Within the film Limbo is introduced as that layer of dreaming, “raw subconscious”, to which one goes when dying in a dream does not lead to waking as it normally does. This level is so deep that the accelerated time distortion inherent in each deeper level of dreaming means that fifty years in Limbo might pass during one transoceanic flight in the “real” world. It is also possible that everything we have seen as “real” has only been the dream of a moment at a higher level. Perhaps the only truth are Cobb’s memories of the life (and death) of Mal and the entire film is his subconscious dream wish fulfillment of living fifty years with his children as he did fifty years with Mal. Even at this level of analysis we are assuming, however, that Cobb’s story of spending fifty years in Limbo with Mal is true. For all we know the entire premise of shared dreaming is part of a dream that Cobb is having at a layer of reality even higher than the film itself. In the real world as we know it he may be a man grieving over loss of wife and children by some more prosaic cause (say a freight train colliding with the family car while Daddy was away on business) who in one night dreams of reuniting with the children at least. At this level the fifty year reunion with Mal ends in a nightmare but the reunion with the children ends in hope only to be dashed when the poor man awakes for real. And the top means nothing because it only signifies “reality” in a dream about dreaming.
But I like the top, really I do, so without batting an eye I am going now to change frames of reference to make the final shot of the top spinning mean something, just because I can. There is such a thing as shared dreaming. Cobb is a practioner of this science/art and he really does wake up on The Bullet Train. So there, now the final scene must be that of a true life reunion with the children. Not so fast. The top is still spinning. I detect a wobble which is a delightful fillup of ambiguity, but still it spins as we go to black. It might fall or it might spin for fifty years. Cobb may have rescued Saito from Limbo and Saito kept his word to make a homicide charge disappear instantly with a single phone call. Or perhaps the mission succeeded and both Saito and Cobb were trapped in Limbo. The mission, remember, is the “inception” of the idea to break up the conglomerate and presumably the final scene with Fischer and his father achieves this. But Cobb does not take the “kick” that Ariadne does. Instead of waking up in the collapsing mountain stronghold and then the crashing elevator and then the sinking van and then the airplane, he wakes up on the beach back in the opening scene. If we can trust the exposition earlier in the film (a big “if” but say “yes” to it so we can keep playing at this level) then to die without waking means being trapped in Limbo and waking insane after years of dreamtime. Therefore, the apparent waking on the airplane could be part of the dream ongoing and the top at the end can spin and spin as Cobb ignores it to go off with his James and Philippa.
I like the top. I do not trust the top. I cannot forget that Cobb spins the top everytime he wants to check on reality. He, for example, awakens in Mombasa, staggers to the bathroom and spins the top. Earlier he makes it clear that he trusts no one to touch the top lest they learn the heft of it and use that experience to create the top inside a dream and fool him into accepting the dream for reality. Yet if he must have it on him every time he wakes then he must be vulnerable every time he sleeps to having someone take it. Around we go again to “reality” at any point in the film could be a dream with the top a trick. The uncertainties keep the film entertaining long after you have first seen it.
The same sort of thing can happen with the written word. The Time Traveler’s Fool plays with telling stories the way Inception plays with sharing dreams. Your reading of what the stories “Marvin” tells mean depend on who you think is telling the stories, Marvin or a time traveler possessing him, and how much you believe what he says. And just as Inception can be taken as Nolan’s metaphorical exploration of architecture or film making, The Time Traveler’s Fool can be taken as Stevens’ metaphorical exploration of Theory of Mind, Psychology of Reading, Literary History, and the Philosophy of Consciousness all depending on which level you wish to play. Now that I have planted that idea, it is your turn to play with it at as many levels as you can.