Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 78 (The Time Traveller's Wife)


Alison J Campbell’s piece on LOST was so well received, she was inspired to write something else. How could I possibly say no? Technically this one should go somewhere in the Moffat era, but I’m still on vacation, so think of it as a message from the future, a New Year’s present – for the moment.

Aviary Box by Joseph Cornell. Trust me on this.
The problem with time-travel stories isn’t in the contradictory nature of their construction -- neither in the apparent paradox of information that doesn’t seem to have a causal origination, nor in the notion that time can be rewritten. The main problem with time-travel stories is that they’re too often taken literally. Time travel stories are inherently metaphorical, because our most basic conceptions of time itself are ensconced in metaphor. Without the metaphor of Time as a Dimension of Space, wherein everything we know experientially about moving through the three dimensions gets applied to Time, we would never have the concept of time-travel, let alone time-travel stories. (We also conceive of Time as a Moving Object, particularly a River; and third as a Resource, something that can be apportioned and managed as other resources are.) 

The second and much less trivial mistake is that time-travel stories aren’t logical constructions, but are laid on the foundation of dramatic concerns. It’s in this respect that Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife really shines (unlike its botched movie adaptation) and most likely why it’s been so thoroughly pilfered by Doctor Who. 

Indeed, it bears many features of a Doctor Who story. First and foremost, it plays with the notion of smashing different genres together. One the one hand, we’ve got the stalwart SF trope of time-travel, presented in science terms – Henry DeTamble is a Chrono-Displaced Person, his Chrono-Impairment deriving from some redundant “clock genes” that create an electromagmetic pulse in his brain, not unlike an epilectic seizure, which sends him careening backwards in forwards in time, without apparent rhyme or reason, and certainly without any control. In this respect he’s not unlike the good Doctor himself, at least in the early days of the show, when he could barely navigate the TARDIS.

On the other hand we’ve got a romance, detailing his relationship with Clare Abshire, who isn’t a time-traveler. We get first dates, hot sex, a wedding, and triangles for them both. Henry is the leading candidate for Reformed Rake, the bad-boy turned good by the influence of the right woman; for much of the story, Henry and Clare are Star-Crossed Lovers, kept apart by Henry’s fatalistic displacement; at the same time, they are truly Fated To Be Together. There are, in fact, a lot of novel ways that Romance tropes can be exploited through the mechanism of time-travel.

Upon closer scrutiny, however, it becomes apparent that TTTW is neither a SF story, nor a Romance, nor really a weird cross-breed of the two. On the one hand, it’s rather slim in its use of SF tropes – the genetic explanation is dodgy as all hell, and aside from the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals that Henry takes in a vain attempt to master his condition, there aren’t any scientific concerns to speak of at all, at all. Nor, in fact, does the story stick with the traditional Romance narrative: a good half of the book is devoted to exploring the excruciating attempt of our lovers to conceive, which isn’t sexy times at all, and it’s ending is anything but Happily Ever After. No, this is an exploration of loss, abandonment, and death. How it feels. The true organizing genre of TTTW isn’t Science Fiction, or Romance, it’s “Literary.”


I said I’m sorry, what more do you want?

Um… hello?

You’re not angry with me any more?

Okay, who are you, and why would you think I’m angry with you?

Well you haven’t given me any clothes yet.

Who are you?

How can you not know who I am?

Probably because we’ve never met?

Oh, this must be your first time! Of course, I get it now.

I’m not sure I do.

Well, I’m Jane. 

Um, hi. I’m, uh, Alison.

Yes, I know who you are. 

I’m not sure I know who you are.

Oh, that’s easy! I’m your muse, Jane, and you’re my writer, Alison.

You’re naked.

Glad you noticed. Clothes please. 


The thingies. Look like chicken scratches. Or possibly amulets.


Not very rogue-like, I see.

Oh, you mean quotation marks?

“Yes, thank you! Oh, much better. I was getting a chill.”

This may be an impertinent question, but why were you naked?

“It’s an effect of time-travel. When I travel in time, my clothes just fall away.”

How inconvenient.

“You get used to it.”

I’m not sure I ever would.

“   “

Hello? How very odd. One minute she’s there, and the next there’s just a pile of empty clothes. Well, then. Okay. Moving on.

The tropes of the Literary Genre are harder to put in a box than those of SF or Romance. Literary fiction is more likely to use symbolism and metaphor, transforming the objects of everyday life to heightened meaning, all in service to better understanding how to deal with everyday life. Lit fic is more likely to focus on the style of prose and the psychological depth of character. Facility in handling analepsis and prolepsis is expected, as is strict adherence to appropriate points of view. The underlying architecture of the book is just as important as the story that’s told; indeed, that architecture is expected to be a part of the story.

Some literary tropes are easy to identify, of course -- for example, the epigraphs at the beginning of each part of the book, culled from the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke and A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the 1990 Booker Prize. These are not the equivalent of pop songs in the book publishing world, but more like classical music or opera.

Which, speaking of, is one of the repeated metaphors in TTTW. Not just opera, but all kinds of music, from obscure classical to contemporary punk. The kind of song that plays informs the mood and setting and characters. Henry’s mother is an opera singer, and his father teaches the cello -- and sure enough, his parents are pretty well described by the music in their lives. But this works at the structural level as well – for example, Henry’s mom had several works recorded, and musical recordings allow you to revisit the music over and over again. Well, Henry’s mom died in a car accident, and that scene is one Henry visits over and over again. Because his time-travel is often dictated not by his conscious desires, but by his subconscious needs. 

There’s more, of course: Henry’s dysfunctional relationship with Ingrid takes place at a Violent Femmes concert. Henry’s love of punk bands describes his sensibilities – he’s a bit of an anarchist, but he’s also a bit of thug – by necessity, though. See, Henry loses all his clothes every time he time-travels, so he’s had to learn the art of breaking and entering into clothing stores and people’s homes, to steal clothes.


Take off your clothes!

Jane, is that you?

Clothes please.

Sorry. Here.

“Thank you. Now, where was I? Oh yes, food.”


“Yes, food. You were talking about food.”

That’s, um… no, I wasn’t. Wasn’t talking about food at all.

“Well, you should.”

That’s not a bad idea, but I’m talking about music right now.

“Oh, I love a song!”

Good. So, be a muse, and help me explain music in the context of this book.

“Book? Oh, right, yes, the book. That’s what this is about. It all makes sense now!”

Oh, you know it?

“Know what?”

The book.

“I only know there’s a book. What’s it called?”

The Time Traveler’s Wife.

“Of course. Oh, but it’s so easy! Context. Time is a River, first off.”

Ooh, I like that.

“I know.”

Give me more.

“You’re very bossy, you know that?”

I know.

“Okay. More context. Well, if time is expressed as music, it can only be a river song!”

I can’t believe you just said that. That’s, like, really really bad.

“   “

Hey! Don’t go disappearing like that! 
Fine, be that way. 

The metaphor, then, is that Life is a Song. The kind of song that’s playing describes the kind of life that’s lived. Ironically, Henry doesn’t sing, and lacks musical ability; his life is cut short, and is as discordant and a record needle skipping over vinyl. His daughter Alba, who is also Chrono-Impaired, has musical talent, and hence some modicum of control over her time-travel. River Song, naturally, has mastery when it comes to time-travel; it’s built into her name.

In fact, “River Song” perfectly captures two of Niffenegger’s favorite symbols: fish and birds. They form a natural dichotomy in the story – fish are on the “slow path” who live below, in the water, and at the dictates of the water; birds can flit to wherever they like, and get to spend their time up above, in the air. 

TTTW is littered with fish and birds – especially birds, and they’re used quite broadly. Clare’s childhood summer home is called “Meadowlark” – and their relationship largely forms in a meadow, an escapade of carefree, mischievous adventure. In an early chapter, 12-year-old Clare and adult Henry play chess on a spring day where birds court and nest, and the ensuring conversation lays out the “game” of the book, more or less, and of course Clare has already started flirting with her future husband. Likewise, the presence of crows always serve as foreshadowing.

This has interesting implications for Doctor Who, especially in Moffat’s tenure. The Ponds, of course, are named after Water, as is River – and during their time on the show, there was a preponderance of fish imagery. Clara Oswald, on the other hand, wears a bird necklace when she’s properly introduced, she’s represented by a Leaf, and unlike the Ponds, who end up living out their lives on the slow path, she’s split into a million pieces and scattered throughout time. Clara is literally called a “bird” and cooks turkey for Christmas. (As mentioned before, River is both, born of Ponds but symbolized in a Prayer Leaf.) 


Good goddess, not again.

I’m – I’m sorry, what?

You, popping between realities. My realities.

Can I have some clothes?

I mean, you keep interrupting the flow of this piece, and I—

Or some tea? No, wait, clothes first, then tea.

And again with the clothes! Is that all you ever think about?

It’s not my fault I’m not wearing any clothes.

And I suppose it’s mine?

Well, yes. You’re my writer, aren’t you?

Yes, and you’re my muse, but you keep disappearing.

I can’t help it.

It’s very inopportune. It makes me feel like a fish out of water.

I thought we were friends. Do you have any idea how this makes me feel?

I… I don’t know. How does it feel to be a muse?


Oh, fine, here you go.

“It’s like living in a fishbowl, year after year.”

Then maybe you should go jump in a lake.

“Alison, we shouldn’t fight. I’m sorry.”


“   “

Sorry! Oh, of course, sorry! Jane? Jane? I take it back. I’m sorry, too. Please come back. I wish you were here. I do, I really do. I could… I could use your help.


If anything, both symbols are best used to understand Henry’s psyche. As a young man he throws away a fish-patterned necktie (outside Diana’s Fish ‘n’ Fry, no less) given to him by young Clare. He prefers chicken, duck, and turkey; as a young girl, Clare often resorts to feeding Henry sardines. The car that his mother died in had “fins.” When a hawk appears in the meadow, coincident to Henry’s meeting Clare’s grandmother, she takes him for a predator. When he runs, he notices the birds wheeling above.

As his relationship to Clare matures, though, the fish and water imagery start to creep in. Their marriage takes place on a wet, stormy day. He starts running by the lake in Chicago. (Like the Doctor, Henry loves to run.) He starts having more encounters with snow – which is particular dangerous for him, since every time he time-travels, he loses his clothes.

What’s interesting about the birds and the fish in relation to Henry is that they both have equivalent alchemical renderings that signal his ultimate end. On the fish side, his feet eventually get frozen on a particularly cold, snowy winter day that he’s inadvertently time-traveled in. At the hospital they’re put in cold water, and if they turn bright red like “lobsters” they’ll be salvageable; “reddening” is the final stage in an “alchemical working” after putrefaction and purification. 

Alas, his feet don’t make it, and he’s consigned to a wheelchair, with very little time left to live. It’s at this point that Clare, who’s an artist, makes a paper sculpture of an Angel for him. “Every angel is terrifying,” says Rilke. Clare’s art, by the way, necessitates dipping her hands into a liquid mixture in order to pulp her own paper.


Jane! There you are. As I was saying, I’m sorry, too.

That was cold, Alison. Even for you, that was cold.

Oh, right, clothes. Here!

“No, not the clothes. How could you say that?”

I said I was sorry, and I took it back, I promise.

“Oh, you can take back death itself?”

Death? Who said anything about dying?

“You did.”


“I see how you think, you know. I’m in your head.”

I don’t know what you’re tal—

“You think death is beautiful.”

No. No! Well, yes. Wait, you’re in my head?

“Death isn’t beautiful. It’s cold, and terrifying.”

Hey, this is my head! Not yours!

“I see right through you. You want this to end.”

You’re wrong. I don’t want anything to end.

“You want this piece to end.”

No. No! Well, yes, I mean, everything has to end at some point. Really, though, I just want it go well. I just want it to be good.

“Then you should have written it sooner.”

Oh, fine, tell everyone I waited until the last minute. That’s really professional. 

“Quite a while back you asked how it feels. Now you know.”

It wasn’t that long ago! The truth is, though, I’ve been writing it in my head for weeks.

“That was me.”



I see. Well, um, thank you for all the work you’ve been doing on this, while I’ve been, um, snarfing down hummus and chips. And chocolates.

“   “

Jane? Jane! Oh god, no, this can’t be it. No, not like this. Not like this. You can’t die. You can’t be dead. How am I going to finish this piece now? Let’s go back. Can’t we go back and do it right?

Fuck. No going back. There’s only one thing to do then: carry on.

I should point out that Henry’s time-travel, as shown and told in TTTW, is influenced by his psychological state. He doesn’t have control over when he leaves and “where” he ends up, but it’s definitely a reflection of his psyche. He’s seen the car crash that killed his mother from many different vantage points, having gone back to that traumatic event over and over again. After he’s fallen in love with Clare, and been to her summer home, he ends up “visiting” dozens of times during her childhood, and even shows up at his own wedding to accept the vows that his younger self inadvertently time-traveled away from. 

Indeed, the very notion of time-travel here is used as a metaphor for more prosaic concerns that have to do with makes a “good man” or not. Henry’s time-travel means that he’s always “running away.” He’s gone for days at a time, and often disappears before stressful events. This does not make for a good relationship. Eventually, of course, the “absence” caused by time-travel is likened to the absence caused by death.

On the other hand, Henry always comes back, like a traveling salesman coming home after a week on the road. Sometimes he’s younger than Clare has known him to be, or older – like ordinary people, we are sometimes quite childish, and other times wiser than our years. The nonsensical aspect of Henry and Clare’s relationship (he falls in love with her because she fell in love with him, and she fell in love with him because he fell in love with her) is just as absurd as any other reason why people fall in love with each other – it’s fate, another great use of the time-travel metaphor. In his efforts to avoid Fate, Henry is, once again, much like the Doctor. He lies, over and over again, refusing to say what’s going to happen to at least preserve the illusion of free will.

If Henry is the Doctor, Clare must be The Girl Who Waited. From the very first page, she’s defined by waiting: “Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting.” Coupled with the fact that Clare’s got red hair, it’s hard not to see where Moffat got the inspiration for Amy Pond. 

It’s been noted that both Audrey Niffenegger and Clare Abshire are artists who work with hand-made paper. Niffenegger assures us that she’s really nothing like Clare – who is much more quiet and patient than her author. Clare gets involved in a long-term committed relationship; Audrey did not. Importantly, the kind of art Clare makes is not like Audrey’s art at all. Clare isn’t an avatar for Audrey. She’s more of a… well… more of a muse.


OMG, you’re back! Jane, I thought I’d lost you!

Back? Back where? Who’s Jane? Who’s lost?

Jane! Oh, I’m so glad to see you! Here, just let me--

“What are these?”

These… these are your clothes, Jane.

“Oh, I’m Jane! Good to have a name. And I’m liking these clothes. Thank you.”

Don’t you remember?

“They’re snuggly. Remember what? By the way, who the hell are you?”

How can you not know who I am?

“Because we’ve only just met?”

Of course, this must be your first time. I get it now.

“I’m not sure I get it.”

You will, and you’ll get used to it. Anyways, I’m Alison. I’m your writer.

“My what?”

I’m your writer, Alison, and you’re my muse, Jane.

“I’m a muse?”

Yes, you are. What do you think of that?

 “   “

Now where’s she gone? I had a point to make, and she’s flown the coop! Oh, but it doesn’t matter. My muse is back! All is right with the world. Good! Now, where were we? 

Ah, yes, Clare. In some respects Clare is the opposite of Henry. Henry is a bird, while Clare is a fish (their daughter, Alba, like River Song, is both – Clare dreams of her before her birth as a duck-fetus swimming in a jar, and as a gerbil with gills). Henry is a time-traveler, but Clare isn’t. Henry represents the “sci-fi” genre in the story, Clare the “romance.” Henry prefers Lennon, while Clare likes McCartney. Most importantly, Henry is a consummate liar, a man who breaks rules as often as he breaks and enters to steal clothing, while Clare tells the truth, both as a general rule and in her work.

In so many respects, they are “mirror-twinned” – expressing opposite ends of duality. This is a fairly common literary trope, using such polarities to explore the nature of identity and being. Likewise, the use of the “mirror” as a symbol for exploring such issues with identity is hardly new.

Both “mirrors” and “twins” are used to demarcate those places in the text where the characters are taking stock of themselves. Halfway through the book, in a short chapter called “Turning Point,” Henry walks into a barber shop the day before his wedding. Henry sits in a chair of chrome and watches in the mirror as he gets his hair cut, as he knows he some day must, because Clare first knew him as a man of short hair, not fulsome locks. “I’ve become the me of my future,” he muses. In a later chapter when Henry looks old and gaunt in the mirror, both character and reader can assume he’s reached the end of his life; after he’s gone, Clare in front of the mirror is “paper-skinned” and “ring-eyed.” 

One of the more interesting “mirror” scenes occurs when an adult Henry has time-traveled to an earlier point in his own timeline, to teach himself how to pick pockets and locks. After a successful venture at the Art Institute, they get a room at the Palmer House and stand in front of the mirror, twinned. The younger Henry observes that his older mentor has the same scar on his forehead, and it dawns on him (finally) that this older self is indeed his own self. 

This is, of course, a bootstrap paradox – Henry learned how to survive from his older self. But that older self only knows these skills by memory, memories of haunting museums and art galleries with an older mentor. Henry is, in a very real sense, self-created; his knowledge of survival has no distinct origin.

If there’s a dichotomy explored that’s problematic, though, it’s how an adult Henry “inadvertently” woos Clare during her childhood. This is, of course, an inappropriate relationship; that Henry always shows up naked makes it even worse. Because Henry doesn’t actually control his time-travel, his culpability for the impact he has on Clare’s childhood is hand-waved away. Not only does the power-structure of the relationship reflect much ickiness, the fact that Henry’s put in a paternalistic role and Clare into the childlike role serves to underscore a rather sexist metaphor; women are often infantilized by men, long after adulthood. It’s one thing to raise a trope in order to subvert it, but unfortunately the text here doesn’t really bother to try. In this respect, the mirror splitting “old” and “young” doesn’t serve us well.


You’re welcome.

Oh. My. Goddess.

“All I ever wanted was some… appreciation.”

What happened to you?

“I’m getting old. We shrink when we get older. Don’t you know anything? I’m dying.”

I had no idea. Wait, strike that.

“I had no idea.”

No, I mean, I guess I had an idea you were dying. 

“Of course you did. You told me.”

I only knew because you told me.

“Great. Go ahead, pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”

Can I do anything to make you comfortable?

“A poem would be nice.”

Um, I don’t really do poems.

“Doesn’t have to be yours.”

Good! I have just the thing – lay down your head, and I’ll read to you.

“Lost, is it, buried? One more missing piece?

But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it
(Or found — I wander through the ruin of S
Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.”

“That was nice. Who was it?”

James Merrill, “Lost in Translation.” I studied that poem back in ’07, during LOST. You remember LOST? The missing pieces?


Jane? Jane? Wake up. Wake up, Jane. Oh goddess. Oh no. Oh Jane. Jane, I’m flying blind here. Jane? Jane? Wake up.

Sorry, folks. Please, give me a second here, okay? Thank you. Just need to… just got something in my eye. That’s all.

Okay. Right. Where was I? Oh yes. Mirrors. 

Again, we can see a great deal of resonance in modern Who. The use of Mirrors in the text, literal mirrors, has been incessant for years. The Doctor crashes through mirrors, characters are reflected in mirrors, and mirrors mark the boundary between one reality and the next – the Siren in Black Spot, for example, can pass through any reflection, even “still water,” which is called “nature’s mirror.” To ascertain the nature of the Minotaur, the Doctor creates a labyrinth of mirrors in a beauty parlor. When the Doctor takes Amy by the hand at the end of The Power of Three, in preparation to pass from an ordinary hospital lift to a spaceshift populated by Gallifreyan mythology, a place that’s likened to Death, he asks, “Through the Looking Glass, Amelia?” 

Equally, we see the concerns of Memory and Ontological Paradox in today’s Who. Memory is one of the biggest themes in the show – the Doctor is literally brought back to life because of Amy’s memory. The Silence are creatures who are forgotten when not seen. The Doctor tries to wipe the memory of him from all the databases in the Universe. Most deliciously, memory and paradox intertwine in River’s blue diary, which records their adventures together often before one or the other has even experienced them. 

The Time Traveler’s Wife did this first – Clare’s blue diary records all the times Henry visits her during her childhood, a list she writes down upon his second ever visit, as recited by memory by an older Henry, a list he memorized as a young man shortly after he first met (the now adult) Clare, from this very same diary.

In TTTW, boxes are a hugely significant symbol for Fate, for the very future that Henry (and Clare) can only inevitably move towards. As with most good literary fiction, the apparent scripted-ness of a locked-in future is tempered with a seemingly random glimmer of hope. In one of the most poignant scenes in the book, Henry travels to the future (a rarity) and meets his daughter Alba before she’s even conceived. It’s in the Surrealist wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, and comes with the most precocious description of an art object ever delivered by a ten-year-old, who explains Joseph Cornell’s Aviary boxes (and, of course, a huge metaphor):

“He made the boxes because he was lonely. He didn’t have anyone to love, and he made the boxes so he could love them, and so people would know that he existed, and because birds are free and the boxes are hiding places for the birds so they will feel safe, and he wanted to be free and safe. The boxes are for him so he can be a bird.”

Which is all lovely, except that we’ve already been introduced to “boxes” in terms of fate, of determinism – Henry feels “boxed in” by foreknowledge, has dreams of finding his feet in a box, but also makes love to Clare surrounded by boxes in the new home he’s foreseen them living in. Of course Henry’s joy at meeting his daughter will come with the price of being boxed in – his daughter Alba informs him that he’s already dead, a scant five or six years into his personal future.

Moffat’s Who isn’t quite so strict in its use of boxes, but still – there’s the madman with a box, Dorium’s head in a box, and of course the box of television. The Time Lord message-boxes of The Doctor’s Wife. The Pandorica Box. The rooms of the God Complex, all functioning like boxes; that episode also has a Magic Box as a background prop. All the little black boxes of death in The Power of Three. Heads in boxes again in Bells of Saint John, albeit TV boxes. The Moment, of course, is a box with a conscience.


It’s not as bad as the other one.

Jane? Jane, is that really you?

You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.

Oh. Sorry. I just wasn’t expecting--

“Ah, much better. Clothes. That’s why you looked the way you did.”

I’m sorry, what?

“You could see right through me. Hence, ghost.”

Yes, yes, of course. My goddess, just look at you!

“The clothes aren’t really that remarkable. Oh, wait, actually, they are.”

I can’t believe it.

“Are you really going to keep sniping at my jokes?”

No. No! I mean, I like your jokes. 

“Really? You want to hear another one?”

Yes, please!

“   “

Stop that! Wait, you can’t hear me anymore. This is just getting too weird. I think I may need to go have a lie down somewhere.

Before we wrap this all up, there’s the matter of setting in literary fiction, The Time Traveler’s Wife in particular, and of course in Doctor Who.

In literary fiction, places are metaphors; they are places where symbols converge. For example, Clare first meets Henry in the Meadow, and the nature of their relationship is reflected by that particular space. A meadow is free and open, birds fly overhead, and it’s surrounded by nature. Even though their visits are preordained, Clare and Henry feel “free as larks” here, and their interactions are natural, not dictated by the rules of society or cities. No, it’s here that they get to enjoy, most of all, picnics.

Clare’s summer house has a basement, and a room in the basement filled with books, called The Reading Room. On those occasions where Henry’s visit takes him past sundown, this is where he stays. Of course this is a metaphor – Henry and Clare both “read” not just books but each other, and the future, through the notes they leave each other. That this room is a basement is extra delicious, pointing to the subconscious motivations of both characters.

Likewise, it’s no mistake that Henry works in a Library. The Library, a place for books to accumulate, huge stacks of paper. Henry works at the Newberry Library in the vain hope that he might carve out an ordinary life, but even here his secret is exposed – during one time-travel episode he gets trapped in a “cage” that encases a stairwell (a place for “ascent” or “descent”) and of course it’s impossible to enter or leave such a space; Henry is the Impossible Man. 

Nor is it a mistake that his very first time-travel event happened in a Museum, another repository for accumulated knowledge, for memory (and another bootstrap paradox, to boot.) And of course, these have their analogues in the current run of Doctor Who – the Doctor’s picnic at Lake Silencio, the ascension of River in the Library, and of course the bootstrap paradox of the Pandorica at the National Museum.

But the cleverest place is where Henry and Clare go on their other “first date,” that being the first time he’s dated her from his perspective. That place is a little restaurant called “Beau Thai.”


Bowties are cool. So is Beau Thai.

Bowties are also clothes. Speaking of which...

“Aw, thank you! Helps keep me warm. Are bootstraps clothes, too?”

Not really. More of an accessory.

“An accessory to the crime.”

That was bad.

“A crime against fashion. So, what’s up with this witch?”

No, I didn’t say—

“Ha ha! Gotcha.”

You know, it’s really good to see you again.

“Is it? Even though we’ve just met?”

Well, you made quite an impression on me.

“Is that anything like Impressionism?”

No. Yes. Well, maybe.

“Such indecision gives me a headache.”


“No, wait, it makes me hungry.”

Which reminds me, there’s the whole bit in the book about food--

“   “

--and how it helps, um, deal with the inherent, um… Right. Talking to myself again. You’d think I’d be used to by now.

So, yes, the name of the restaurant is a pun for describing the nature of Henry’s relationship to Clare – it’s here that the time-travel rules are laid out, including its paradoxical nature. And it’s here that Henry starts to realize that he’s living an empty life, that what’s going to really feed his hunger is this relationship. That’s what creates meaning in our lives, filling the inherent lack of meaning in an absurd universe – it’s others, pure and simple.

Which brings us to what really matters in literary fiction, how stories grapple with the nature of living in a world of suffering devoid of inherent meaning. On the one hand, it’s a bit of a disappointment in this regard – especially considering that one of the main supporting characters is an avowed Revolutionary, who preaches the downfall of capitalism, there’s precious little examination of social relations. It’s compounded by Clare’s backstory – her parents are very rich, have a summer home, have servants. Any economic concerns Henry and Clare might have had are solved by a lottery ticket – which Henry says is compensation for the troubles of his “disease” but which is really money stolen from the poor. It’s very much a bourgeoisie fantasy. 

What TTTW lacks in the way of social commentary is made up for in its speculation on matters of a more existential bent. The story is largely concerned with exploring the dichotomy of Order and Chaos; with Death, Loss, and Grief; with Free Will and Determinism; where it falls is in the union of such oppositions. 

For example, Henry believes that within the “present” his choices are meaningful, that they are his, but recognizes that from the perspective of a time-traveler, everything that happened or happens has already happened, in one sense or another. Everything is simultaneously random and planned out, simultaneously.

Or so it seems. There’s one little storyline within the story that explores the possibility of truly changing things. It goes like this: Henry remembers, vaguely, a picture Clare drew that hangs on the wall in her studio. He travels back in time to when she’s a teenager, to the day she draws that picture (of him, naturally.) Clare wants to know what to title it, using Henry’s future knowledge, but to the best of his knowledge the drawing has no name. Clare tries to change the future by titling the piece – but when Henry returns to his “present” he discovers that Clare cut off the title from the drawing, fearing that changing the future would mess things up. The Universe, in other words, has a way of course-correcting.

So Henry knows his death is coming, and does nothing to avert it. Indeed, anything he’d do to avert his death would only end up bringing it about anyways. This is a very fatalistic position, and suggests that we really can’t do anything to change the material conditions of our lives.

And yet… death will come to us all. It is inevitable. It is inevitable for the Universe. What the story really tries to say is that death has to be embraced, and do so willingly is a true measure of taking “authorship” in our lives. It is, to borrow from Flannery O’Connor, a moment of grace – or a drop of blood in a bowl of milk, if you like.


No, I’m pretty sure you do.

Oh, good, you’re here!

“I take it you’re further along now?”

Yes, we’ve known each other for some time, now, I’d hazard.

“So you’re used to it.”


“Then I was right!”

I guess so. Is that why you’re my muse?

“Right! I’m always right.”

Glad to hear it.

“You’re looking a bit frayed. Close to the end, are we?”

Yes, just wrapping it up.

“See, right again.”

You were even right about your death, come to think of it.


You… you didn’t know?

“You’re saying I’m going to die?”


“But I don’t want to die! I can’t die. This is, like, a metaphor or something, right?”


“   “

Yes, like a drop of blood in a bowl of milk. Which has the advantage of being both an image constructed from the mundane, and being a metaphor. And it’s this that both Niffenegger and Who strive to achieve, that little note of grace amidst the certainty of death. 

Chaos wins – the second law of thermodynamics assures us of that. All is chaos, and all will die, but it’s how we go out that makes all the difference. Milk is nourishment, of course, but it’s white, it’s liquid, it’s diffuse – it can easily stand for death. And blood, well, a spot of blood could be just about anything. In TTTW, it’s that first blood of Claire’s miscarriage on the white carpet, and Henry’s guts spilling out in the snow, but it’s also the flush in Claire’s cheeks when she conceives, and when she puts dye to paper, paper that will become an angel. 

Even a small victory is a victory. In Doctor Who, that spot of blood is River’s arrival after Amy’s baby has turned to milk at Demon’s Run, a moment that fixes everything as it should be, assuring the outcome before her parents and her Doctor can go back to screw it up. It’s the last words on the breath of an impossible girl, “Run you clever boy, and remember.” It’s that redhead, if only a vision, saying “Good night” one last time. That spot of blood is grace. It’s literature. It’s art.

Sweet dreams, everyone.


wumbo 7 years ago

That was beautiful! Do you have writing anywhere else, Jane? Could I send you an email?

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Alex Antonijevic 7 years ago

Very well said. I haven't actually read this book since it was released, but I really feel like re-reading it. I remember when watching the Moffat era how elements of this book kept surfacing in my mind. It's really quite well written and so memorable.

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J Mairs 7 years ago

Your opening about taking time travel stories too literally is what I really hate about a lot of the critics of the current show - especially the sort who don't accept that Time Can Be Rewritten - and twist themselves into knots to prove that everything is exactly how it was and always way!

Also more experimental posts please!

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Lewis Christian 7 years ago

OT but still relevant: happy new year everyone.

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Jack Graham 7 years ago

Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating.

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Seeing_I 7 years ago

Great post! I remember reading this book when it was all the rage, it brought tears to my eyes, it really did. Now that Moffat seems to have finished playing out themes from it in Who, I will have to go back and give it another go.

Happy new year, everybody.

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jane 7 years ago

I loved all the avian references in the Xmas special -- cooking a turkey, the Doctor as a tough old bird, Clara's father trying to cheer her up with a penguin, and trying to get Gran to tell the story of the pigeon in the restaurant...

...Karen coming back as an Angel of Death...

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jane 7 years ago

I wonder how many of those convolutions are really attempts to avoid the dramatic concerns for which Time Travel is used. In Who, of course, there are two (contradictory) concerns -- the ability to change, and the acceptance of fate. This is a juicy conflict, which actually reflects our own experience in the world, for we are constantly presented with opportunities to rewrite our stories, and yet there's so much that can never be rewritten.

We can't escape death. Delay it, perhaps, but not indefinitely. But we can change our attitude towards death -- and if we can do that, then it's it's a brand new game. Same goes for grief, or any of the other "negative" emotions that create catharsis.

The conceit of Regeneration is actually quite beautiful in this context, thinking about the Xmas special. The Doctor accepts Fate -- accepts his death -- and this is matched by a moment of Grace, whereby death is married to rebirth, and so he changes.

But my favorite has to be the Pandorica loop. People complain about the ontological paradox in it as a "cheat" for the Doctor to escape, but there's actually a thread leading into that loop sticking out like a sore thumb -- when the Pandorica (Circle in a Square) converges with the Exploding TARDIS (Square in a Circle) the Doctor starts traveling backwards in time. If this convergence, then, was inevitable (like, if the Doctor never got out, and the Earth eventually disintegrated and the Pandorica was drawn by gravity into the heart of the TARDIS) then the Doctor could have stepped out at the appropriate moments and built up the ontological loop from the outside, a rebuilding that was subsequently rewritten so that only the apparent loop remains. So while time can be rewritten, eventually all that will remain are the loops which we'll never rewrite, because to rewrite them would be to destroy something beautiful in the vain attempt to avoid any suffering.

Which is why Amy and Rory can't go back and save their baby. To do so would destroy the River Song they've come to know and love. This isn't stated directly, in exposition, but it is explored metaphorically through The Girl Who Waited.

Sorry, I'm rambling.

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jane 7 years ago

I liked Niffenegger's prose -- very clean, and relatively free of affect. Sometimes the voices of Henry and Clare aren't so distinct; other times the clarity of voice rings out, especially the parts from Clare's point of view as a little girl.

I first read it a couple years ago, while my dad was in the hospital for brain surgery. I wasn't paying attention to any of the motifs (other than the diary and the out-of-order shenanigans that were obviously mirrored in the Doctor/River relationship) but this time I was on the lookout for all the motifs I've since identified in Moffat's work on Who, and I was astounded at the resonance, both between the two works, and what it actually accomplished in TTTW.

The repeated use of motifs in literature and cinema is a desperately underappreciated technique, I think. It creates so much layering, so much depth. I think it's underappreciated because we don't really notice them at first, but maybe that's not a bad thing -- because then they end up working subconsciously, which is where emotions are generated in the first place.

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Nyq Only 7 years ago

Rambling is a good thing. Odd that we use it negatively when it comes to our thoughts.

For a show with a time traveling hero, Doctor Who pre-Moffat avoided time-travel stories i.e. stories in which time travel occurs within the plot rather than as a frame at the start and end of an adventure. This is understandable because they can end up with a Clavin-and-Hobbes comic confusion of hanging plot ends - and without such hanging plot ends you don't really get the full effect of time travel stories.

Time travel stories are best in which the total number of time travel events are an odd number greater than 1.

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Anton B 7 years ago

A fantastic critical reading. Thankyou jane/Alison. Like other commenters here I am minded to return to this book. by the way, in your opinion, is there any literary merit to Niffeneger's other works?

Oh and on the subject of piscine/avian imagery need we look further than the 's fish fingers and custard and those damned elusive Leadworth ducks?

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Anton B 7 years ago

^missing words in the above being 'The Eleventh Hour' of course.

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Galadriel 7 years ago

While I agree that the book is neither romance or scifi, I think literary fiction has a acquired a bad reputation among general readers as snobbish and confusing--more Uyssess than Dickens. I'd almost classify it as another badly-considered genre, "paranormal romance", but one that fully explores the challenges and effects of non--human romance.

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jane 7 years ago

I haven't read Niff's other stuff, so I really can't say. All I can say is that TTTW is obviously influential, and has the literary merit I outlined above. I cried more on the first read, but on the second, when I was keeping an eye on literary techniques, my breath was taken a bit away.

Now, when we get to Eleventh Hour, of course we have fish fingers -- this is Pond food, and helps ground the Doctor, helping to bond him with little Amelia. Missing ducks, on the other hand, is later revealed as timey-wimey -- they disappeared because of the Cracks -- and of course the Doctor flies over London at the outset. Jeff is given the opportunity to "fly" and meanwhile there's a pool in the Library (heh). The Doctor makes his final stand on a rooftop.

We get Mirroring from the get go, which is about as old as symbolism gets in Mythology (Prisoner Zero is silver and acts as a mirror to his victims, to the Doctor and Amelia, and eventually to himself.) Zero looks like a giant eel (fish) but hangs from the ceiling (bird) -- this is an alchemical shapeshifter.

But there are other motifs to look for that aren't stolen wholesale from TTTW. For example, the Head in an Eyeball motif, which gets repeated in stories like Byzantium, Hitler, Wedding, and Crimson; lots of Eye imagery overall in Moffat's run. There's the Red/Blue dynamic, the union of opposites; likewise, Fire and Water. There's the Circle in the Square, a symbol from Masonry, the divine in the material, and its first representation is in a Clock. The laptop labelled "M?TH" indicates a psychological take on mythology.

There's gardens, ladders, apples -- a town called Leadworth, and a TARDIS interior that's burnished in copper and gold. This is the language of alchemy.

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jane 7 years ago

Oh, and of course, Amelia thanks Santa for the fish.

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jane 7 years ago

Hearing birdsong after he wakes up...

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Adam Riggio 7 years ago

One of the recurring ideas in the Moffat era is different riffs on this basic idea: the time traveller as occasional visitor in a more stable, conventional timeline. This is most obviously present when encounters occur wildly out of order: River and the Doctor are both time travellers, so their relationship isn't so much like Henry and Clare, but two Henrys.

The Doctor's presence in Amy's childhood is more akin to the Henry-Clare relationship, but more specific in that the Doctor has skipped so much time from his first encounter until her young adult life. When I first saw The Eleventh Hour, I saw it as an alternate riff on the Doctor's mess in Rose's timeline in Aliens of London (for me, the most interesting part of that story). In 2005, we saw the worldly and familial consequences of the Doctor accidentally taking Rose out of her life for a year when he intended to return after an evening. In 2010, we saw the personal, psychological consequences of the Doctor disappearing from Amy's life for 12 years when he aimed for 10 minutes.

TTTW seems like a more explicit model for all the Doctor's companion relationships through the 2012-3 season. He visits Amy and Rory, then Clara, to pick them up for trips that last an indeterminate amount of time (there's a wonderful novel to be written of the Doctor and Clara's journey to the south pole to pick up the TARDIS after the events of Cold War), then returns them to their lives fairly accurately with little interruption.

I wonder how Peter Capaldi's Doctor will handle the relationships, but I'm looking forward to finding out late this year.

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jane 7 years ago

Literary fiction certainly doesn't have the sort of broad appeal of other genre fiction, and much of it can be pretentious and boring, but not necessarily so. Your John Irvings and Joyce Carol Oates, their prose isn't stultifying or desperately ornate, while their characters and plots are plainly straightforward. They're praised for their storytelling skill, for mastery of language without flaunting it, for addressing ordinary contemporary life, and for the rich layers of symbol and metaphor they lay into their work. The literary genre still has its bestsellers and, most importantly, its tropes. The organizing tropes of TTTW are resoundingly literary -- not with the impeccable craftsmanship of Irving or Oates, but with workmanlike competence nonetheless.

And, like Doctor Who, and other sorts of hybrid storytelling, it's not limited to those tropes. "Paranormal romance" might qualify, but I'm not so sure that I'd call Henry "non-human." Trans-human, perhaps, but not "non-human"; he isn't a different species. His condition is specifically linked to his genetics, not to some supernatural event -- hence the more SF classification -- but this is played in the same way that someone with any kind of genetic "syndrome," a medical/disease model; his likening to an angel is metaphoric, not literal.

And, as mentioned, the book plays out more like a tragedy than a romance; the ending isn't "happy" except for, as Sally Sparrow might put it, "deep people." The other literary quality it's concerned with is problem of contemporary living. Almost half the book is devoted to an infertility issue, and particularly to the emotional ramifications of it as it pertains to the relationship between Clare and Henry. That's definitely in the wheelhouse of literary fiction.

Because it dabbles in the SF/F genre, and the Romance genre to a lesser extent (more like Melodrama at times) it probably isn't treated as seriously as other literary works. And because it's so literary, it probably isn't as lauded in the ranks of genre fiction. Yet it was a big hit, and a financial success for both Niffenegger and her publisher. Perhaps we "outsiders" are more numerous than the mainstream thinks. :)

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David Anderson 7 years ago

Literary fiction is I think largely an institutional genre. That is fiction is literary if and only if it is treated as literary fiction by the institutions, publishers, reviewers, booksellers, prize awards, that decide whether something is literary or not. It's difficult to see what Life of Pi and The Gathering have in common other than they both won the Booker Prize. But Gene Wolfe is probably never going to be up for the Booker Prize. Neil Gaiman just might as he has sufficient following that he might be co-opted.

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Anton B 7 years ago

....and of course custard is made from eggs. One of the most popular brands in the UK and a favourite with children being 'Bird's Custard'. Amelia thanking Santa for the fish I took as a reference to Douglas Adams' So Long and Thanks For All the Fish the title of which is a self referential quote from the first Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy book and is the last message from the dolphins as they leave the earth. (one assumes they developed the ability to fly into space) This is obliquely referenced again in the very next story with the space whale assisting the Starship UK's exodus from Earth's destruction.

Praying to Santa is mirrored in Time of the Doctor when the Eleventh Doctor becomes a very Santa Claus type figure on Trenzalore making wooden toys for the children and also of course in Christmas Carol where he literally comes down Sardick's chimney. His reference to knowing Santa as Jeff is a feint. He has been hinting that he's Father Christmas since Ecclestone and Rose.

As to Niffeneger's other work. I'm surprised you haven't read Her Fearful Symmetry with its themes of twins and mirroring and its Blake referencing title. I haven't either so looks like that's another one to add to my list.

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Anton B 7 years ago

Yes Amy's mirror is Clare. River is more like Henry's daughter Alba. Who can also Time Travel but has more control. He first meets her in a museum. She tells him he is already dead. Of course Moffat cleverly keeps the Doctor's temporal chastity intact by making River's 'real' father Rory. Her metaphorical and alchemical parents though are clearly the Doctor and his 'wife' the TARDIS.

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jane 7 years ago

The Doctor was called "Father Christmas" all the way back in The Feast of Steven. What a remarkable episode!

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jane 7 years ago

Girl in the Fireplace is also a TTTW story -- but not as wibbly, as the Doctor's path through Reinette's life is always a matter of skipping forward. Again, the Doctor meets someone as a little girl. She grows up having known him all her life, though from his perspective they've barely met.

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jane 7 years ago

Those institutions are looking primarily at the quality of prose, its lyricism, its metaphor, what it has to say about being human, and even what it has to say about storytelling. That is what Pi and Gathering have in common. Not all literary works partake of all these conventions -- Pi is heavily symbolic, while Gathering is more lyrical -- but they are both very concerned with the art of story itself.

And it's those qualities that often keep genre writers out of "literary" conversations. Not always -- Kurt Vonnegut is properly recognized as a literary writer despite playing with SF genre conventions. But Slaughterhouse-Five is only tongue-in-cheek about its Tralfamadorans; it's really about the trauma and senselessness of war, as well as functioning as existential criticism. Vonnegut's use of language is impeccable, from his choice of repetitions to his dry wit.

So, I guess what distinguishes "literary" fiction from "genre" fiction is that the latter categorizations derive from setting and plot and story "elements," while the former is recognized first and foremost through craftsmanship.

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David Anderson 7 years ago

The Casual Vacancy is literary; Harry Potter is not. But none of the reviews have said that Rowling's craftsmanship in the former is significantly greater than in the latter. Left Hand of Darkness is beginning to be counted as literary, but I don't think it's characterisation, prose quality, or use of symbolism are significantly greater than, say, Canticle for Leibowitz. Wolfe's Peace is not a literary novel. Hogfather is at least as much about storytelling than Life of Pi, but it's not literary. Use of Weapons is not literary and Crow Road is; the craftsmanship is the same.
Saying literary novels are recognised through craftsmanship is just to say that literary novels are good; which is not a useful genre quality (a genre should have both good and bad members), and also implies that novels that fall into other genres aren't good, which is untrue.

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storiteller 7 years ago

In terms of the distinction between SF and literary fiction, I think the better distinction is between classical science-fiction (emphasis on "what-if" puzzles, like Phil describes "golden age SF" as being), fantastical fiction (emphasis on world building), literary fiction (emphasis on characterization and style), and action-adventure (emphasis on set pieces and plot). I think most of what we consider modern-day science/ speculative fiction is a combination of two of these genres. The most common and stereotypical combination is fantastical fiction and action-adventure. However, a lot of the SF authors who are considered "literary" fiction as well, like Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ursula K. LeGuin, combine golden age tropes with literary emphases. That's why to me The Lord of the Rings is much closer to The Avengers movie than it is to Left Hand of Darkness, even though the Avengers has aliens.

Another "literary" time-travel story that I found absolutely fascinating is How to Survive in a Science-Fictional Universe. It flips all of the romantic notions of time-travel on their heads to be about an intensely personal, claustrophobic meditation on memory and life experience. It also features a magical box that is anything but bigger on the inside.

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Dave 7 years ago



Excellent stuff. Happy New Year, folks.

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Daru 7 years ago

Thanks Jane. Good thoughts. I agree with Nyq Only, don't apologise for rambling. I think of it as taking our thoughts for a walk and seeing where they go.

I love your picking up of the symbols of the combining of the circle and the square - the four elements and the material world combined with the cycle of life and the wheel of time. I have also seen (& explored via my own drawing work) the symbol of the interwoven circle and square used to represent the Bard or Bardism - the musicians, poets, storytellers - perfect for The Big Bang as the arc finishes with the Doctor becoming both the story and the teller of the tale.

Keep rambling.

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Daru 7 years ago

Thank you very much for such a wonderful reading of the text Alison! I had read he book a couple of years back and was very moved by it. I had heard about its relationships to Moffat's Who, but just tried to read it on its own terms, which I was able to do. After reading your essay it would certainly be an interesting experience to read it again - and also I feel that your essay would be a work I could return to read numerous times, so thanks again.

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Daru 7 years ago

And Happy New Year everyone!

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Galadriel 7 years ago

Exactly, David. As an English major, I've had professors tell me that writing literary fiction is the best way to learn how to write anything, while writing genre fiction only teaches the rules of that genre. There can be works of literary genius in any genre; craftsmanship alone is not the mark of literary fiction.

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grace crawford 6 years, 3 months ago

If I could give one piece of advice to someone picking up this book for the first time, it would be the advice I was given before I started reading it--pay close attention to the chapter headings and to the MANY subheadings that indicate the year and the ages of Henry and Clare at each point in time. It will help you keep track of the timeline and be less confused. :)
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