Jack Finney's Time and Again is a tribute to New York City of the yesteryear. The author has created a warm and endearing picture of Manhattan in the 1880s through the vivid and accurate lens of an illustrator, Si Morley, also the chief protagonist and time traveler of this novel.
Mr Finney's novel, though about time travel, cannot be categorized as science fiction; which does not take away from the novel in any way as it is simply an observation and not meant as a derogatory reference. Regardless of what literary category the novel may fall under, Time and Again is an engrossing read that provides suspense and romance within a historical context. The protagonist, a resident of Manhattan in the 1970s, takes on a government sponsored time-travel project and chooses to go back to Manhattan of the 1880s by the sheer strength of his will power. While straddling between the two worlds of past and present, both of which are set in and around Manhattan, Si, the protagonist, falls in love. This emotional involvement becomes the source of a major conflict for Si who now has to make a choice between the two worlds he has been romancing. The conflict is not only for Si to resolve because, by this time, the reader is as much a part of the two Manhattans as is Si, and like Si, the reader too has a difficult choice confronting him. For every New York lover this part of the novel will prove heart rending and will make for a lot of reflection and questioning: What if I had to make this choice? Have Manhattan and New Yorkers really changed that much? Has that change been for the better? Has the city lost it's heart in its effort to be the 'business capital of the world'? Have New Yorkers "shut themselves off from the streets around them, alien and separate from the city they lived in, suspicious of it...no one took any particular pleasure in it."
Clearly there is a sense of nostalgia for a Manhattan of the past whose residents "moved through their lives in unquestioned certainty that there was a reason for being...their faces were animated, alive in that moment and place....pleasure they felt at being outdoors, in the winter, in a city they liked...conscious of time and money...all sorts of expressions just as today, but they were also interested in their surroundings...and above all they carried with them a sense of purpose...they weren't bored, for God's sake!"
Whether Si ultimately makes a choice, and whether that choice changes or interferes with the past that is already gone, is really not that significant. In fact, toward the end, the plot almost seems subservient to the soul searching journeys that the reader takes with Si, from the past to the present, in and around Central Park. These travels paint a vividly stark contrast of life then, and life now in Manhattan; it is a picture not easy to ignore or shake off given that there are some interesting illustrations given at various points in the novel of NYC in the 1880s.
"To correct mistakes of the past which have adversely affected the present for us - what an incredible opportunity" could perhaps have been Finney's driving theme for this novel. The question is whether New York today needs 'correction', and whether time travel into the past is the only way to do it? Could reading this novel do the trick, perhaps?