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The Art of Time in Fiction, Part 2

September 18, 2010

Switchback time, as Silber defines it, refers to a zigzagging movement between different eras, without giving dominance to any particular time. “Then and now and further back are all partners with an investment in the outcome. Their separate roles are essential to the point the story is making; one isn’t a footnote to the other” (45).

Silber considers Alice Munro to be the best living writer of switchback time. While a Munro story has a center, the reader is given different perspectives, which correct each other, to see what is at that center. Munro herself describes the different parts of her story as different rooms in a house. In her stories, Munro jumps over gaps in time, but not without always orienting the reader with time markers. We are never lost in time.

Switchback time is more complicated than backstory or flashback, though the difference, if I’m understanding correctly, is conceptual. In the former, the notion of the non-primacy of any one time is key, so that it is not the past story serving the present story as much as is it a collaboration among stories, each scene or smaller story deepening every other scene or story, and creating a complex whole. A story or novel which consists primarily of one, forward-moving narration that is occasionally interrupted for a key flight into the past in order to illuminate the present–this dipping into the past would be flashback. A story or novel that moves frequently and at length from one time frame to another, creating a sort of collage effect, is employing switchback time.

The Surrendered, Chang-Rae Lee’s latest novel, seems to me to be  a good example of switchback time, as Silber defines it. The novel moves primarily between three time zones: Korea at the end of and after the Korean war, the 1980s in the United States and Italy, and China during the time of the Japanese occupation. When I began reading the book, I thought that the first chapter, which tells the story of one of the main characters, June, in Korea, when she is eleven, would serve as a sort of background for the present day story, set in New York. Instead, the novel moves into the different times and lingers there, fully telling each story until one isn’t sure which is the primary one. I would say, in fact, that none of them is.

In an interview with Jennifer Gilmore from The Rumpus, Lee addresses the issue of time as it relates to his understanding of psychology and character. Though he uses the term flashback to describe what he does, he uses it in such a nuanced way that it feels like an extension of what Silber means.

“The past… is absolutely present at all times and the present is born from the past… Technically, I do enjoy the flashback!  But not just for informational material.  I want the flashbacks to feel that once you’re there they have their own unity, their own kind of atmospheric sensibility; I want the reader to be transported.  The novel is a big, complicated, unknowable thing before it’s written. By definition it uses and plays and delights in time. It delights in the interlacing of chronologies and the consequences of that interlacing.  And those have personal and psychological expressions in a character.  Aside from other issues of writing, psychological characterization is what narrative can do best.”

In stark contrast to switchback time is slowed time, when the past is left out and there is a hyper-focus on the present. Stories that employ slowed time often look at a single moment in intense, lyrical detail. In order for this technique to work, the moment has to be an important one. As Silber writes, “the danger is in slowing down at the wrong moment–in any fiction we don’t want to hear about savoring a casual cup of coffee that means nothing” (60). Silber uses two examples. In the first, the author, al-Saadawi, gives a straight but exceedingly slow, chronology followed by “the drama of thought” (p. 62); in the second, Don DeLillo creates drama by alternating between commentary and report.

Silber also discusses Proust in this chapter, and how much self-examination slows down time. While she makes the point that Proust has had a great influence on modern readers and writers (use of sensory detail, examination of response to the world, emphasis on fluctuation of feelings, and the overall message that time in fiction is flexible), she begins her passage with the funny observation that while reading Proust she has felt that “her whole life was being slowed down” (63). I had a similar feeling while reading “The Portrait of a Lady.” James does not employ slowed time in the way that Proust is famous for, but for the modern reader, the effect is perhaps similar. His attention to specific details, the way he stays with single moments, musings that go on for pages… In my edition of the novel, a single page has approximately 600 words instead of the usual 300-400 words per page of the contemporary novel. And if the book were to randomly fall open, it could easily display one of these 600 plus word pages but without a single break in paragraphs.

In some respects, I enjoyed the effects of slowed time while reading The Portrait of a Lady. My life, experienced on a day-to-day basis, moves much too quickly. I always feel under the pressure of time, of knowing exactly what time it is and matching that time to where I should be. 5:00 a.m. Getting out of bed. 8:00 a.m. Driving to work. 4:15 p.m. Driving to soccer practice. 6:30, Starting dinner. Perhaps a category that Silber is missing is modern time, in which the story races from one time to the next, one clipped scene after another, with detours that accrue no meaning, such as going to the wrong field on the wrong day at the wrong time.

The last type of time Silver covers is fabulous time, the time of fairy tales, fantasy novels, and magical realist fiction, where time can be repetitive, circular, exaggerated and/or reversed. When done well (Silver uses Garcia Marquez, Calvino, and Arundhati Roy as examples), the reader is transported, given an experience that, while unlike anything like the reality we commonly speak of, investigates or mirrors what it is like to live and think and feel, fully, in time.

The Art of Time in Fiction is a little book, but full of specific and immediately useful insights into how fiction writers render time in their work. I will refer back to it frequently.

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