter mine, has a grip on the situation.
       "He's dead," she tells her teacher. "But he's not continuously dead."

Henry is a master at breaking into and out of things, but there was one thing which he feared, the Cage at the Newberry library where he worked. Some artifact of an earlier incarnation of the building, it had no entrances nor exits, just a hard, solid wired cage, which, if he ever chrono-displaced into it, he would be stuck there indefinitely with no clothing or food. As luck would have it, he plops into the Cage one June day in 2006 at age 43. His condition upon arrival is similar in many respects to how he arrives at other times and places when he chrono-displaces, only this time he surely knows where he has arrived, if not when. Henry:

[page 440] Henry: I come to in the dark, on a cold concrete floor. I try to sit up, but I get dizzy and I lie down again. My head is aching. I explore with my hands; there's a big swollen area just behind my left ear. As my eyes adjust, I see the faint outlines of stairs, and Exit signs, and far above me a lone fluorescent bulb emitting cold light. All around me is the criss-crossed steel pattern of the Cage. I'm at the Newberry, after hours, inside the Cage.

Once you begin reading this novel, you're in the Cage, and there is nothing you can do but to accept your fate and read through the end until the crossed wire bars of the Cage disappear and you find yourself Chrono-Displacing with Henry back and forth over his criss-crossed life, criss-crossed like the endless and exitless Cage that we all call life.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. Once after Henry pops up (Page 43), Clare thinks “I realize he’s been elsewhen.”

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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