Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970) has been a long-time favorite among time-travel tales, and has remained in print since its first publication. It was also selected by David Pringle for his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. Since I’ve been on a time-travel trip lately, this was a must-listen. It’s narrated well by Paul Hecht, and is a long, leisurely, and loving tribute to the long-gone New York of the 1880s. Sure, there are some token mentions of poverty among the lower classes, diseases like polio, pocked faces, coal-fired factories spewing smoke, and Horatio Alger street kids scrabbling to survive. But the vast majority of the story is unabashed nostalgia for a more humane time, before modern life had crushed the spirit of man. It also features more rapturous details of classic NY architecture and city life than any other book I have read.
The time travel mechanism, always of interest, is probably the least plausible one I have yet encountered. Essentially, the government has come up with a secret project to travel back in time by creating set pieces in an old NY building which recreate scenes from the past — they then train certain operatives with flexible minds to imagine themselves in specific moments in the past, using hypnosis and lots of visual aids like old photographs, etc. Simon (“Si”) Morley is an illustrator in a 1970s advertising agency, living a mundane life drawing products like soap and bored with his routine existence. When a burly military man approaches him with a mysterious proposal to do something exciting and completely different, without revealing any details, he is drawn in by his curiosity.
There are many pages in Time and Again dedicated to showing how they train these operatives, and Si shows remarkable aptitude for transporting his mind back to 1880s New York. He also has a personal agenda — Katie, the woman he has been dating, has a mystery in her own past, a grandfather who committed suicide and left a very cryptic letter reading as follows:
That the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the entire World (word obscured) seems well-nigh incredible. Yet it is so, and the Fault and the Guilt (another word missing in the burned area) mine, and can never be denied or escaped. So, with this wretched souvenir of that Event before me, I now end the life which should have ended then.
So Si manages to convince the project managers that he would like to observe events relating to this without interfering, just being a fly on the wall. Despite some resistance, he gets them to go along with it. So now we have our framing narrative, and a reason to go back in time. What follows is 300 pages filled with loving descriptions of the world of New York in the 1880s, a simpler, more vibrant time when people were happier and less complicated. It’s not completely uncritical, as there are plenty of ignorant and prejudiced attitudes shown among the people he meets. But the book is filled with comments on our modern neuroses, wars, and spiritual ennui, and contrasts this with the more straight-forward pleasures of sleigh rides in Central Park, dinner conversations about events of the day, strolls through the city, and (no surprise here), Si encounters a beautiful and intelligent young woman named Julia who is engaged to an obnoxious brute named Jake Pickering. Before you can mouth the words “love triangle” and “interfering with past events,” Si is actively trying to split up these two for his own selfish reasons. What happened to all that training and warnings about not messing with the past??? Ah, but matters of the heart trump such things…
There are a number of twists involving the relationship of Si, Julia, Jake, and Andrew Carmody, the grandfather of Si’s modern-day girlfriend Katie. I actually enjoyed this part more than I would have expected, as the motivations of the characters did ring true.
Up to this point, I was thinking Time and Again was a solid 3-star book, in many ways just a nostalgic trip back to old New York, but the events of the final chapters really bumped it up to 4-star territory, because they carried more emotional impact than I had anticipated, and the ending… what a bittersweet but perfect way to resolve things. It was unexpected but elegant, and lent more gravitas to the overall book. There was also a telling passage towards the end in which Si silently thinks why Julia would not fit in our modern world, which are an obvious proxy for the author’s thoughts:
No, I won’t let you stay here. Julia, we’re a people who pollute the very air we breathe. And our rivers. We’re destroying the Great Lakes; Erie is already gone, and now we’ve begun on the oceans. We filled our atmosphere with radio-active fallout that puts poison into our children’s bones, and we knew it. We’ve made bombs that can wipe out humanity in minutes, and they are aimed and ready to fire. We ended polio, and then the United States Army bred new strains of germs that can cause fatal, incurable disease. We had a chance to do justice to our Negroes, and when they asked it, we refused. We allow children to grow up malnourished in the United States. We allow people to make money by using television channels to persuade our own children to smoke, knowing what it is going to do to them. This is a time when it becomes harder and harder to continue telling yourself that we are still good people. We hate each other. And we’re getting used to it.
It’s always interesting to read a book about travel back in time that is itself already set in a world (1970) that is now in our past by almost a half century. There are plenty of obvious Mad Men-like sexist attitudes about women in the office, and references to political events of that time, like Vietnam, the Cuban Missile crisis, domestic poverty, race relations, etc., which highlight an author in the past looking even further back to find goodness and human decency. I wonder what Jack Finney would say now about the world of 2016? Or did he surround himself with photos of NY and take the trip back to a simpler time already?
A sequel, From Time to Time, was published in 1995.