“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” – Henry David Thoreau
The days are getting shorter, the holidays abound in which we are led to reflect on the past, and I find myself pondering the use and manipulation of time. In fiction, writers who deftly bend time to their whim, who make time a character in their stories and who boldly reject its linearity, often earn my respect and worm their way into my memory.
Here are a few novels whose originality and audacity in their treatment of time have stuck with me.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki blends the stories of Ruth, a writer somewhat begrudgingly inhabiting a sleepy island town in British Columbia, and Naoko, a troubled and tormented teen in Tokyo, Japan. While strolling along the beach one day, Ruth discovers a barnacle-covered package, a package which contains a diary, a packet of letters in Japanese, a small notebook full of French missives, and an antique watch. Ruth, who is herself of Japanese descent, slowly reads through her treasure – what turns out to be Nao’s diary and the letters and diary of her great uncle Hiroki, a conscripted kamikaze pilot in World War II. Naoko’s writings are written and read with such urgency that Ruth, though likely reading these scribblings years after their creation, feels intimately connected to them. As Ruth’s readings progress, she begins to feel as though the diary’s actions are concurrently happening with her reading of them and that she could, in fact, impact their outcomes. She becomes lost in time, uncertain how and when the arc of Naoko’s story fits in with the arc of her own.
Ruth Ozeki’s beautiful novel, “A Tale For the Time Being”, bends time and space in gorgeous ebbs and flows. Ozeki blends multiple narratives, embedding diary entries into a contemporary writer’s story, in a way which celebrates the seams and emphasizes the borders, even as those borders are being blurred. See my full review of “A Tale for the Time Being” here.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg exposes the hilarity and horrors of being a single woman in urban America. The heroine’s relationships and inner struggles are raw and hyperbolic, yet also extremely believable, occasionally heartbreaking, and often hysterical. In “All Grown Up”, Jami Attenberg bends time and space in a way I have never before encountered. Chapters are organized with little regard for chronology. Each chapter covers a discrete but not necessarily unique period of time. The image that stuck in my mind throughout this groundbreaking structure was a Gantt Chart. Now, if you aren’t steeped in project management nor are an organizational nerd like me, perhaps Gantt Charts don’t spring into your mind as imagery. But imagine, if you will, a chart in which each chapter is represented by a horizontal line plotting the days or years in which it takes place. In “All Grown Up” each chapter’s line can start anywhere on the line of time and can overlap time with previous chapters partially, completely, or not at all. The result is extraordinary in its newness, its boundary-breaking, and in its effectiveness. See my full review of “All Grown Up” here.
4321 by Paul Auster traces the path of Archie Ferguson, a Jewish boy in 1960s suburban New Jersey and New York City with ambitions to be a writer, a thoughtful, lovable character open to the world and its many possibilities. Auster develops Archie’s story through four alternate realities, each reality interwoven with the others like a complicated braid. Thus, the reader is treated to chapter 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, then 2.1, 2.2, and so on. The sheer length of the book – a hefty 865 pages divided into 7 (or 28) chapters – makes this format a bit labyrinthian for the reader. I found I needed to keep an index card divided into four parts so that I could track the main points of each of the four parallel stories, otherwise the 100 page gap between one phase of a particular life and the next, along with some characters and places appearing across multiple lives, had me scratching my head and doing a lot of flipping pages. See my full review here.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith showcases Ali’s strengths as a profound and boundary-shattering writer whose books experiment with form, voice, time. As the official summary explains, “How to Be Both” is “an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.”
The most striking risk, in terms of form, which Smith has taken in “How to Be Both” is the story’s order. This novel is divided into two halves – EYES and CAMERA – which can be read in either order. In fact, the novel was printed so that in half of the copies, the narrative EYES precedes CAMERA, while in the other half the order is reversed. Smith’s conceit is that the order, that linearity, matters not at all for this, and perhaps all, stories.
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver explores the impact of a moment’s decision. After a brief opening in which the reader meets the protagonist Irina McGovern and becomes familiar with her surroundings, “The Post-Birthday World” traces two paths, hinged upon a moment of temptation, which lead Irina to two very different men and deeply divergent futures. Women’s Prize Winning writer Lionel Shriver has written more literary works, but this novel is one in which the exploration of a commonly pondered thought, a trope over which many of us have wrestled, makes it memorable and engaging.
Kindred by Octavia Butler is the story of Dana, a young black woman, and her husband, Kevin. As these two writers and newlyweds are settling into their first home in 1970s California, their tranquility is abruptly turned on its end. While shelving books in their new living room, Dana suddenly vanishes, finding herself riverside where a boy is drowning. Momentarily stunned, Dana springs into action, saves the boy, and finds herself facing the barrel of a rifle, held by the boy’s angry father. A moment of nausea and dizziness, and Dana is back in her living room, soaking wet and terrified. Shaken and disbelieving, Kevin and Dana try to understand what has happened.
Dana, it becomes clear, is traveling through space and time to a plantation in 1800s Maryland, “[n]ot only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own birth.” Rufus Weylin, the boy from the river, appears to be Dana’s ancestor who is somehow able to summon her when he is imperiled. No futuristic, dystopian tale, “Kindred” employs our own barbaric past to impart wisdom and critique. It is, like many stories of time-travel, a morality tale; but unlike many of its kinsmen, “Kindred” has historical import. It seems to me that Butler is celebrating how far we have come as a nation, while forcing the reader to acknowledge how intertwined our past is with our present and how near that past lies. Our history as a nation is a complicated one. Our inheritance and our accomplishments have not come without great costs, nor have they come without disparate privilege. See my full review of “Kindred” here.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is an emotional, approachable, and unforgettable novel of time travel. It is, to quote the official summary, “the story of Clare, a beautiful art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: periodically his genetic clock resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity in his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous, his experiences unpredictable, alternately harrowing and amusing.” Like “Kindred”, time travel in “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is biological and personal, not technological or even terribly sci-fi.
In the hands of many writers, time is a malleable as clay. How do literary experiments in time affect you as a reader? What other works have you read which successfully bent time and, perhaps, your mind?