2010 at 5am Posted by Rebecca Joines Schinsky
The Bare Necessities is a series in which writers and bookish folk share annotated reading lists of the books they can’t live without.
Frederick Reiken’s stunning novel Day for Night is, simply put, one of the very best of the year, and I really can’t stop raving about it. Day for Night is essentially a set of interconnected short stories that add up to a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts and that play with time and narrative structure in creative, boundary-pushing ways. I’m thrilled (really, it’s all I can do not to throw panties at this post alone) to welcome him here today with a guest post about other books that also play with time. The list, Time Travel 101, is based on a course he teaches.
I often like novels that in some manner or other seem to bend, rift, warp, or otherwise transcend time, and for years I have been thinking about why novels can do this. One hypothesis is that a text can play with time and move around nonlinearly because of the manner in which we conceptualize a narrative. We imagine a story as unfolding in time, but actually, the only thing that unfolds in time is our private act of reading and imagining it. Likewise, the author’s act of writing the book was a process that unfolded in time, but a completed text becomes a spatial thing, and a book that you can hold in your hands is a timeless whole. Rip out the pages and you’ll see what I mean. Once you lay all those pages along the floor of your living room (okay, don’t really do this), you can walk from one page to the next and back again.
Here is my other recent discovery about all this. What a conventional story-oriented narrative usually employs is a literary application of the temporal construct known as “block time” or a “block universe” – in which time is envisioned spatially, as if it were a four-dimensional space-time map. That’s why we accept, without hesitation, the simple literary technique of a flashback. Within the spatialized time frame of a novel, the effect of jumping to a flashback is less like going back in time and more like getting on an airplane in New Jersey and then getting off in Texas. For a more exaggerated way of thinking about block time, consider protagonist Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s landmark novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy has become “unstuck in time,” and has no control over which part of his life he will wind up in next. All the moments of his life — present, past, future — can be arrived at as if they were geographic places. What I’ll suggest is that a conventional, realistic work of literary fiction makes use of the same apparatus minus the spasmodic time travel. Instead of the protagonist becoming unstuck in time, the author simply moves the reader around within the block-time map. In other words, the reader is the one who becomes unstuck, because the story can go anywhere it wants.
With this in mind, here is an annotated list of a several novels and short stories that play with time in compelling ways and in most cases also happen to be amazing.
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy. This novel is not only incredible but also a great example of a book that alternates between two time frames — a later frame in which the twins, Rahel and Estha are 31 years old and are reuniting after a long estrangement; and the earlier, deeper time of the story, which recounts, chronologically, the accidental death of their cousin Sophie Mol and its tragic consequences when they were young children. This book has a profoundly heartbreaking ending, but what is notable about the book’s “end” with regard to the subject of time is that in the final chapter presents a scene that comes before the death of Sophie Mol and obviously long before the reunion of Rahel and Estha. It is as if we have traveled back in time for that final moment – not as an expository flashback, but as if we have literally been transported there, where we can remain for all of eternity.
Evening, Susan Minot. The structure is similar to Roy’s in that there is a later “present” time in which a woman named Ann Lord is lying on her death bed, and amidst the swirling sea of her thoughts and memories, she keeps returning to a weekend 40 years ago, when she fell in love with a man named Harris Arden, who in the present frame has appeared to pay his last respects. Minot’s technique enables her to take the memories and longings of her protagonist as they pertain to that weekend long ago and transmute them from mere fragments into a dramatized revisiting of that block of time, complete with heartbreaking conclusion (note that literary books that play with time are almost always heartbreaking).
The Beggar Maid, Alice Munro. This set of linked stories, which charts the nodal events in the life of a single protagonist, Rose, has the effect of a novel, because we see Rose’s life journey, from having grown up in a small town in rural Ontario (covered in the first 3 stories), to having made her way out in the wider world (the next 5 stories), where she reinvents herself over and over (as wife of a pampered rich boy, lover to various men, mother, TV talk show host, actress), and her eventual return to the town where she grew up (the last 2 stories). Taken together the stories have the feeling of the wanderings of Odysseus, though with a far less dramatic homecoming (though it is, of course, heartbreaking). Part of the wonder of this book is that while the stories themselves are arranged in chronological order with regard to Rose’s life (so that we are able to connect the dots and put together a complex larger portrait of her, complete with well-developed themes about self-image and social class) there is a great deal of time-bending within the stories. The first story, “Royal Beatings,” for instance, which recounts events in Rose’s childhood, takes a jump at the end to a many-decades-later point in time that lies beyond the time frame of the book’s final story, “Who Do You Think You Are?” Meanwhile, this final story travels back to a point in Rose’s childhood that predates any of the events in “Royal Beatings.” It’s also worth noting that the linked story or novel-in-stories format is particularly suited to this kind of jumping around in time, because each story itself becomes a kind of “block” in the overall architecture.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. What is interesting about this recent book (other than its flat out brilliance) is that the nonlinear nature of the linked story cycle that comprises it feels less like a mapping out of some immutable timeline of events and more like the chaotic yet at the same time formally syllogistic logic of the hypertext structure of the Internet. It is as if we’ve clicked a link in each story, which then takes us to the next one. The miraculous artistry of the book hinges on Egan’s ability to maintain story momentum and thematic focus while moving through all these differing dimensions, each of which employs a distinctly different narrative approach, including a penultimate chapter in which Power Point is used as a bonafide narrative form. Everything hangs together because the book’s topic – in addition to punk music and the generation that spawned it – is ultimately time itself, the metaphorical goon of the title.
First Light , Charles Baxter. This wonder of a book makes use of block time as a way of telling the story backwards. Each chapter dramatizes a sequence of events in the lives two siblings, Hugh and Dorsey Welch. The chapters themselves move forward in time, but each successive chapter begins at a point that is earlier, chronologically, in the lives of the two siblings. So, the book begins with the events of an ordinary visit on the Fourth of July when Hugh and Dorsey are both middle-age adults and the book concludes with the young Hugh laying eyes on the newborn Dorsey for the first time. Instead of cause-effect, what we get is effect-cause, as the book gradually unravels the complicated tangle of emotions between the siblings to their varied origins.
There are other variants on the backward chronology, such as Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, in which the protagonist, an American physician named Tod Friendly, dies but then finds himself uncontrollably living the events of his life in reverse order (the author acknowledges a particular passage in Slaughterhouse-Five as a primary influence), so that even conversations literally play out backward, until it is revealed that Friendly was a Nazi who assisted Mengele at Auschwitz and that he changed his identity after the war. The widely anthologized Tobias Wolff story “Bullet in the Brain” also travels backward in time by making use of the device of a protracted final moment in the life of a book critic named Anders, who has been shot in the head. (This “protracted moment” device has also been used to other mind-bending ends by writers such as Ambrose Bierce – “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – and Jorge Luis Borges – “The Secret Miracle.”)
Though I have focused mostly on contemporary works, I can’t neglect mention of at least a few of the seminal time-bending works that these contemporary approaches in some way pay homage to.
First, I have to acknowledge the whole time travel science fiction story genre, particularly two classics by Robert Heinlein, “All You Zombies –” and “By His Bootstraps.” If you can chart and understand the paradoxes that are exploited in those two stories (the first hinges on the so-called “grandfather paradox;” the second hinges on the eponymous “bootstrap paradox”), you will understand the mechanics of all time travel genre stories ever written. Consider the bootstrap paradox, for instance, which demonstrates that it is possible, via the logic of time travel, to create a temporal loop in which a thing has no origin – e.g. if I learn to sing and play the Beatles’ song “Blackbird” by listening to the White Album and then travel back in a time machine to the sixties and teach it to Paul McCartney, who records it on the White Album, then McCartney never actually wrote the song and it exists without having an origin. If you happen to have read The Time Traveler’s Wife, you might now recognize that the bootstrap paradox forms the structural basis for roughly all of the time travel scenarios in the entire novel.
Second, no discussion of literary time-bending can fail to mention Virginia Woolf’s two masterpieces, though I will not do them anything close to justice here: 1) Mrs. Dalloway (entire lifetimes converge into one day for several characters; as Clarissa Dalloway wanders around London preparing for her party, she thinks continually about the time long ago when she chose her husband, Richard, over the true love of her life, Peter Walsh – this motif is echoed in, for instance, Minot’s Evening). 2) To the Lighthouse (time becomes a literal force against which the characters struggle. Note: the treatment of time as well as the brilliant three-part structure of this novel is both emulated and acknowledged in Ian McEwen’s Atonement, though there is also a heartbreaking metafictional twist in McEwen’s epilogue).
And finally, there is of course Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, which both dissects the nature of time and alters our phenomenological experience of time as we read it. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Proust’s six-volume tome is that the main “plot” is that of a protagonist named Marcel who is forever planning and forever failing to write a novel, until you finish page 3000 or so and realize that, in what has to be the longest, slowest act of literary sleight-of-hand ever performed, you have just read it.
- Five Reasons to Read and Love DAY FOR NIGHT by Frederick Reiken
- The Bare Necessities—Geoffrey Jennings (Rainy Day Books)
- The Bare Necessities—Siobhan Fallon (YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE)
- The Bare Necessities—Harvey Freedenberg, Reviewer Extraordinaire
- The Bare Necessities—Timothy Schaffert (THE COFFINS OF LITTLE HOPE)