Friday, June 17, 2011

Hey, That's Not Fantasy: Thoughts on The Time Traveler's Wife

The Time Traveler's WifeA few weeks ago, I was browsing the Scifi/Fantasy section of my local library, looking for things to read, and I came across a copy of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife.  I had wanted to read it when it first came out in 2003, but never had the patience to wait in line for it at the library, so I forgot about it.  This time, though, I checked it out--and spent the next few days engrossed in a very thought-provoking novel.

When I got to the end, though, my lingering thought was: "I'm not sure it counts as fantasy."

I immediately felt guilty--and I continue to feel hesitant about saying it's not fantasy.  I've never thought of myself as elitist or snobbish about what counts as fantasy or what doesn't.  In fact, much of my research involves looking at ways the fantastic impulse shows up in all sorts of works that are not usually thought of as fantasy.  Sure, I think there is good fantasy/scifi and bad fantasy/scifi (as I have said before), but that recognition of quality has never included the impulse to push books out of the genre altogether.

Plus, I had enjoyed the book.  I thought it was an intriguing idea, and I thought it introduced questions of fate and free will in a way that was intellectually challenging, yet also appropriate to the characters in the novel.  So it wasn't like I was trying to disown a book that I thought was lousy.

Blade RunnerNo, the reason that I don't think The Time Traveler's Wife is fantasy/scifi in the same way that The Lord of the Rings or Blade Runner or even something a bit more interstitial, like The City and The City is, is that the questions that keep you reading have, at their very heart, nothing to do with the fantastic.  In Lord of the Rings, the question is, "Will Frodo destroy the One Ring and save Middle-Earth?"  In Blade Runner, the question is, "Will Deckard catch all the replicants?"  And in The City and The City, the question is, "Is Orciny real?"  All of these questions deal in some way with magic, futuristic technology, or the fantastic.  Even more than this, these elements are more than just a structure on which the action of the novel takes place--they are the driving force behind the action.

In The Time Traveler's Wife, however, the question that drove me to keep reading was, at first, "When do Clare and Henry first have sex?"  Yes, the question was slightly complicated by the odd chronology created by Henry's time-traveling, but at its heart, it was a question about love and relationships, not fantasy.  After I learned that, my question became, "When is Henry going to leave Clare forever?"--which, again, is a question that focuses on their relationship.  I got the impression throughout the novel that Henry's time-traveling was not the focus of the story; rather, it was a frame on which to tell the story of Henry and Clare's (albeit unconventional) relationship.

Another reason that I'm not sure Niffenegger's novel fits with other science fiction/fantasy is that I kept thinking that Henry's time-traveling could be replaced by a different medical condition that actually exists, such as amnesia or a form of mental illness, and the story would remain the same.  So much of the story was about Clare's waiting--waiting for the man she knew and loved to come back to her and remember the same things about their relationship that she did.  Again, this is another way in which the supernatural elements of the novel are secondary to the main focus--a love story.

The thing is, though, I'm not sure it really matters that I don't think of The Time Traveler's Wife as science fiction or fantasy, because I do think it is important to think of the novel in connection with these genres.  Not only does thinking like this help us (both individually as well as collectively) figure out what we mean by science fiction and fantasy, but it also shows shows us how fantastic elements can be part of novels in any literary genre.

But most interesting for me is how this line of thinking illuminates how influential genre is in shaping how we read something.  When reading The Time Traveler's Wife as science fiction, I would be more inclined to think about questions of alternate universes and the mechanics of time travel.  When reading The Time Traveler's Wife as a romance, I would be more likely to wonder about the nature of Henry and Clare's relationship, and whether or not either of them had a choice in falling in love with the other.  Similar questions, yes, but not the same.  And it is perhaps in these differences that the most interesting questions are to be found.