What is it about Chicago and oddball science fiction genetics? This month, it was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife. Last month, for me, it was Richard Powers’ Generosity.
Generosity posits a bleak Chicago, full of the deep, dreary, grey wells formed by towering buildings, autumnal greyness, dysfunctional winter. When a winter storm brings the city to a halt, the joy of experiencing its midwinter glitter is abbreviated by the drudgery of dealing with iced-up reality. Mostly, however, Generosity bears its sense of place as backdrop. The city itself is not, in effect, a character in the book. Not the way the woman with the covetable genes is.
Niffenegger, on the other hand, clearly holds deep affection for Chicago, even if it is bitterly cold in the winters of the Windy City. Winter, in her Chicago, is more lethal, in its way, but leavened by parties, meetings, adventures. Life goes on amidst the cold outside in the dark of the year and the air-conditioning of its heat.
Clare, the titular time traveler’s wife, yearns for the big metropolis from her rural upbringing across the lake in Michigan, not so far from Kalamazoo. She moves to it for art college, for the vibrancy of its art scene, and to find her time traveler, Henry. Together and apart, their lives unfurl in place. Drives are measured in specific, real streets and the changing of neighborhoods. As Henry observes of it,
Chicago has so much excellent architecture that they feel obliged to tear some of it down now and then and erect terrible buildings just to help us all appreciate the good stuff. (332)
Characters spend time in some of the city’s most significant destinations: the Field Museum; the Art Institute; the Lyrica Opera House; the Newberry Library. They live in recognizable neighborhoods, go to specific restaurants; I haven’t spent all that long in Chicago, but I have eaten at one of the restaurant eaten at in the book. Most, whether or not all, the others seem to be real places too, based on this map of city places from the book.
Niffenegger’s is a vibrant portrait of a lively city, a lived-in city, which I found so successful because of the way place suffused the story. Geography, in this book, is not just background, it’s landmark, the pin-points of orientation the characters, especially, but not only, the time traveler himself, use to understand the nature of the moments in their lives. Place, time, and people are his means of orientation, which is why a briefer summary of one of his time traveling moments might comprise “I was in the Selzer Library in the dark, in 1989.” (275)
The city develops and changes with and around its characters, beginning – literally beginning – with long-standing cultural havens, the Newberry Library and the Field Museum, and moving outward:
I think about Chicago in the next century. More people, many more. Ridiculous traffic, but fewer potholes. There will be a hideous building that looks like an exploding Coke can in Grant Park; the West Side will slowly rise out of poverty and the South Side will continue to decay. They will finally tear down Wrigley Field and build an ugly megastadium, but for now it stands blazing with light in the Northeast. (332)
I suspect that anyone who grew up around South Haven, Michigan, that town across the lake near to which Clare grew up, would recognize their town too. I’ve only spent a couple of days in Chicago, but in the pages of this book, it came alive for me again, cohesively and expansively.
What was the sense of place in The Time Traveler’s Wife like for those of you who have never been to any of these locations?