Andromeda: It's About Time, Part One

For the next three weeks, I’ll be blogging about time as an essential part of narrative structure. I’ll be teaching a 3-week class called “Time in Narration” on this subject on Tuesday nights beginning Oct. 4. In the class, which covers both fiction and nonfiction, we’ll be reading, writing, investigating our default choices, and developing our chronological sensibilities. We hope you’ll join us.

Most of my favorite authors write in opposition to whatever they’ve written just before. Having spent several years in the company of one kind of character or POV, they try something as different as possible the next time around.

My first novel, The Spanish Bow, a historical novel about classical musicians in Europe, took place from the 1890s to the 1940s, with a short section in the 1970s. Eighty years. The book begins with a birth scene and ends with the main character’s death. I didn’t realize when I started that I was writing a linear bildungsroman (or “education novel,” about the education and moral development of a character) of the type popular in 19th century England and Germany. In fact, I was writing a very specific subset of that form: a kunstlerroman, or “artist novel,” about how an artist develops (think of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage).

I can assure you that after writing my way through so many decades – births, marriages, separations, emigrations, exile, disappearances, a colonial war and a civil war and two World Wars! – I was determined that my next novel would cover a shorter duration. Not because I was tired of all that history, but because I knew that shorter duration would use different writing muscles and allow me to deal with characterization, plot, and even setting in new ways.

My new novel, The Detour, is primarily focused around five dramatic days in a character’s life—five days in which my young German narrator, while traveling across Italy to deliver an ancient Roman statue, confronts memories, becomes mired in intrigues, faces tragedy, and also (spoiler alert) falls in love. Phew. (You have to let a narrator have some fun once in a while.)

We make these choices intuitively, and learn about the consequences, the challenges and rewards along the way. We also learn where and how we fit as writers following in the footsteps of literary tradition.

When I graduated from writing The Spanish Bow to writing The Detour, I was following modernism’s trail. Consider the duration of most novels. First, we have the 19th century cradle-to-grave novel. Then we have, in the 20th century, an emphasis on coming-of-age novels in which the action is focused on a year, or perhaps a season: The Great Gatsby and many novels that imitated its structure take place over the course of one hot summer. (Why is it that summer and early adulthood, young love and first disillusionments all go so readily hand-in-hand?)

Even more intense than those “classic-time” novels are novels that take place in a single day. Duration contracts, and freed from the broader time canvas of social and political change, the novel turns inward, becoming the modern psychological novel, in which an individual’s thoughts and memories– instead of wars and famines, multi-generational births and deaths — fill pages. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is my favorite example; Woolf’s other novels are all virtuosic experiments in narrative time management.

Post-modernists accepted the time challenge and took things a step further. Nicholson Baker has written quirky, digressive, heavily footnoted novels in which the story duration covers one hour (The Mezzanine) or twenty minutes (Room Temperature). Duration shrinks; absurdity results. Baker makes me laugh out loud.

There is nothing more exciting to me as a writer than examining and challenging my own default settings and learning to see the hidden architecture of literary works. When I imagine a story I want to write, or think of a favorite novel (or even a favorite film), I ask myself: What is its fictional duration? A hundred years? One year? A summer? A single day?

What is gained by covering a long duration? What is gained by temporally restricting the action? What does a cradle-to-grave novel tell us about the world, about humanity, about ourselves? What can be revealed only by tightening up time and turning inward? Why, in the words of Virginia Woolf, is a single day so dangerous?

Every one of these time-duration choices affects not just the “feel” of a novel — its weight and emotional tone– but its philosophical underpinnings. Every one of these choices also creates new challenges. We open up our writer’s toolboxes, experimenting with how to compress time or expand a luminous moment, how to handle flashbacks or create a frame story or play with parallel timelines. Playing with time – even just learning to recognize narrative time management in our reading – we grow as writers.

Next week I’ll talk about another time-related topic and touch on some issues in memoir. In the meanwhile, please share your own “duration” thoughts with me. Do your favorite novels tend to use one time duration over another? Why are some modern writers – Jeffrey Eugenides and Junot Diaz come to mind – returning to the multi-generational, long-duration form? Has anyone here managed to get through all of Joyce’s Ulysses, another one-day modernist classic? Jump in!

1 thought on “Andromeda: It's About Time, Part One”

  1. Andromeda,
    This is such a great topic, and you handle it so well. I like to think of time in novels as plastic; that is, there are places where we can leap over a hundred years in a paragraph, or places where we can magnify the minute, zooming in on a character’s particular thoughts and feelings. So I think it is possible to have a book that covers a large time span but doesn’t go into much detail about historic events. Then there is flashback, which is usually very intimate, but stretches the time frame of the book backward. By and large, I’m not as drawn to books that cover many decades. On the other hand, the “Day in the Life of” has its own kinds of limitations. If push came to shove, I guess I’d say I like books that have a historical backdrop but focus on maybe a few weeks or months with particular characters. Hard to separate that from just great writing, though. Some of my fav’s: For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway); The Power and the Glory and The Honorary Consul (Graham Greene); All the Pretty Horses (McCarthy); All the King’s Men (Warren).
    Thanks for this interesting post.
    Anne Coray

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