I Feel Dizzy – Michael Genrich – The Time Traveler’s Wife. Audrey Niffenegger. 2005. Vintage Books. 518pp, $29.95
I’m terrible with chick-lit. Mostly because I’m a guy. I read this book because Eric Bana was apparently in the movie. He’s famous, and he’s a tough guy. On the back cover one of the endorsements said the story was, “Wonky. Sexy…”. The puff quotes inside the front cover hinted at science fiction elements.
This book wasn’t any of these. Science takes a back seat, and I struggle to imagine Eric Bana playing Henry DeTamble. Author Audrey Niffenegger didn’t write this book to appeal to people like me I know, but here I am reviewing it.
As a contemporary love story, or ‘chick-lit’ with a twist, it works well. Niffenegger manages to make a complex structure work as a story (just) by using the characters as narrators and making Clare’s story the basis of the timeline. Some have called Henry’s time travelling ability a ‘science fiction’ twist and Niffenegger describes this unusual trait straight away. It falls short of science fiction though, there’s nothing scientific about something no-one can explain. It simply acts as the device to drive an uncomfortable and odd story.
This is Niffenegger’s first novel and she comes with an impressive pedigree as a visual artist and professor at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. The cover promo blurbs seem carefully selected and I’d say they’re wrong.
Clare and Henry meet when Clare is six and Henry is 36 (creepy much?). They marry when Clare is 22 and Henry is 30. Sound crazy? Henry is a ‘chrono-impaired’ librarian who somehow manages to hold down a job in between disappearing at random and re-appearing naked in the aisleways. His best friend Gomez is a chauvinistic, chain-smoking lawyer who acts as a foil and a helper to Henry as he travels back and forth through time. Neither of them are painted as likeable guys and they’ve both treated women horribly.
When Clare meets Henry for the first time in ‘normal time’, she is studying sculpture and papermaking… sounds suspiciously like the author. Their ‘first date’ ends up being a mind-boggling explanation of their relationship and the structure of the novel. Clare says, ‘… for you none of it has happened yet, but for me, well, I’ve known you a long time.’ We follow Clare’s timeline though childhood, her teenage years, getting married, and having a child with Henry. It’s a standard story except for the strange guy who keeps appearing naked. There’s not even a respite from bleak characters with Clare’s family, a strange and boring lot who exist in a vacuum. So much so that even Clare wants to ‘watch them sink’ in Lake Michigan. Special mention goes to the family’s black servants for taking us back to a time when cooks were released from the kitchen to raise a toast to Clare (‘Miz Abshire’) at Christmas. Set against all the contemporary name dropping of bands and movies throughout the book, it feels weird and out of place.
Niffenegger does an effective job in conveying the characters’ thoughts and feelings through dialogue and narrative, but the jumpy nature of the dates and Henry and Clare’s wildly varying ages as they meet throughout the novel can be confusing and hard to follow. It makes the plot seem complicated and murky. We find out roughly where things are headed very early in the story. For those who are paying attention the middle of the novel will be filled with irrelevant details. The details of papermaking are boring. Maybe they’re a metaphor for something, but it was lost on me. Add the fact that there are no positive male role models in the story to the list, and it’s a hard read.
The writing is polished and powerful, but the story is hard to like. Henry has left a string of dysfunctional ex-girlfriends behind him, all of whom feel wronged. In one scene, Henry has sex with himself from another time (c’mon, seriously?). Henry turns up naked in a field and asks Clare, who is six at the time, to find him clothes. Henry hides in her basement. Henry beats people up. Henry is sometimes found hanging around in the background of 16-year-old Clare’s life. It’s creepy. It’s a bit like grooming. Plausibility also suffers when family members come across a strange man in their back paddock and basement but for some reason aren’t inclined to ask hard questions.
I kept reading even though it was hard. It was hard to follow, hard to like, and hard to relate to. I suffered from the curse of believing the over-reaching cover endorsements, but I’d say Niffenegger has done quite well out of them.