Andromeda: It's About Time, Part III

This is part three of a series about narrative time. In the first post, I talked about the concept of duration. In the second, I talked about “terroir” as a metaphor for character backstory and richness of multiple chronological levels. Today, I’m briefly addressing nonlinear and postmodern narrative. My Time in Narration class that begins Oct. 4 is now full; but I still wanted to share these final time thoughts.

Paraphrasing (and reversing) Kierkegaard’s statement: We live life forwards, but we understand it backwards. By this, he meant we understand life by looking back at the past. But some authors have taken the concept further, with stories and novels that not only take place in the past, but really tell their stories in reverse. The classic examples include Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. In this disturbing novel, a Nazi doctor experiences his life — and morality — backwards. The novel opens with the guilty doctor living in America, and only later moves to Europe. Characters become younger, and reversed moments have a reversed meaning: Nazi victims are pulled out of the gas chambers, not put into them. Acts of violence heal injuries. Treatment causes greater pain. (Just explaining this novel is a challenge, and I find myself wanting to read it again!)

Justin Torres, an up-and-coming writer who recently visited Alaska — and whose debut novel is making a big splash — authored a story in the August 1 New Yorker, “Reverting to a Wild State,” that is also a story told in three reversed sections. How does a story told in reverse change our understanding of cause and effect or influence our sympathy for characters? The Torres story is short and easy to access — a great place to start if you’re curious about how chronology can define a story’s heart.

It pleases me to be reminded that writers don’t always have a master plan. They stumble upon structures, experiment and revise, make up new rules that challenge their own defaults. That was the case for Jennifer Egan, whose A Visit From the Goon Squad, a wonderfully entertaining novel, recently won the Pulitzer and has quickly gained a popular following.

I’ve heard that Egan considered telling her novel in reverse, but then realized that even “backwards” is linear, just in another direction. She decided to try something different, ordering her book in an entirely unconventional way, with unpredictable jumps from one chronological moment to another, allowing the story to sprawl in an elaborate mosaic or modular fashion, over several decades. The novel even flashforwards to the near future. Time is not all that Egan was playing with: each chapter is told through a different main POV, and written in a different tone or style. (The most famous chapter is a Powerpoint presentation.) The fact that we, as modern readers, can make sense of this structure with relative ease tells us something about our hyperlinked, multimedia, playlist culture. We’re used to jumping around these days. Narrative interruptions, unexplained gaps, and idiosyncratic mixes feel almost familiar to us.

When we write, do we consider the many options available to us? When we read, do we ask ourselves why a story or memoir has been fashioned into a particular chronological structure? Will our digital, internet future change storytelling, just as film did, making us more comfortable with certain techniques, from flashbacks to mosaic structures? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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