• Sue Kwong

This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.

This week, in round one, bout five, Marvin Tate, a poet, author of School Yard of Broken Dreams and The Amazing Mr. Orange, and writer for the album Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate with Leroy Bach and Angel Olsen, decides between two novels, Divergent by Veronica Roth and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.

“The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is to change its consequences. Let’s make the past together.”
—A’ida in From A to X by John Berger

I read the novels Divergent by Veronica Roth and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger for the Greatest Ever Chicago Book Tournament, and although both books connected with me on different levels, it was TTW that left a lasting impression on my imagination and reiterated in me that “time waits for no one” and that, to live fully, one should always embrace the moment. It hit upon subjects that touched a chord in me—marriage, memory, time, love, fate versus free will, and identity—and its blend of suspense, mystery, fantasy, and romance resulted in a story that had me drying my eyes and wondering about my own mortality, marriage, and relationship with my daughter, friends, and family members.

No matter how I tried to plunge into Divergent‘s futuristic settings, not even an apocalyptic Michigan Avenue and dilapidated Navy Pier Ferris wheel could keep my attention from roaming elsewhere. Something about living in the present kept me from embracing Roth’s virtual worlds and juvenile cast of daredevils. I threw in the towel, but not before Tris and her ambivalent hunk, Four, manage to get some alone time and discover their divergent commonalities. Any book or music that feels geared toward the masses and reads like a bid for a fall TV show or movie script rarely makes it past my ADHD.

I’ve always had a fascination with time travel, going back to “Journey to the Beginning of Time,” a poorly made early stop-animation short from 1966 that was featured on the children’s show Garfield Goose. (Those over 40 may remember it?) It was about four boys going back in time to the prehistoric era via the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The only upsetting thing about it was that there never was a part two, and every week they showed the same fuckin’ episode over and over again.

My focus and muscle power, though, were attracted by the bottomless love affair of Clare and Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife. It doesn’t matter that this book was also turned into a movie—I didn’t see it—but its continuous play with time conjured up anxieties in me that I thought did not exist or had, at this point in my life, been resolved. Great art is like that, be it in the form of music, theater, or some abstract formation. TTW agitated me and made me question the density of my destiny. Imagine going back in time and meeting your future spouse when she’s just a shorty, and you’re twice her age and butt naked, trying to convince her that you’re not there to hurt her but to one day be her soul mate.

Because I am a big-time procrastinator, by the time I started to write this piece, the verdict for the Eric Garner case had just been decided. I was shocked (like most of us were), and I had to take a step back and not be too judgmental of Henry’s ability to disappear after being locked up or handcuffed and then not be on anybody’s most-wanted poster. I confess, it bugged the shit out of me. All that privileged hipster, “we so punk” posing started to wear on my nerves.

But in spite of Clare and Henry’s insulated existence, their determination to redefine and hold on to their relationship made me patient with Henry’s sudden disappearing acts and Clare’s “Stand by Your Man” Loretta Lynn demeanor, and lured me back into my favorite chair to see what was next.

How would an older Clare match up to an older Henry? Clare’s magic was her art, and when Henry rigged the lottery in her favor, you knew that he was seriously contemplating her long-term happiness in spite of his inevitable demise. I don’t profess to be a time-travel expert, but I imagine if you live in such an alternative state of mind, traditionalism, in a marital sense, is best appreciated when it is minimal and without much expectation.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was the overwhelming favorite in this round, capturing 69 percent of the vote. Voting for round two begins January 13.

  • Sue Kwong