Ever since Andrew Marvell lamented: ‘had I but world enough and time…’ the passage of time has been a cliche of romantic writing. Love is eternal, yet love inevitably runs into the end of time when Romeo and Juliet lie dead in each other’s arms. Now two debut novelists have both found ways to twist time to the service of the love story, and though both are replete with science-fictional, or at least fantastic, devices, both have been published theoretically as mainstream novels. Perhaps when the metaphor of science fiction is familiar is when a work stops being dismissed as science fiction.
Both of the novels have considerable strengths and occasional weaknesses, both promise much for the writer’s future. Of the two, I think The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (Cape, 2004) is fractionally the stronger, partly because the emotion of the love story hits you right from the start and is sustained throughout the book, even at those moments when you think there cannot be anywhere fresh for her to go. The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer (Faber, 2004) has, if anything, a more complex and interesting love story, but because one vital strand of it is hidden, or smothered, until very close to the end of the book, most of the novel is not punching to its full weight. Niffenegger is not afraid of sentiment, but fortunately avoids sentimentality, you are emotionally linked to her characters from the very first words; Greer is altogether cooler and his characters are less likeable, it takes time to get to know them and feel anything for them. Niffenegger’s book ranges from the late 1960s to 2053, but because her focus is so tightly on her two protagonists there is hardly any period detail at all; Greer takes us further back in time, ranging from the 1870s to the 1930s, and period detail is one of the rich streams of the book, anchoring us very precisely in the time of which he writes.
The Time Traveler’s Wife – you know, I’m vaguely irritated that Cape kept the American spelling for the title – is the story of Henry and Clare from their first meeting, when Henry is 36 and Clare is 6, to their last meeting, when Henry is 43 and Clare is 82. Henry is cast loose in time; without warning and without control (though usually in times of stress) he disappears from the present leaving just a pile of clothes, and reappears naked in another time. Niffenegger is good on the mundane details of such an affliction: the need to find clothes, which means developing skills in picking locks and stealing; the risks of frostbite, of assault, of arrest; the chance of materialising before people you know or in places that cannot be escaped; and the fatalism that comes with knowing what is going to happen. There are occasions when it feels Niffenegger is throwing something new into the pot simply to sustain a drama that is running low on energy; but these moments come early in the novel and before too long she has the flow of what she is telling and from then on she feels fully in control of her narrative. It is a tragedy, of course, anything in which our mortality is highlighted has to be a tragedy, but it is a tragedy to be read with genuine relish.
By those lights, The Confessions of Max Tivoli is also a tragedy, in many ways even more so because more people are harmed by the way time is made sclerotic; yet it feels as though it were written as a comedy, and it was only gradually that Greer began to realise how unfunny the story had to be. Here the central character, Max, is not cut loose in time, but disfigured by it. He is born old, and grows younger; but because everything in his life runs directly counter to those around him, his attempts to love are blighted also. As an apparently old man of 17 he falls in love with 14-year-old Alice, but she, not unnaturally, rejects him. In middle age he meets Alice again (she doesn’t recognise him) and they marry, though the marriage is not a success. Finally, as an old man who appears to be 11, he worms his way into Alice’s family, sharing a room with his son (who is older) and about to be adopted by his wife. Thus the bones of the novel, but this love story has two other strands, both of which focus on Hughie, the one person who knows Max’s secret and stays loyal to him throughout his life. We know that Alice, as a child, fell in love with Hughie and regarded him as the one true love of her life, though Max contrives to separate them. (Both of these novels suggest that anyone disordered by time must be ruthless.) What we are not told, until half-way through the book, is that Hughie is homosexual (in America at the turn of the twentieth century, Max sees that as a disfigurement much like his own, but that interesting comparison is not developed); and it is not until the last pages of the novel that we learn that Hughie has been in love with Max all along. This self-destructive triangle is the real tragedy of the novel, but it never becomes the focus of the novel because of the way that Greer deliberately hides the one side of the triangle that makes the structure stable. I suspect he felt that bringing this into focus would detract from the originality of the notion of aging backwards; on the contrary I feel it would probably have given it even more meat.
First published at Livejournal, 23 October 2004.