Time and Again by Jack Finney
I can't believe I let almost an entire month go by before I posted anything, but having had to choose between the blog and the book (time constraints and all that) I naturally chose the latter. That being said, I've been able to read very few books this new year, that is to say, I've finished only one. This. But what a book.
Stephen King called Time and Again the great time travel novel at the end of what I'd then thought was the great time travel novel. Needless to say, he was right.
Time and Again by Jack Finney is essentially a mystery. And the story is driven by that very curiosity, that pressing need to find out what happened, to piece together a puzzle no matter how little or inconsequential. When artist Simon Morley is recruited by the government to take part in a highly classified experiment to go back in time, he chooses to go to New York, in the winter of 1882. Why? To trace a mysterious letter that drove his girlfriend's grandfather to suicide. Again, why? Because something so curiously small in scope is just what they need as Si's project: to see if making a largely inconspicuous change in history alters the present, to see if the experiment could be used to increase our understanding and knowledge of the past, mostly because, why not?
Of course, while the plot would kind of collapse without this mystery (What did the letter that made Andrew Carmody kill himself really contain and who sent it?) at its heart, the book is about New York city. Of the present day, which in case of this book is 1970 and of the past. To someone who has actually been to New York, I'm not sure how the book will read; but to me it is fascinating and vivid. The descriptions are accompanied by illustrations, in the form of oldish photos and sketches that Si makes. Comparing the descriptions with the pictures is endlessly intriguing; the atmosphere couldn't have been better translated into words. When in 1882, Si falls in love, it's not with the one woman but with the entire city and who wouldn't?
Finally, I love the sheer simplicity of this concept of time travel. In Time and Again, feeling that you are a part of January 1882, brushing away all your awareness of the present century and replacing it with the past, convincing yourself that you are travelling in time, that 1882 is your present, is the key to going back. As is explained to Si, our present is the constant subconscious awareness we get from all the knowledge fed into us and around us and all our modern surroundings and memories. Without this knowledge or with the ability to extract ourselves from this constant certainty, to remove the continuous feeding of ‘presentness’ into our subconscious, we might find ourselves in the past. Time travel in this book involves a self hypnosis of sorts, under the right conditions.
And I love the history that Si lives. When he first sees a man up close in 1882, he is taken aback by how real he looks, how not-out-of-a-photograph his face is, red from the cold, and how he surely looks at the world from the eyes of someone from the nineteenth century without even being aware of it. I loved how Si blurts out to a driver that there should have been traffic signals. How he finds the furniture old fashioned and then a moment later, realizes the irony. It is amazing that when they make Si study the past, they make him look not at rags saved up in a museum but things that are just as new but different from today - beautiful things women would actually want to wear, the shoes, the dresses.
The ending: that's just the most amazing thing. I felt bad there was a sequel. I don't see myself reading it. This, on the other hand, I'd recommend to everyone. Hasn't the length of this post already convinced you? Get the book here.