Now that winter is nearly here, the season of reading the autumn books is nearing its end. Each year, in my scant free-time, I seek the perfect book to capture the essence of the dying of the trees, the chill in the air, and the growing length of night. Autumn generates an emotion that is difficult to replicate or even describe. Many people respond by watching spooky movies and those of us old enough to appreciate printed literature turn toward moody books. One of my choices this year was Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. At the constant urging of one of my former Gorgias Press colleagues, I’d read Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife this summer. It was well crafted and left me with enough sadness to want to see if this New York Times bestseller might capture the feeling of the season. I was drawn into the book by reviews that mentioned it centered on Highgate Cemetery in London, the scene of a real-life vampire fracas back in the 1970s.
No vampires graced this novel, but ghosts abound. Often Niffenegger’s characters are either wealthy or have managed to obtain fulfilling jobs, features that make them inaccessible to me. Nevertheless, she is able to draw in the supernatural in a way that makes it seem normal and believable. By tingeing her novels with romance she is able to tap into an inexplicably huge readership, but her story development is intriguing even to those who read books with a paranormal slant. It took me a couple hundred pages to really feel much sympathy for many of the characters, but the ghosts eventually take over the story and it becomes very creepy indeed.
For those who’ve ever wondered about the secret lives of twins, Her Fearful Symmetry will provide hours of fascination. The title may be drawn from Blake, but the story is older than Esau and Jacob. The struggle of twins ranges far back in literature and raises questions of what a soul might actually be. Is it possible to share one? What happens when one twin predeceases another? What is the nature of individual identity? Even the Gospels take pains to inform us that Thomas is a twin. I finished the story last night feeling a twinge of autumn, but still hungry. Perhaps it is good that I completed this bedtime reading just in time to get ready for the more Dickensian ghosts of Christmas.
When the silence was first broken at Gorgias Press, one of my colleagues suggested that I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The title suggested to me some kind of point-of-view rewriting of H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, a novel that had a large influence on my young, science-fiction inclined mind. For some reason I wanted to keep this place sacred to the memory of Wells and I dismissed the suggestion with polite demurral. Since that time Niffenegger has been constructing quite a reputation as a novelist, and because I enjoy the implications of time-travel and I like to keep current – fashionably late, of course – I finally took the time to read the book.
I wasn’t sure what to expect; it is a sensitive love story, wrenching in parts, but the mysteries of time travel are left to a genetic defect and not some technological invention. In the course of wending in and out of past and present lives, the main characters, Clare and Henry, carry on a dialogue that includes the dynamic of a protagonist raised Catholic. Once, while discussing the bizarre nature of time traveling, Henry suggests that Noah is a fairy tale to which Clare replies, “Noah is in the Bible. He’s not a fairy tale.” This statement reaffirms that, for many people, Noah is the obvious touchstone of the Bible and modern society. A versatile figure, enigmatic and only sketchily drawn in the Bible, Noah reappears regularly in the popular media. Just this summer I noted how Justin Cronin’s The Passage also cites Noah as a schematic for much of the plot that bears the story. A few weeks ago I mentioned how the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still viewed Klaatu’s ship as an ark. Noah from outer space.
Noah is a foundational figure for our society. This should not be surprising since the flood myth is among the most ancient of stories that humanity has relegated to religious literature. The Sumerians and Babylonians told the story long before Genesis was composed. In its own way, the Noah story is an example of time-travel. A tale whose origins are lost in the pre-literate stages of humanity, it becomes history with the uncritical acceptance of the Bible, only to become a defining myth of twenty-first century literature. The world of the twenty-first century often feels like a fragile environment ripe for a catastrophic flood. Consciously or not, we are still looking for our Noah.