Time and Again
by Jack Finney
I love a good time travel story. (Déjà vu?) Time and Again is about as leisurely as time travel gets.
Jack Finney’s 1970 novel is set in New York, introducing us to Simon “Si” Morley, a graphic artist in an advertising company. He is approached by U.S. Army Major Ruben Prien to take part in a classified operation. It’s so secret in fact that he can’t know what he’s gotten into until he joins up. Both men agree the premise is ridiculous, but Major Prien says that Morley is the kind of man who will say yes.
Morley does eventually say yes. He soon learns that the project, led by scientist Dr. E. E. Danziger, is to send men and women back into the past. Morley is selected for his personality and his skills as a draftsman; he is able to see things not as they should be but as they are, which is a prime talent for a time traveler. Danziger has theorized that traveling backward in time is a matter of immersing oneself in the past. Recruits are educated about the time period they will be traveling to, dressed and equipped with the appropriate tools (and encouraged to grow the proper facial hair), and even made to live on specially constructed sets. Time travel, Danziger tells Si, is a matter of turning in the fourth dimension much like turning a corner in the third dimension. (This immersion method would also be used by Richard Matheson in his time travel novel, originally titled Bid Time Return, adapted into 1980’s Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve.)
The method is artfully described by Danziger, not so much in its specifics but in its philosophy. The past is alive, he says. It does not disappear, we simply move forward, and going backward is a matter of returning. As a scientist, he’s excited first to see if it’s actually possible. The government may have other plans…
Si is set up in The Dakota, a hotel that has stood across from Central Park since 1882. After several months, and some helpful hypnosis, he becomes the first successful time traveler. The plot ostensibly revolves around the meaning of a letter mailed in that year, but the novel, painstakingly researched by Finney, is more interested in sharing the delight of exploring 19th century New York.
Time and Again is an “illustrated novel,” meaning it is filled with Si’s sketches of New York and photographs from both eras. Finney lovingly presents his details in Si’s conversational, occasionally wistful narration. Because the novel is presented as a slice of life, it takes its time getting to its conflict, which really only appears – suddenly and surprisingly – in the last 100 pages. Readers who like a more brisk adventure should steer clear. Time and Again moves like an ’82 sleigh ride, drinking in the sights and enjoying winter in New York. It is a very casual love letter to the city, and its style gives it a grounded appeal.
When the conflict finally arrives it propels the novel to its conclusion in a stirring way. Si finds himself falling for the young woman who runs his boardinghouse and the two become entangled in the corrupt politics of the 19th century. Meanwhile in the present day, perfecting time travel holds unexpected consequences for the members of the Danziger project.
In its best moments the novel captures a spirit of discovery illustrated in prosaic and literal detail. The narrative sags somewhat in the middle as Si acquaints himself with the disorientation like a new immigrant to a strange land, but Time and Again is far less concerned with its mechanics than with its journey. It is the story of two New Yorks and a man looking for one of them to belong to. The resolution is disarmingly poignant.