Friday, January 27, 2006

BOOKS: Cinéma Literae

Before I even get started, I want to go on record as saying that I really enjoyed the book I'm about to review, as evidenced by the fact that I read it in three days (which is fast for me these days). But, while I hate to split hairs, this novel ultimately fell a bit flat for me.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (#3)
First, let me tell you what I loved about
The Time Traveler's Wife.

I loved the premise: one of the main characters, Henry, has a genetic disorder called Chrono-Impairment that results in him frequently becoming "dislocated in time." In other words, he inadvertently time travels, mostly within his lifetime but occasionally outside of it.

I loved that Niffenegger speedily and deftly explains away all the nerdy space-time continuum mumbo-jumbo that can bog down your average sci-fi story. Instead, she focuses on the story itself.

And I love the story itself. It's a love story, and I'm realizing something about myself, which is that I love love stories, so long as they're not of the Harlequin variety. The lovers are the time traveler, Henry, and his wife, Clare, who have been meeting in time since Clare was six and Henry was 35, but whose story in regular linear time begins when they are 20 and 28, respectively. Given Henry's tendencies toward temporal displacement, they meet at all kinds of other ages: when Clare is 35 and Henry is 30, when Clare is 18 and Henry is 43, when Clare is 82 and Henry is 40... you get the idea. In each meeting, sometimes Clare is the teacher, sometimes Henry, but the overarching idea is that, in a relationship, each person shapes the other until -- given enough time -- each becomes even more the idealized self that their lover sees. This is normal for any happy relationship, I think, but it's exponentially magnified in Clare and Henry's case.

Did that make sense? I seem to be having a hard time getting this idea out, though it's crystal clear in my head. If you managed to follow all that perfectly, good for you, because things aren't going to get any clearer ahead.

Now, here's where the novel fell flat:

One of the things I love about reading is the little movie screen that runs in my head with my version of the story playing... the Doppelganger cut, if you will. The problem with
The Time Traveler's Wife (prepare yourself for the hair-splitting I warned you about) is that Niffenegger does an almost too-thorough job of providing all the filmic details. In fact, it wouldn't take much work to handily convert this book to a screenplay. At best, this merely deflates my own role in reading the book; I feel like my job is to sit back and visualize the story exactly as it's told to me, and nobody likes to feel unimportant. But at worst, Niffenegger follows some movie conventions that are somewhat jarring -- nestled as they are in a fairly original and compelling narrative -- in their triteness.

I twigged to all this with one telling comment Henry makes, referring to an all-black outfit that Clare has picked out for him as something straight out of a Wim Wenders film. That's when I realized why this novel had been giving me déjà vü, and why in fact I kept visualizing
Nicolas Cage as Henry: this book is a lot like a Wim Wenders film. Well, Wenders by way of Hollywood... sort of like the City of Angels as opposed to Wings of Desire.

From the almost baroque descriptions of various elements of the Chicago cityscape that provide the story's backdrop, to the more baroque references to opera and classical music, which -- along with punk -- form the novel's soundtrack, it's easy to see movie adaptation as you move through this book.

Where the adaptation bogs down is in the unfortunately clichéd cast of secondary and tertiary characters: the precocious kid, the down-to-earth black cook who's more like a mother than Clare's own distant mother, the stuffy wealthy brother and father, the asshole jock, the sassy Korean neighbour who helps raise Henry after his mother dies, and so on. In Niffenegger's hands, and to her credit, you can almost forget that these are stock characters who are almost as predictable as the story's ending, which you can see barrelling toward you when you're about a third of the way through the book.

Now, I don't want to suggest that Niffenegger wrote her book in such a way to make it appealing to Hollywood. That idea is cynical and unfair. What I think is more likely the case is that the author is a product of her times, as we all are, and our times are dominated by movies and television. It's probably not surprising that these are powerful influences when one is trying to tell a story. Crackpot theory? I don't know. Discuss.

The unfortunate consequence of all these seemingly small, nitpicky details is that, collectively, they shanghai what could be a great story, possibly one for the ages, and reduce it to merely a really good story. But all that said, I'd still recommend this book to anyone who, like me, has a jones for unconventional love stories. Because even if it's not a great story, it's still a really
good story.


Anonymous said...

I read this book when it first came out, and throughout the entire thing I kept thinking that it would make a great, beautiful movie. I read somewhere that it's been optioned by Brad Pitt & Jennifer Anitson's production company.

Rachel said...

(apologies if this posts more than once; Blogger and I are having a lovers' quarrel today)

I agree that the book is very visual, in that the author piles on the description at times. Plus, Chicago is a place I've been, and it's always easier to envision characters in a place that is familiar to me. That said, I totally agree that the rise of television and movies and even music videos affects the way writers write these days. Scenes tend to be shorter, the cuts tend to be choppier, and the kind of intellectual leaps you are expected to make are fewer and farther between than ever.

Still, it is a damn good story and will make an excellent movie, as long as Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston aren't actually IN it.

Dave said...

Personally, I've never seen a book adopt obvious film-like elements that wasn't already a pretty bad book to begin with. Well, not bad neccessarily, just not really good, either--like the whole Clancy/Grisham/King array of fiction. Dan Brown strikes me as the kind of writer who is always thinking in film, or thinking about the adaptation. If he didn't do this, would The Da Vinci Code have been written any better? I doubt it.

Meredith said...

Time Traveler's Wife was one of my favorite books last year. I was so wrapped up in the story that I didn't really pay attention to much else. I buzzed through it right quick too. It was really hard for me to put down. I also distinctly remember staying up way past my bed time to finish it and then crying myself to sleep once I finished.

I can see your argument about the secondary/tertiary characters. However, I really enjoyed Niffenegger's descriptive language. I've never visited Chicago but I could see it in the book.

I don't like the idea of a movie adaptation. I can't stand it when the story gets edited to fit the screen and I can't see a movie making any sense of the time travelling without screwing it up. I still refuse to see the movie of Beloved because I cannot see how that could be made properly without seriously messing with the story.

--Deb said...

I enjoyed this book (just read it for the second time, in fact, last weekend), but would kind of hate seeing it made into a movie. All the different ages would be so hard to film correctly, I'd hate to see it ruined. I liked it, though, even if I thought the story-telling sort of fell apart at the end. I'm still not pleased with the ending, not because it's inevitably a sad one, but because I get the feeling that she couldn't think of any other way to end it, and so went for pathos.

Oh, and the romance thing? I can't stand books that are written solely to BE romances, but I find that I definitely enjoy them when they fit into the story in anything like a decent way. Some books, you can just tell at the beginning who's going to end up paired off, and I usually enjoy the process.

alittleposy said...

I read this book last year, and I gave it a thumbs-up because I couldn't put it down and didn't realize till I was finished with it that I couldn't stand either of the two main characters. I thought they were both pretty pretentious and annoying. The time-travel angle made the story fascinating though.

I didn't notice the film-adpatationy quality, but I did get the impression Henry and Clare both looked like movie stars. I always pictured David Duchovny as Henry.

Incidentally, during our book club discussion about this book, we spent at least half our time talking about the scene where two copies of 15-year-old Henry mess around together. I guess we're kind of immature :-)

Veronica said...

Oh my goodness, David Duchovny would be perfect for Henry! I don't know why I ever thought of that, since I have an 11-year crush on DD, but yes. He needs to be Henry.

I loved Time Traveler's Wife. The heightened visual sense it provided was one of the things I liked, but I didn't associate it with being movie-ready. I thought a lot of it came from the fact that I live in Chicago and she so greatly incorporated the physical elements of the city into it. I know that Audrey wanted to give the story a firm grouding in setting because the plot was so fantastical and she wanted to create the story in the place where she grew up and loves. I've wondered how someone unfamiliar with Chicago would think of it, since I usually dislike stories that describe specific places in such detail. But because it's my city, I loved it.

Anonymous said...

I saw Niffenegger give a talk about this book in Toronto two falls ago. It was a roundtable with David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, a book you also reviewed here). It was a funny talk because Niffenegger is a very reserved and quiet person; Mitchell is a little crazy (but very funny). Even back then it had already been optioned by Pitt et al. I liked Mitchell's book a lot, but must confess that Niffenegger's book is not my cup of tea.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I haven't read this book yet but I am definitely going to check it out now.

I love how you described the little movie in your mind - that's exactly how it is for me when I read. When I have asked other people about it though, they just look at me funny.

Andrea said...

Hello, been reading, and loving, your site for a while now and I just had to put in my two cents.

I loved this book and also read it within a few days. I find it to be a great recommendation because it appeals to so many different tastes. I must admit your point about the secondary/tertiary characters was spot on. I think I was not too bothered by it simply because anyone who isn't Clare/Henry in this story is just there to fill space and give the main characters a reason to talk.

Finally, from the beginning of the story I pictured Henry looking like Peter Krause, who played Nate on Six Feet Under. I feel so passionately about this that if anyone besides Peter plays Henry in a movie adaptation (as unlikely as that is) I'm not sure I'd be able to watch it. I guess I am also a product of the environment I grew up in - I almost always envision some celebrity in the role of a novel's protagonist.

Melanie J Watts said...

I enjoyed this book for what it was, a lightweight, entertaining, fast read. trying to make it into anything else, quibbling with the so called "cinematic overtones" is just ridiculous. It is much better written than another popular book, The DaVinci Code. I couldn't get past the first page in that one.

alittleposy said...

Peter Krause from Six Feet Under would also be an inspired choice as Henry. The part would definitely require someone who is skilled at projecting more than a little self-righteousness. Gwyneth Paltrow or someone else who takes herself way too seriously would be good for Clare...

Anita said...

Mmm . . .your post is thought provoking. I liked this book, but didn't love it. And I couldn't really put my finger on why because I did like the writing style/voice. And I thought the plotline was very creative. But maybe it was the fact that every other character was 2D. Thanks for a very interesting review.

Tammy said...

Melanie said:

"...quibbling with the so called "cinematic overtones" is just ridiculous..."

Melanie, welcome! I suspect you're new. Otherwise you would know that I'm an inveterate quibbler, as well as a fan of the ridiculous.

As for everyone else's comments, I'm glad that so many of you agree with me that it's still a really good, compelling read, regardless of our respective minor issues with it.

And tuckova said:

"I've noticed that in a few books lately, that you can tell the writers are, consciously or otherwise, visualizing their text in a very FILMIC way."

Exactly! And sometimes it really works. I had this same thought when I was reading Russell Banks's Affliction, which I loved (as I love everything he writes). I could easily see how the book could be a movie (and found out later that it had been made into one, though I haven't seen it), without this being detrimental to my reading experience. I had the same thoughts when I was reading Bel Canto.

And Tracie said:

"I read this book last year, and I gave it a thumbs-up because I couldn't put it down and didn't realize till I was finished with it that I couldn't stand either of the two main characters. I thought they were both pretty pretentious and annoying."

Ha! When I was telling Rusty about this book, he interrupted me after five minutes and said, "Ugh! I hate them!" And I kept saying, "Yes, I know! But it's still such a good story!" Heh.

Anonymous said...

I loved The Time Traveler's Wife like so many other people seem to be saying, even though I was a bit wary when I started reading it. I work at Chapters and every one of the other employees at my particular store were all ga-ga over it. But I gave it a chance and shot through it in just a few days. (I even read the wedding scenes on the same day as my sister's wedding, which provided a bit of overlap with reality for me.) I agree that the side characters were 2-dimensional, but it never bothered me since like it's been said, they were just there to show that Claire and Henry didn't live in a vacuum.

And though when I read it, I didn't have any particular movie star in my head for Henry, I totally pictured Kirsten Dunst as Claire for some reason--and I'm not even a Kirsten fan! (Gwyneth Paltrow would also be an inspired choice, though.) I will guiltily admit that when I start to read a book, I regularly will read about a character and then within a page assign them an actor from TV or the movies, so I get a face and voice to picture in my head-movie. I'm so hard-core with this that even when it's described that a character has dark hair, I'll still picture them blond if I like my choice better, and just ignore the god-like descriptive authority of the author. Yes, yes... I'm a bad reader... :P

Karissa said...

New to this blog, but had to post regarding this book. There's not a lot for me to say that hasn't been said but I did enjoy the book very much, so much so that I lent it to my sister to read. One thing that bothered me slightly (I'm speaking with regards to the plot so there is a SPOILER here), I wondered why Henry only saw his daughter up to age 10 or so, you'd think as she got older she'd want to see him more or ask advice. If she was able to control her travel wouldn't she visit him more, I know I would. It was just something I wondered. Otherwise I did enjoy the book but it was a superficial read for me and very much felt like watching a movie. The book didn't ask much more of me than that.