Friday, June 4, 2010

A novel, a poem, a song -- a breath of magic

Two of these three editions of "Time and Again" by Jack Finney have been around for a few decades, traveled widely and been read a number of times. The copy on the right is a recent commemorative edition issued by the Science Fiction Book Club.

Literature, you say? According to whom?

Science fiction writers traditionally have been held in low regard when compared to "real writers." One who broke out of the mold, largely due to his overall versatility as a writer and to the uniqueness of a particular novel, was Jack Finney.

Finney specialized in thrillers and works of science fiction. Two of his novels, "The Body Snatchers" and "Good Neighbor Sam," became the basis of popular films, but it was "Time and Again" that won him a devoted following. The novel, about an advertising artist who travels back through time to the New York of the 1880s, quickly became a cult favorite, beloved especially by New Yorkers for its rich, painstakingly-researched descriptions of life in the city more than a century ago.

Finney's first novel, "Five Against the House" (1954), told the story of five college students who plot to rob a casino in Reno. A year later, he published "The Body Snatchers" (later reissued as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), a chilling tale of aliens who emerge from pods in the guise of humans whom they have taken over. Many critics interpreted the insidious infiltration by aliens as a cold-war allegory that dramatized America's fear of a takeover by Communists. Finney maintained that the novel was nothing more than popular entertainment. The 1956 film, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," has been remade twice.

Finney first showed an interest in time travel in the short- story collection, "The Third Level," which included stories about a commuter who discovers a train that runs between New York and the year 1894, and a man who rebuilds an old car and finds himself transported back to the 1920's.

He returned to the thriller style in "Assault on a Queen" (1959) and tried his hand at comedy in "Good Neighbor Sam" (1963), a novel based on his experiences as an adman, played by Jack Lemmon in the film version.

With "Time and Again" (1970), Finney won the kind of critical praise and attention not normally accorded to genre fiction. Thomas Lask, reviewing the novel in The New York Times, described it, suggestively, as "a blend of science fiction, nostalgia, mystery and acid commentary on super government and its helots." Its hero, Si Morley, is a frustrated advertising artist who jumps at the chance to take part in a secret project that promises to change his life. So it does. He moves into the Dakota apartment building by Central Park West, travels back to New York in 1882 and experiences the fabulous ordinariness of a bygone age: Its trolleys, horse-drawn carriages, elevated rail lines and gaslights. Later, Finney published a sequel to the novel, "From Time to Time."

"Time and Again" probably is my favorite novel, period, and I re-read it every few years. I just finished it again a few weeks ago, while living in the "Old Town" section of an European city, Warsaw, Poland, whose people treasure its history and its heritage -- in the very least, as much as those who live in and love New York City.

This tale completely captures the imagination, offers significant, accurate, historical detail and presents a range of interesting characters whose emotions run the gamut of human experience. It might not rise to the aesthetic levels of "Ulysses" by James Joyce or to the literary heights of "The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, but I am not certain I have found any novel that does accomplish those things for at least the past decade or two or three. Have you?

"Yesterday is History" by Emily Dickinson

Yesterday is History,
'Tis so far away --
Yesterday is Poetry --
'Tis Philosophy --

Yesterday is mystery --
Where it is Today
While we shrewdly speculate
Flutter both away


Anonymous said...

Beautiful music,Beautiful are such an inspiration to me..Sometimes feels so close..Thank you Fram:)

Kendra Mellinger said...

Dear Fram,

Browsing the webs to see who likes Jack Finney. Found your post. Thought you might like to check out this article from '94 about the film history of "Time and Again"

Currently, Jack Finney's short story, "Second Chance" has been written into a screenplay and is scheduled for production this year in a feature length film titled, "A Long Tomorrow"

We're trying to spread the word to Jack Finney fans and build a following for this indie film.

Thanks for your post, and best wishes to you.

Something special ....