11 July 2010

Why I Love Time Travel

READ
Time and Again by Jack Finney (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995, 1970)
In the Hebrides by Alice Starmore (Blairstown, N.J.: Broad Bay, 1996, 1995)

PURCHASED OR CHECKED OUT
Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009)
Private Life by Jane Smiley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture by Kirsten Olson (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009)
Culture Wise England: The Essential Guide to Culture, Customs & Business Etiquette by David Hampshire & Liz Opalka (London: Survival Books, 2007). From the St. Paul Public Library
A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution by Dennis Baron (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). From the St. Paul Public Library

STARTED
The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky by Charles Laird Calia (New York: Jeremy T. Tarcher / Penguin, 2005). From the St. Paul Public Library

STILL READING
Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (Kindle edition)
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend (New York: Little, Brown, 2009). Kindle edition
Hot (Broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too by Nancy Trejos (New York: Business Plus, 2010)
The Accidental Webmaster by Julie M. Still (Medford, N.J.: Information Today, 2003). From the St. Paul Public Library

Those of you who have read this blog in the past month — all twelve of you — will notice that my new access to a Kindle has not diminished my book-acquiring zeal. ("Book" here refers to the thing with pages that requires ink, glue, and wood pulp to create.) Nor, alas, has the new job I started this past week decreased my optimistic belief that I have all the time in the world to read any book I want. Add this to the fact that I am biking to work instead of taking the reader-friendly bus, and, ceteris parabis, this poor blog is on a path to becoming a logjam (blogjam?) of unread material.

Fortunately I'm going to the cabin in a week or so. (Yes, I know: Take a new job, go on vacation. It's a very nice job.) The cabin is a traditional place of reading, especially when it rains, so I hope the ceteris will not be parabis for long. On the other hand, because the cabin is a traditional place of reading, it is well-stocked with the detritus of the family's past literary passions, most very long past. More than once, this unwary reader has there found herself drawn into the spell of Mary Stewart, Agatha Christie, or Nancy Drew, to emerge ten days later with a blank mind and a dim sense of entitlement.

But what I wanted to talk about today was time travel, since one of the books I managed to finish this month was Jack Finney's Time and Again. This old favorite was among the books I lent to a friend last year when she requested classic escapist literature — books that would make her happy — and she declared this one her favorite. I hadn't read it for twenty years, but that recommendation put Time and Again at the top of the pile, and it and Germania were the two books I brought to an out-of-state family reunion last month. Guess which one I stayed up late reading, and finished with deep regret?

Time and Again, first published in 1970, is out of print, although it was enough of a cult classic that Scribner's put out a new edition after Finney died in 1995. (You can read Finney's New York Times obituary here.) It tells the story of Simon Morley, a New York advertising illustrator who is recruited for a top-secret government project. It turns out that Einstein's theories can not only split the atom, they can also move people back through time, given the right combination of hypnosis and geography. Thus a vast warehouse in Manhattan has been fitted out for the experiment with dozens of painstakingly detailed movie sets: Notre Dame cathedral in 1451, a Vermont village in 1926.

Morley turns out to be the perfect candidate for these scientists' version of the Manhattan project. He responds well to hypnosis, and he has personal reasons for wanting to hang around New York's main post-office building on January 23, 1882. Thus, on the government payroll as a kind of time-traveling spy, he ends up walking into a rented apartment in the Dakota Building (not yet famous as the site of John Lennon's murder) in about 1968, and walking out of it 86 years earlier. Utterly cool.

You can guess the rest. Morley's personal reasons end up eclipsing his governmental mission, and he is drawn into an 1882 intrigue that is about equal parts thriller and fantasy — lest we forget, Finney also wrote the book that became the 1956 movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." What makes the book sing, however, is Morley's love of architecture and photographs, and Finney's passion for bringing 19th-century New York alive for his readers.

Here is Morley, newly arrived, about to board a streetcar:

[W]e heard the squeal of iron tires crunching cold dry snow, heard the loose wood-and-iron rattle of the body, and the crack of leather reins on solid flesh. Then, very slowly, we turned our heads to look again at the tiny, arch-roofed wooden bus with high wooden-spoke wheels, drawn by a team of gaunt horses, their breaths puffing whitely into the winter air at each step. It was closer now, filling our vision, and staring at it I knew now from where and when I had come. It took a moment of actual struggle for my mind to take hold of what it knew to be the truth: that we were here, standing on a corner of upper Fifth Avenue on a gray January afternoon of 1882; and I shivered and for a moment felt shot through with fear. Then elation and curiosity roared through me.

Everywhere he goes, Morley notices buildings — those that aren't there that "should" be, to his 20th-century mind, and those that are there that proclaim Manhattan's even longer history. He makes sketches of the people he meets, and borrows a box camera (conveniently urged on him by a new friend) to take photos of his surroundings — including, improbably, one from the top of the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. And since Finney's Einsteinian time travel requires stable physical locations, at one point Morley journeys back to the 1960s in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, which in 1882 was just an arm sticking out of a Manhattan park. He goes to sleep in Madison Square, and wakes up overlooking the New York harbor. Again, how cool is that?

There's a lot more to Finney's book, including the unintended consequence that, in reading it, you're also traveling back to the "Mad Men" era that is just as lost to us as is 1882: the pre-computer world of pen-and-ink drawings and efficient secretaries. And it helps that there's a satisfying plot twist at the end that even I wasn't prepared for. But it got me thinking about why books about time travel hold such appeal for me. (Movies, too: if I opened the paper to find that all the theaters in town were playing nothing but "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Groundhog Day," and "Back to the Future," I'd think I'd died and gone to heaven.)

My fascination with time travel may stem from my early acquaintance with "Dr. Who," about which more (perhaps) in another blog. But I also attribute it to two books I read in childhood and early adolescence, which like Time and Again take their inspiration from 1880s buildings:

  • Edward Ormondroyd's Time at the Top (originally published by Parnassus Press in 1963, but I notice a 40th-anniversary edition, possibly inspired by a forgettable 1999 movie, is in print on Amazon) involves a 20th-century New York girl who finds out by magical means that her apartment building was built on the site of a 19th-century farmhouse — and that the building's elevator can take her back to it. It looks like Ormondroyd wrote a 1975 sequel, All in Good Time, which is quite out-of-print but is recommended by at least one Amazon reader. Inter-library loan, here I come!
  • Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce was first published in England in 1958, but I didn't run across it until I was nearly too old for it, sometime in the 1970s. Unlike the other two books, which celebrate the past but still have a robust appreciation for the present, this one is almost unbearably sad. Tom's modern England is industrial, dirty, and paved-over; the Victorian world he discovers when the old grandfather clock in his apartment building strikes midnight is elegiac, rural, and doomed. (The apartment building, of course, was once a country estate.) There is no question here of Tom's going back to live in the 1880s — at the end of the book, the past is gone. This book, too, was made into a movie I have never seen (but perhaps should). And, probably because it won the Carnegie Award the year it was published, it is very much in print.
There are also a slew of E. Nesbit classics, including The House of Arden and Harding's Luck, which are wonderful exercises in time-travel fantasy; I notice that the former, along with Tom's Midnight Garden, comes up as recommended on Amazon when you express interest in Time at the Top. But since I have already spent all of a Sunday morning on this blogpost, I'm out of time. Doubtless to your relief.