Tuesday, February 24, 2009
11. Time and Again by Jack Finney
Meezly recommended this novel to me. It was one of her favourites coming out of university and motivated her to make a trip directly to photograph the Dakota building when she first came to visit me in New York. It's the story of a young man in contemporary New York (contemporary being the '70s as that is when it was written) who gets hired to participate in a scientific experiment to go back in time. Ostensibly, this sounds like a pretty classic science fiction plot, and it is, but the book itself falls mostly outside of the genre. Finney's goal is to capture that feeling you get when you look for a long time at an old photograph, to make the reader feel as if they were actually in the photograph. The experiment itself is very much not hard sci-fi. It is based on the theory that if you can get an individual to convince themselves that they are in another time, they will actually go there. This is done by hiring people who are creative and open-minded. In a giant warehouse in the Bronx, they recreate certain locations and have the subjects spend a lot of time there.
The protagonist turns out to be one of the best-suited for the experiment. His time to go back to is late 19th century New York. They find a room in the Dakota (a beautiful old apartment building on the west side of Central Park; I think John Lennon lived there) which looks out onto a part of Central Park that has no signs of modern times. The room itself is entirely refurnished in the way it would have been in the 1880's. After several months of training, Si Morley, finally is able to go into the room at the Dakota, put himself into a state of hypnosis, go to bed and wake up in the past.
I am trying not to go through the storyline, but it is difficult, because there is no real storyline until this point, and this is a long ways into the book. We spend a lot of time with the protagonist. Finney writes in a pleasant, personable way and it is a pleasant, thoughtful journey. But I'm a man of action, of narrative and I got a bit distracted.
Once in the past, the style remains the same, with a lot more detail. I think Finney's strategy is to lull the reader into his protagonist's world, to really set a convincing foundation so that when he goes into the past, you share his experiences in a deeper way. It's cool. It kind of works. He creates a strong visual, physical and social sense of what it would be like to be living in 19th century New York. Personally, if I were to go to different times, this is not one (nor the place) that would be on the top of my list. I'm pretty much done with New York as a fictional entity. Nevertheless, the execution is quite well done and I felt a sense of immersion in this world of the past. Finney uses photographs and illustrations to augment this.
Eventually, there is a plot and it's quite a good one. It's a decent thriller, a mystery of the present that must be solved by someone going in the past and finding out what happened. There is even some pretty good action and romance. The last third of the book moves fast and it is here that the Finney's themes become apparent. The horrors and excesses of modernity were just finding their footing in the late 19th century. By the '70s, they are full blown and seen in comparison, humanity does not come off well at all. It's a light and enjoyable book, but ultimately has a very dark heart. Kind of like me. Good stuff.