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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.

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Comments

So does that mean you would question whether or not Twilight is actually fantasy? My impression of it is that its really a teen romance that's glitzed up with vampires. (disclaimer -- i've never read or watched Twilight)

Yes, I think I would say that Twilight isn't fantasy in the same way The Time Traveler's Wife isn't--it contains supernatural elements, but the focus is on the romance. Another similarity between Twilight and The Time Traveler's Wife is that the supernatural elements can easily be read metaphorically--time-travel as metaphor for the distances that come between couples, vampires/werewolves as metaphors for the dangers of forbidden love/sex. Because of this, the fantastic isn't taken seriously, and that aspect of the novel is lost.

I may be misunderstanding (so please clarify - I'm trying to unconfuse myself, and foster discussion, not pick fights here) but it seems like you are making the argument that if you can read a speculative element as a metaphor, you no longer have a work of the fantastic. And I think that rapidly leads us down a slippery slope, because I think it's possible to have some very well-deployed instances of the fantastic where the speculative elements are also operating on a metaphorical level. Like Buffy.

My other caution, wearing my writerly hat, is that I would hope that critics would be very wary of rewriting an author's text just because it's possible. I have not read Time Traveler's Wife, but just because she could have accomplished the same thing with a non-fantastical element didn't mean she was unaware of that, and failed to make a choice. You can have a book about a serial killer who kills because he has antisocial personality disorder, or because he's under a curse, or because he's been genetically modified to be a killer. Same outcome, three different stories, with three different reasons for the author's choice.

What I was trying to argue was that for me, whether a text seems like fantasy or not has to do with the focus of the story--what keeps me reading, what questions it asks, what themes the author seems to be developing. One thing that contributes to my sense of that focus is whether the fantastic is treated metaphorically or not, but I would certainly not say that just because a speculative element can be read as metaphor, the work is not fantasy/fantastic. Buffy is a great example here, because so much of the rest of show focuses on the fantastic that some of the speculative elements are able to work as metaphor without distracting from this focus. It's when the appearance of a ghost, for example, is the only thing that makes a story fantasy, and the rest of the text prioritizes the metaphor developed by that ghost (rather than dealing with the fact that, hey, there was a ghost!), that I start to wonder. Does that make sense?

A lot of this has to do with how a book is marketed as well. In the case of The Time Traveler's Wife, the reviews I read and the book club questions in the back of the book talked a lot about the time-travel in a metaphorical way, which certainly contributed to my feeling that the metaphorical reading of the novel was the easier one. It's always very interesting to me to think about how the externalities of a novel contribute to how we read it, and this is certainly no exception.

And regarding your last point, Kat, about rewriting a text--I certainly didn't mean to do any injustice to the story, and you're absolutely right that Niffenegger chose to make Henry a time-traveler, rather than an amnesiac. It was just interesting to me how the time travel was treated--he spent a lot of time in doctor's offices, and it was discovered it was a genetic disorder (not mutation, interestingly, which would have connected the story to X-Men much more strongly for me). This treatment of time travel had strong connections with disease and diagnosis, rather than fantasy and speculative fiction, which is why I thought of it in connection with diseases that would have similar effects.

That does clarify things for me - thank you. Both your original post an your response have given me a lot to think about, especially in terms of how the externalities of a novel interact with the experience of reading it. That's a subject that has been very much on my mind recently.