In "The Shining Girls," the South African writer Lauren Beukes' chilling new novel set in Chicago, Harper Curtis is not your run-of-the-mill serial killer. In some respects, his modus operandi is strictly garden variety. He stalks his victims — always female — and brutally murders them, leaving behind tokens that function as grisly calling cards. Ho-hum.
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But Harper has another talent that sets him apart from his monstrous brethren: the ability — an unnerving one in someone with his disturbing proclivities — to travel through time. He leaps from the Depression era to the mid-1950s to the early '90s and back again, identifying his victims as young girls, then zipping forward in time to finish them off once they've attained the ripe womanhood that incites his bloodlust.
While it adds a fresh twist to the thriller genre, time travel has been a favorite plot device for more than a century across the entire spectrum of storytelling modes, including science fiction, horror, romance, postmodern metafiction and even mainstream literary fiction. And why not? For writers feeling hemmed in by the constraints of mundane reality in the here and now — or in the case of historical fiction, the there and then — time travel offers a wild-card option in which the normal barriers of chronology can be shaken up or smashed through, the years shuffled and reshuffled like a deck of cards. Epochs can be traversed, compared and contrasted. An infinite number of futures, desirable and not, can be conjured and speculated about, their emissaries arriving like, uh, clockwork, with reassurance or warnings. The past can be revisited and, depending on the rules the author has established, altered, which in turn alters the present and future.
And for the intrepid author who trusts his or her readers to remain engaged through patches of paradox and head-scratching, time travel can be a portal, to other historical periods, of course, but also to new ways of framing age-old questions about fate, predestination, free will and a host of other complex philosophical and ontological issues in an entertaining, commercially viable framework.
Given the concept's versatility, it's no surprise that novelists have availed themselves of it so often, perhaps now more than ever. Besides "The Shining Girls," published this month, another June publication of note is Andrew Sean Greer's "The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells," about a woman who finds herself transported to the other lives she might have lived. While undergoing a series of electroshock therapy treatments, Greta is repeatedly whisked to 1918, then to 1941, then back to the present.
In 2011's "11/22/63," Stephen King sends his hero, a high school English teacher, back through time in a quest to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And in 2011's "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe," Charles Yu posits a world in which time machines — "T-class personal-use chronogramattical vehicles," as they're called — are so common that they need technicians, like taking your Prius in for a tune-up. (Yu's hero, by the way, is not just a time-machine mechanic; he's also "an approved independent affiliate contractor for Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this universe as a spatio-temporal structural and entertainment complex zoned for retail, commercial, and residential use.")
Not that this is anything new. There might as well be a Time Travel Fiction section in the bookstore (to use another increasingly anachronistic reference); for the genre's aficionados at least, it would make things so much easier.
The splashiest, most popular and perhaps most radical use of time travel as a literary conceit in recent years arrived in the form of 2003's "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Chicago's own Audrey Niffenegger. Where other authors have employed various means of conceiving and effecting time travel — machines, cosmic anomalies, the occult, hypnosis, mind-altering drugs — Niffenegger posits it as a medical condition. Her hero, a Windy City librarian named Henry DeTamble, suffers from a syndrome in which he's whipsawed involuntarily back and forth through time (and space, too, within a blessedly limited radius), with no control over when or where he ends up. The sensation is woozily disorienting, for the reader and, of course, for Henry.
"You hear blood rushing to your head, feel vertiginous falling sensations," he explains. "Your hands and feet are tingling and then they aren't there at all. You've mislocated yourself again." In one of the rarest and yet most logical quirks in the genre, Henry's clothes don't zip along with him; he lands in each new set of time-space coordinates "naked as a jaybird," as he puts it, a circumstance that provides both comedy and, late in the novel, a jarring sadness.
But the most radical aspect of the time travel in Niffenegger's novel is the purpose to which she applies it. Where, say, Twain and Yu wield time travel as an instrument of satire, and where Wells and his followers enlist it as a means of speculation about where current trends in society might lead (in Wells' case, toward a still-prescient vision of a world populated by the innocent, vapid Eloi and the tech-savvy, predatory Morlocks), Niffenegger uses it, devastatingly, as a way to keep her protagonists, Henry and his beloved wife, Clare, apart.
As the author told me some years ago, she felt that many of the conventions that novelists have drawn upon over the centuries to separate their pairs of lovers — enmity between families or races, prejudice, romantic misunderstanding, third parties, war, illness, geography, economic disparity, age differences, whatever — had been rather thoroughly explored, if not exhausted. In "The Time Traveler's Wife," Henry's absences due to his chronologically dysfunctional episodes are the central problem facing the couple, which is bad for him, much worse for her. "It's hard being left behind," Clare says in the novel's opening paragraph. "I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one who stays." Her dilemma is complicated and compounded not by the mechanics or implications of time travel but by an even greater mystery: "Why is love intensified by absence?"
For these reasons, Niffenegger stands all but alone in the time-travel genre — or rather, among its subgenres — in that she seems to have virtually no interest in the phenomenon of time travel except as it facilitates her investigation into the nature of love and its endurance through adversity and, yes, through time.
A partial byproduct of her use of the device in "The Time Traveler's Wife" is that it was and remains enormously popular, selling more than 5 million copies despite the fact that, at the author's insistence, it was not released in e-book form until recently. It's tempting to deduce from this some modicum of commercial calculation; increasingly, readers like a soupçon of fantasy with their literary fiction. But in fact, a significant number of literary agents and publishers originally turned down the manuscript (to their later chagrin) on the grounds that "we don't do sci-fi."
Mostly due to the success of Niffenegger and writers like her, the publishing world has long since largely divested itself of such genre-purist nonsense, and rightly so. It turns out that time travel can be just one more road, albeit an unusually long and winding one, into the deepest and darkest of what William Faulkner called the old verities of the heart. All it required was a writer skilled enough, and bold enough, to undertake that treacherous journey.
For the time-travel novelist, the journey is fraught with extra layers of potential structural and logical disasters. As anyone who has ever written (or tried to write) a novel knows all too well, executing the simplest, most straightforwardly sequential plot can be devilishly difficult without stumbling into problems related to pace, tone, exposition, digression, balance of texture and story, "rate of reveal" and other matters. On top of this simmering stew of pitfalls, time-travel fiction ladles the additional risks of a zigzagging chronology, of which the imperative to accurately render disparate time periods is only the beginning. The novelist must know not only what happens next, but also what happened in the past that led to what's happening now, and, depending on the tale's needs, what will happen in any number of past and future time frames, all of which are interdependent.
Wisely, to my mind, Niffenegger kept it relatively simple by establishing the rule that however out-of-sequence Henry is forced to live his life, everything happens only once, no alterations or do-overs allowed. Reshuffle the deck of cards as often as you want, but each card is unique, whole and immutable within itself. Some of her more adventurous colleagues in the genre have borrowed trouble by delving into the briar patch of issues inherent in the idea of traveling backward in time in order to change some condition of the present and/or future. In "11/22/63," King handles it better than most, but even there — well, it's impossible to discuss without unforgivable spoilers. It's tricky, let's just say, and far more intellectually taxing than many writers and readers, including this one, are equipped or prepared for.
To some, of course, the Butterfly Effect, an aspect of chaos theory in which a small change to one part of a system (in this case the past) can have rippling, ultimately profound consequences for other parts of the same system (in this case the present and future) — is a brain-tickling delight rather than a conundrum of mind-boggling proportions. The concept was developed in the early 1960s by the American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, whose work on weather-prediction computer models led him to surmise that a small disturbance, such as a single flap of a butterfly's wings on one continent, could contribute to atmospheric conditions that could lead, weeks later, to a tornado or other extreme weather phenomenon on another continent.