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Reading The Remains of the Day for backstory

November 11, 2010

Another time question is how to tell about the history of my characters. When I reread the drafted first half of the novel a month or so ago, I was not happy with how much backstory I had included, or how I had included it, in particular for Bird. It called attention to itself, either taking the reader on a frustrating trip out of the  flow of the story or inviting the reader to be curious and then not giving enough, not following through. So I’m deleting much of it (and saving it on another file) while I decide how to handle it. I look forward to reading a draft with much less backstory to see whether I miss it or not.

Silber doesn’t like this notion of backstory or flashback. She writes that is has “slightly tacky connotations; it has been abused too often, used glibly to supply a too-simple cause and effect for motivation” (45). Instead, she suggests the more complicated design of the switchback, which she describes as not having a center in one time, but moving back and forth to accrue meaning. After considering this (who wants to be tacky?), I think I still need the type of time implied by the use of backstory. I want to keep the focus on the present story and only briefly and rarely dip into the past.

At 67, Bird, has a history. He has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and thus has reason to reflect on and consider his life. I’m not suggesting that he think back on episodes that hold the keys to who he is today but rather that certain stories would naturally arise for him in the course of his days, and these stories would let the reader get a more nuanced picture of who he is.

I pulled a few novels from my book shelf that I hadn’t read in years but which I remembered have narrators past middle age (potentially giving the authors cause to include information from the past) in order to investigate how backstory can be handled well. The book I chose to reread immediately is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

The first few pages of the novel give us a first person narrator, a butler from one of the old, grand houses of England. He is at the end of his career and planning for a car journey in his employer’s car. In these pages, I thought I’d found a useful model. The narrator tells mainly a chronological story of the present day, with short dips into the past that are connected to something that happens in the present. For example, because he is studying several books on the area of England he plans to visit, written by an author he has met, he comments: “Ms. Symons was, as a matter of fact, a frequent visitor to this house before the war; indeed she was among the most popular as far as the staff were concerned…” (11). This reminiscence, or backstory, goes on for another paragraph, but does not distract from the main story–it didn’t interrupt the flow or make me so curious I wanted to hear more right away.

However, as I continued to read, I saw that the narrator was bringing up the past more and more, and that while the occasions that prompted the reminiscing were each different, the stories about the past began to focus on the years between World Wars I and II. It seemed that Ishiguro was using time in switchbacks.

As I continued to read, though, switchback time became something else. The novel was slowly but clearly moving toward two questions, one about the butler’s employer’s relationship to Germans and Nazism, the other to the narrator’s relationship with the head housekeeper. At this point, I started to remember what the novel was about from my reading so many years ago. It isn’t so much a sampling of past events tho build a picture of the narrator (switchback time), but rather a deliberate reflection on two questions–one professional, the other personal, both about whether the narrator has made the right choices in life, whether his life, essentially, was well-lived. About a quarter of the way into the novel, it becomes clear that it is a novel about the past, framed by this present day journey or reflection.

(Interestingly, this is not a category of time that Silber covers in her book, though it seems to me to be rather common: the novel in which a present-day narrator, in a present-day setting, tells a minimally plotted story, which is used mainly as a frame for the true story about the past.

So while I got sucked into The Remains of the Day and read the book to the end, I didn’t find an answer to my question about backstory. Bird, the main character of the slowed time portion of my novel, is not someone looking to the past to answer his questions about himself. In fact, he is someone who prides himself on not being introspective, someone who is constantly attempting to move forward. This gets him into trouble in his life, since he does not always make the best decisions, but it is not through introspection or examination of the past that he understands this. It is through his cancer diagnosis and how that propels him forward, through his will to live and what he still wants to do with his life. So his actions in the present time, in particular his interactions with the important people in his life, are what reveal and change him.

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