Jack Finney’s 1970 time-travel novel Time and Again is a lot of things, including a cult favorite.
It’s a science fiction novel inasmuch as it deals with time travel. The method for making such a trip, though, doesn’t have much snap.
Here’s how it works: Simon Morley, a commercial artist and the novel’s central character, steeps himself in the history and daily life of 1882, then he lives for a time in a setting that hasn’t changed since then (the Dakota Apartments in New York City) and then he self-hypnotizes himself, falls asleep and, when he awakens, he’s back there in time.
So, there’s no wormhole, no elaborate machinery, just auto-suggestion. As I said, not much snap.
It’s a suspense story, at least for the first 40 or so pages, when Morley is being recruited for what he’s told is an adventure that can’t initially be specified and then for the next 70 pages as he’s tested, accepted and trained for his journey.
That suspense dissipates somewhat when Morley makes the first two of four trips across 88 years. In part, that’s because he’s been warned not to do anything that might alter the course of history. He’s there simply as an observer. Look, but don’t touch!
How people were
Even more, it dissipates because Finney is using Morley’s presence in 1882 to describe what life is like on the streets and in the homes of that year — how people were back then.
This, it seems to me, is the central purpose of Time and Again. Finney, who clearly has submerged himself in the history of that moment and place in time, wants to communicate what he’s found to the reader.
In other words, this novel, at its heart, is a history lesson.
Finney writes about the way people acted, how homes were lighted, the horses and carriages and, after a big snow, the sleigh rides. He writes about a melodramatic streak in the way people thought and talked about feelings. For Morley, the people seem happier and more at peace than in his home year of 1970.
To flesh out these observations, Finney includes photographs and illustrations from the period. In the course of the novel, Morley talks about taking many of these photographs and collecting these illustrations, so they are incorporated into Finney’s fiction.
This middle section of the book is slow as Finney lavishly describes the sorts of details of things — the clothing of the driver of a horse-drawn streetcar, for instance — that would usually not be covered in a fictional story.
It is as if New York of 1882 were a distant, unknown planet, call it XYZ, on which the novel’s hero has landed and which the author is describing to the reader.
In Time and Again, however, these descriptive sections drag because, on the one hand, New York then is still pretty much like New York now, and people then are pretty much like people now, and, on the other hand, well, the clothing of a streetcar driver, again as an example, isn’t inherently all that interesting.
A description of Planet XYZ would, most likely, emphasize really unusual things to be seen and wouldn’t go into such microscopic detail.
Time and Again is something of a love story in its early pages as Morley and his girlfriend Kate seem to be getting pretty serious. Indeed, so serious that Kate talks Morley into taking her along on one of his trips. Meanwhile, the plot — and the reason for aiming to arrive in New York on a certain day in 1882 — hinges on trying to solve a mystery involving the suicide of one of Kate’s family members.
The novel becomes a love story again in its final 100 pages when Morley and a young woman he meets named Julia have an adventure and fall for each other. (In the book’s final pages, Kate is dropped as Morley lamely observes that the relationship that he and Kate shared just wasn’t clicking any more. I wonder what she thought.)
In the final section, as Morley and Julia are falling in love, their adventure involves them with a huge fire, a crooked cop, a trumped-up murder charge and a journey to somewhere Julia never expected to go.
As Time and Again ends, it speculates about how a trip back in time might impact the traveler’s present day.
The American military see this power as a method to improve history by changing it, a kind of ham-fisted attitude that Morley and other characters oppose.
Yet, Morley, on his own, is faced with exactly that question as the novel winds down.
His answer is adequate in terms of bringing the novel to a close, but opens the door to a host of other unanswerable questions that are likely to leave the reader a bit unsettled or, at least, dissatisfied.
Patrick T. Reardon