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The Man Who Folded Himself

When a young man learns to travel through time, he finds the ability to be both a blessing and a curse

*The Man Who Folded Himself
*By David Gerrold
*Bantam Books
*First published in 1973
*ISBN 0-553-29006-1

Review by A.M. Dellamonica

D avid Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself is the diary of Daniel Eakins, an eccentric young man who exists in a peculiar state of disconnection from humanity. With neither a job nor any friends to draw him into human society, Danny's only significant relationship is with his mysterious Uncle Jim, an ancient and reclusive millionaire.

Our Pick: B+

Jim dies shortly after informing Danny that he has inherited more than $100 million from his long-dead parents. Unfortunately, Jim's lawyers tell a different story, claiming there is no fortune, and saying that Jim was all but indigent. According to them, the old man's only legacy to his nephew is an ordinary leather belt whose buckle bears the word "Timebelt." Danny is left to wonder whether his promised fortune has been embezzled or his Uncle Jim was mad; worse, he must contemplate getting a job for the first time in his brief, privileged existence.

Soon enough this quandary is resolved, though, when Danny learns the belt is a working time machine. It is easy enough to see that Uncle Jim has left Danny a fortune after all: He can travel back in time and use insider knowledge to win money at the track, or play the stock market. The possibilities presented by the ability to move in time seem endless indeed.

One side effect of using the belt, however, catches Danny utterly by surprise. Finally mustering the courage to time-travel, he leaps ahead a single day, only to be confronted by his future self!

A complex twist of temporal paradoxes

David Gerrold's fun is only just beginning as the two young versions of Daniel Eakins first encounter each other. Over the course of this novel, Danny's self-duplication becomes all but infinite; the story of his multiple selves—and their various relationships—is the heart of The Man Who Folded Himself. Always a loner, he buries himself in a society of his own company. Six Dannys play poker in June of 1975; meanwhile, an older self raises a child back in 1956. He makes no mistakes that he cannot undo: Wiser selves can travel back in time to tell younger versions not to repeat their errors, thereby erasing undesired timelines.

The brilliant thing about this 1973 novel is not in its time-travel dynamics—which are, admittedly, complex—but in how far it takes the concept of one person replicating himself endlessly. Danny revels in his own company, getting to know himself in the most concrete sense of the phrase. His experiences are pleasant, unpleasant and sometimes even perverse. His use of time travel is a voyage of self-discovery.

At the same time, The Man Who Folded Himself is a closed circuit, lacking any outside context. It is true that Danny explores history, ringing changes on the past here and there—but because he can erase any undesired action, his decisions are interchangeable. In one past timeline, he saves John F. Kennedy from assassination; in another, he murders Jesus Christ. Neither action is necessarily for keeps, and it does not matter which he chooses to undo, because readers do not see the larger outcomes of these choices.

What remains is a story that focuses all its attention on its main character, a biography of an eccentric and complicated man who is deeply engaged in a dangerous search for self-knowledge, at the expense of all other human contact.

Gerrold's work generally features odd-duck protagonists engaged in—for readers—discomfiting relationships, and The Man Who Folded Himself is a classic example. The twists of thought and the various experiences of Danny make for an intense reading experience. — A.M.D.

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