While the previous post bemoaned the multitude of books that we readers will never get the chance to reach, there’s a flip-side for writers: Even though the number of titles already out there may make it difficult for us to find readers ourselves (or publishers, for that matter), that multiplicity of voices — and of subjects and themes and narrative strategies — should confirm the great openness, the great opportunities available to us. And more than confirm, perhaps even inspire.
I’ve been thinking a lot about form recently — both because of what I’m writing myself and because of the books and movies that have engrossed me lately. While work and school have slowed my progress on my own novel, I’ve also been stymied by concerns about its form. “This simply won’t work,” I tell myself, when I look over the frequent time shifts (sometimes sudden, sprawling leaps) involved in shuttling between two stories separated by a decade or when I examine the layering of narrative voices who tell those stories, sometimes interrupting one another, interjecting, questioning. “No one’s going to want to read this.”
That’s not just negativity on my part; it’s reality. Some books just don’t make it.
But soon enough, I’m able to put the doubts to the side and move on — nudged ahead by someone else’s words or urged forward by seeing where another writer has offered up some odd little thing and let it find it’s way.
Sometimes it’s a simple statement about something I already know. In Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form, Madison Smartt Bell talks about the impact of movies on 20th-century narrative techniques — how the relatively new medium and specifically the “jump cut” has taught the audience
to unconsciously accept transitions from one scene to another, across widely varying lengths of real time, with no explanation whatsoever. Look at an old silent movie, and you’ll often see long title screens that summarize what happened between one scene and the next. Watch Ordinary People or Jaws III and you won’t even get a voice-over to explain how one scene relates to another — and yet, somehow, you’ll know.
A recent HBO/BBC collaboration my fiancée and I just finished on DVD took the treatment of time and of jumps to a different level. Five Days, as the title promises, explores five days in the lives of several people affected by the sudden disappearance of a young mother at a roadside flower stand while her children are in the car. The trick? It’s not five consecutive days. Instead, Day One is followed by Day Three, and then Day 28, and then 33 and 79. Easy enough to follow in general, of course, especially because each episode comes titled with its respective day. And yet, given that each episode ends on a cliff-hanger and that that the interims between episodes includes drastic and dramatic changes that we’re not directly privy to, the act of watching each new “day” often requires a great amount of catching up — of reorienting ourselves to new situations or navigating both new alliances or new animosities, often ones whose development we haven’t witnessed. Even in the first episode, the filmmakers leave you to ferret out on your own the relationships between a great number of people whose lives we drop in on individually, with no clue which of them are family, which are friends, or which don’t know one another at all (or not yet at least). Still, it all comes together — often marvelously so.
An even more extreme example of experimentation with time management in narrative is B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, first published in England in 1969 and only just this year released in an American edition. (It’s already being scooped up by collectors and has become increasingly hard-to-find.) This work — about a writer who’s sent out-of-town to cover a football match and discovers that the place sparks memories of an old friend who died of cancer — makes terrific jumps in time and place, meandering from the present-day sportswriting assignment back through memories of the past, of lost friends and troubled romances, of happy times and bitter ones and sorrow. Even more boldly, not only do the memories seem a little arbitrary, but the reader him- or herself decides the order in which the story is read. The book arrives in a box, a series of 27 pamphlets, the whole of them not bound together but just gathered loosely in a sheath. The instructions explain:
Apart from the first and last sections (which are marked as such), the other twenty-five sections are intended to be read in random order. If readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading.
As a result, we mimic the act of remembering ourselves — thoughts and scenes popping into our (reading) heads in a distinctly unlinear fashion. Another trick? Sure, of sorts. But also to my mind a triumph, because it clearly succeeds. Even without the guiding hand of a writer organizing the experience and leading us along gently so we don’t get lost, we readers are able to find our way, get our bearings at each stop, locate ourselves, and ultimately reach a final destination where we can look back and see even more clearly the path we’ve travelled.
As writers, it’s experiences like this — seeing other writers’ choices, whether their treatment of narrative time or of a theme or of a character or whatever — that should help to open our eyes to the myriad possibilities available to us and ultimately help us to forge forward with our own creations, no matter how ungainly or ill-formed those drafts of ours might look during some stages of the writing process.
— Art Taylor