Fiction Review: "Time and Again" by Jack Finney

I was looking for some good inspirational material to help me with a Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1890s New York City. One book suggested to me was the late Jack Finney's Time and Again.

To be honest, I was altogether unfamiliar with Mr. Finney's work, though a quick bit of research revealed he had written the novel The Body Snatchers, the work upon which the various Invasion of the Body Snatchers films were based.

Time and Again tells the tale of Simon "Si" Morley, an artist employed in advertising who receives an unusual offer which turns out to be part of a government time travel project.. Si is from the early 1970s, the time when this book was published. I found it interesting that in addition to getting a glimpse of New York of the 1880s (more on that later), I also received a view of New York City of the early 1970s, a time period which saw me as an infant and toddler. It's interesting to see how things have changed in the 40+ years since then - casual office activity which would today be considered sexual harassment, tension between races, massive differences in technology.

Before going into the time travel of this novel it's worth looking at Si a little bit. He isn't quite happy with his advertising job and receives an offer out of the blue to participate in a government project, the details of which he isn't even allowed to know, though the pitchman is good at his job. Essentially only a certain type of person is able to participate in this project and as Si served in the military the government is able to preselect him based on their exams of him from when he served. Si reminds me quite a bit of Andre Norton's Simon Tregarth of Witch World, the protagonist of the first novel I reviewed in this blog. (And in writing this I noticed they share the same world.) Si Morley is far less a physical hero than Simon Tregarth but both of them are both most definitely "player character" types of characters, leaping at the chance for adventure, making quick decisions, and proving adaptable to strange situations. Si also has something of a gentleman's appreciation for ladies - he comments on a large number of attractive women whom he meets.

The project, as is obvious from the back cover of the book, involves time travel. How the time travel works isn't fully spelled out by the project's leader, Doctor Danziger. Going into some very minor spoiler territory and giving my impression of how it works, it seems to be a psychic form of time travel. It seems only certain types of people are able to use it. And the way they use it is finding various places in the world which haven't changed much and immersing themselves into living the life of a person from their time period. Through hypnosis (externally delivered or self-hypnosis) they are effectively able to transition to an earlier point in the timestream.

Si requests that he be allowed to visit New York City of 1882 to unravel the mystery of the suicide of his girlfriend Kate's foster father's father. In 1882 he received a letter which said:
If a discussion of Court House Carrara should prove of interest to you, please appear in City Hall Park at half past twelve on Thursday next.

When he killed himself years later he scrawled a confusing (and partially legible) suicide note upon this letter:
That the sending of this should cause the destruction by Fire of the entire World <illegible text follows> seems well-nigh incredible. Yet it is so, and the Fault and the Guilt <more illegible text> mine, and can never be denied or escaped. So, with this wretched souvenir of the Event before me, I now end the life that should have ended then.
Using the non-fictional Dakota building, an apartment building which existed both in 1882 and his present (and our present), Si makes several trips to the past. As the attempts prove successful the government which had been ignoring the project begins paying greater and greater attention.

One of the great strengths of this novel is how well Finney captures New York of the 1880s. It is a real place with real people, not caricatures. They have their lives, hopes, challenges, and dreams. They have their own way of living that is normal to them. And Finney allows us to truly experience this New York. The steam-driven elevated trains, the newfangled cameras, the horse-drawn buses, the Statue of Liberty's torch in Madison Square.

Si becomes more and more involved with the people of 1880, growing to care about them as individuals. And more and more disturbing things begin happening into the present. Finney reveals the true meaning of the mysterious suicide note in the novel's denouement and neatly resolves the various plot threads.

Time and Again is a great resource for people wanting to get a view of late-19th century New York City. Victorian Age London tends to get the lion's share of attention in that period but this novel shows that Gilded Age New York City could be just as fascinating. It also shows one of the more unusual time travel methods I have encountered.

I did a combined reading of this novel, using both Paul Hecht's unabridged audiobook narration as well as the paperback version of then novel. The paperback proved valuable as there are many drawings and pictures of New York of the past within, some of which are described by Si (making for some awkward moments in the audiobook narration, though Hecht does a very excellent job despite this challenge).


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