Note: this is a book I’ve read for my book group, so I’m going to try to stick to a single topic for this entry.
When my book group selected The Time Machine as our monthly choice, I had trouble remembering if I had actually read it. Sure, I’d seen the George Pal movie and the more recent remake with Guy Pierce, but I honestly couldn’t remember having read it. But Mrs. Speculator and I found it on the shelf, and in it are scribblings in my handwriting, so clearly I read it at some point. Which got me to thinking as I reread it.
I often toss out “classic” as a descriptor of something I’ve read when I’m talking about it. Sometimes, I mean it in the sense of the period it came out of, sometimes called the Golden Age of SF. And more recently, there are books which I would consider to be classic in that they create new genres or change the direction of existing ones. But The Time Machine is truly a classic—so very many things I love about this genre go back to that seminal novel, originally published in 1895. I discovered that my forgetfulness is not based so much on any shortcomings associated with it but because I’ve internalized so many of its conventions and tropes by reading them over and over in other works that their origin is momentarily lost to me.
One thing that leapt out at me is what appears to be the primordial dividing line in SF, Wells versus Verne. Wells spends a good bit of time commenting on the social problems of his own day by extrapolating them out into the future; this is especially true in The Time Machine. But unlike a lot of novels that follow, trying to provide social commentary in an effort to perhaps lift their writing from “the gutter” SF often finds itself becoming, the Time Machine is smooth and adept in those passages, not resorting to clunky ham-handedness. (That’s not fair—some writers may really be trying to give insight into the current human condition; nevertheless, it often ends up clunky and ham-handed despite the best intentions.)
But I rediscovered one convention whose origins I have trouble understanding. And why it continues to be used—my best guess is because the authors who went before did it—escapes me too. I remember reading my very first Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, A Princess of Mars, and being a little bewildered by how the narrator at once simultaneously distances himself from the story being told and yet provides some sort of verisimilitude. In Princess, the narrator is a relation of John Carter who is releasing a manuscript at Carter’s request. In later Burroughs’s stories, the narration is delivered by vision, by some sort of psychic communication that can take place over miles, and via radio. The narrator is rarely the protagonist of the story being told, but is dutifully repeating the story as it was delivered to him by the protagonist. What a strange twisting path to get to the story.
As I reread The Time Machine, I rediscovered this same pattern. The protagonist, who is only described as “The Time Traveller” is not the narrator, but instead it is some unnamed witness to The Time Traveller’s original recitation of his adventures to his friends. In fact, in The Time Machine, most paragraphs begin with quotation marks to indicate that our narrator is quoting The Time Traveller’s story. (Burroughs is able to get away from the repeated quotation marks because he sets his framing device in an introduction that ends with a somewhat formulaic “and here’s his tale.” The quotes throughout the story are still there, just implied rather than explicit.)
At first I thought to myself that The Time Machine is the originator of this device, but the more I thought about it, I recognized that his sort of framing technique is used throughout Victorian literature. In fact, Frankenstein does it as well; the introduction is a series of letters that describe the growing relationship between the narrator, Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein and ends with Walton recounting Frankenstein’s story. So clearly there is a history with this device, but what does it add to the narrative such that an author would want to include it?
It strikes me that it provides a sort of truthiness to the story, because the narrator is able, if questioned, to say “Hey, it’s not my story; I’m just telling you what I heard.” The narrator backhandedly vouches for the veracity of what is told by denying any claim to knowing its truth. But this line of reasoning has a second implication, that the narrator actually makes no claims to the truth at all; the only truth he admits to is that he was told this story by someone else, and that the narrator is only responsible for the truth of the circumstances under which he first learned the story.
Why does this matter? I suppose in the long run, it really doesn’t. But as someone who is writing about writing in the hopes of eventually doing the original writing that others will write about after, I’m interested in the art of it, the artifice of it. What does such distancing add to the story? Really, most of the story is told in first person by the protagonist (The Time Traveller, John Carter, Frankenstein), so why add the gaudy bits around it to separate the voice from the narrator? Especially when that narrator is clearly a fictional character also?
Perhaps so many levels of misdirection actually help the reader to forget that what is being read is not a factual account but a fiction, at least for the moments that the reader actually has the book in hand. But that seems awfully flimsy—a good first-person narration…heck any good narration has that same effect without resorting to such contrivances.
I’ve actually been thinking about this for a number of days now and I’m afraid I’m going to have think some more about it. I don’t have an answer of the benefits of such a narrative technique. I welcome any opinions to help me puzzle out what, as it turns out, has puzzled me for a long time now.