6 Books with Warped Timelines to Celebrate Groundhog Day, Bill-Murray-style
Not being American, I have to admit that Groundhog Day registers as Time Travel Day for me, purely out of association with the Bill Murray film. What better opportunity, then, to look for books that play with non-linear narratives, re-organized chronology or jumping through time? Bonus points if you begin the search grumpy as hell, then unexpectedly become an increasingly wholesome and honest person, to mirror the movie's arc.
1. "11/22/63" by Stephen King
Stephen King’s 11/22/63 begins in 2011, when schoolteacher Jake Epping’s terminally ill friend Al shows him a timeslip leading all the way back to 1958. Having ventured into the past himself, Al has discovered that no matter how long you spend in the past, only two minutes will have passed in the time of the present. Al’s plan was to go back and prevent the assassination of JFK, on November 22, 1963 — and he asks Jake to take on this duty, now that he’s no longer able to perform it. Jake’s ventures into the past are not without consequence, as he realizes whenever he makes a return into the present: the world is different, and so are the fates of the people he loves. This cleverly plotted time-travel novel asks some somber questions about what it would mean to rewrite history, on a personal and a global level.
2. "4 3 2 1" by Paul Auster
4 3 2 1 tells the stories of young Archie Ferguson growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. Notice the plural stories: the entire book hinges on a ‘what if’ moment, where the plot splits into four possible lives Archie might go on to live. The best way to imagine the book’s structure is to picture a dendritic river pattern, where streams split up again and again, as the book rotates between Archie’s four lives seven times, following each life’s progression in that time period. Some end sooner than others, but all of them see Archie grow up in the same circumstances, then emerge into young adulthood a different man. There’s no time travel involved in this narrative, but each plot point takes on a vertiginous force as it stands in comparison to every other life Archie could be living.
3. "The Secret Agent" by Joseph Conrad
In bleak and foggy 1886 London, Adolf Verloc operates as the most unglamorous of secret agents. To prove his worth as an agent provocateur, Verloc is tasked with bombing the Greenwich Observatory to attack the very concept of science. That’s how the book begins, except the narrative becomes fragmented, beginning to flash forward and backward to the impact of and lead-up to the bombing. Told in short episodes that confuse the chronology of events for maximum tension, The Secret Agent embodies the effect of the bombing, with plot developments scattered like rubble and the reader left to put together what’s happened. Now a modern classic, this intelligent and depressing book forces the reader to witness a cast of anti-heroes look for some meaning in their dull lives.
(Looking for more depressing books? I've got you covered.)
4. "The Time Traveler’s Wife" by Audrey Niffeneger
Imagine going through life constantly experiencing time glitches, where you accidentally and involuntarily travel through time. That’s what happens to Henry DeTamble, a librarian who suffers from a rare genetic disorder called Chrono-Impairment (if there's a Greek component in the name, it must be real, right?), which understandably poses challenges in his relationship to his wife Clare. Through the lens of their marraige, the book examines the psychological impacts of absence in a romantic relationship, while drawing intrigue from its sci-fi-style premise.
5. "The Sea of Tranquility" by Emily St. John Mandel
In a series of chronological leaps, The Sea of Tranquility is split into episodes taking place in 1912, 2020, 2203, 2401, 1918, 2172, 2195, and, briefly, in a period “lost in time.” Though the structure sounds chaotic, it isn’t — each episode contributes a narrative thread that weaves together Canada of the past, 2020 as the present, and lunar colonies of the future to point out the sheer unreality of living through time. Bonus points for the book’s amazing title, since ‘sea of tranquility’ is the name of one of the lunar maria.
6. "This is How You Lose the Time War" by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Told in epistolary form, This is How You Lose the Time War sees two agents from opposed factions write to each other, each keen to secure their group’s interests in a world devastated by war. In a whirlwind of time travel where history is rewritten, a romance is born in classic enemies-to-lovers fashion — except there’s nothing cliché about it. This co-written novella has been widely praised for its lyricism and heart, and even went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novella.
Hope you enjoy traveling through time and space with the help of these books this Groundhog Day — and let’s spare a moment of silence for HarperCollins titles that could’ve been featured had the publisher given its striking employees a deal. We’ll see where mediation goes!
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