What Barthelme told me about time…

I’ve become a little obsessed by narrative time lately and have revisited a few writers to work out its function and ways it can be manipulated.

I guess the default understanding of story time, as taught through children’s stories, is that events happen chronologically. This happened and then this happened and then this happened then we got to here and this happened, etc. – laid out with an overtly obvious causal structure. There might be variations in pace, long sections of description (of say a painting or a room) where not much seems to happen and the time on the page (or fabula time as narratologists tend to call it) seems to stretch out far longer than the story time that the imaginary characters might experience. Then on the flipside: a phrase like “five years later” might indicate a massive jump in time, an ellipsis, or “five years later, she had learned to play the piano and was preparing for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall” might be considered a summary where time on the page moves much faster than experienced by our piano player.

I recommend Mieke Bal’s discussion of time in her book Narratology (I believe this book can offer a great deal to writers and artists searching for different ways of understanding their craft). At one point she talks about how time appears slow in Madame Bovary to express Emma Bovary’s boredom. Even when describing her affairs, scenes have a slow pace, seemingly to underscore her dissatisfaction and entrapment. This is at the expense of pivotal scenes (which in film language are called plot points), which are summarized and thus given less fabula time.

I find that following a strict chronology without a clear purpose can be a little boring for readers. They don’t get to do much of the work, rooting around in the elisions for hidden depths and meanings. Being too faithful to time can also result in a lot of excess baggage that readers may feel compelled to skim over. And I know that in my writing I tend to struggle when it comes to deciding which events only require a brief sentence and those that warrant a couple of pages.

When thinking about time, I tend to go back to short stories for inspiration. This is a form where economy and time are acutely important and it has been a great place for experimentation over the years.

So this morning I picked up Donald Barthelme’s anthology 40 Stories. As can be expected from Barthelme, I was immediately dazzled by all that he brings to the page. He takes readers on quite a journey, one that is both familiar and surreal. In only a few pages, characters cover vast physical, emotion and philosophical territory.

I could pick out many stories from the collection to discuss time, but one that strikes me most is his story ‘On the Deck.’ It runs to just less than three pages.

For the first page and a half Barthelme describes an eclectic mix of characters on the deck of a boat: a lion, a Christian motorcycle gang, a man in a car named Mitch who leaves the motor running, a man with a nosebleed, a steel basin under his chin, a tree between his legs, the captain, a young woman, a dog named Scotty, the boat owner and her boyfriend and a man with a bucket full of liver for the lion. These characters are introduced as though the writer is scanning a picture and has an odd circularity, starting with the lion and ending with the man looking after his food. Apart from the swaying of the boat, there is minimal movement; conversation is brief and rich in non sequiturs. It’s a claustrophobic scene of great tension and there seems an interesting symbolism in the way all the other characters appear to be between the lion and its food, even if this is only a trick of the narrator’s eye. Is it a metaphor for urban life? Primacy versus cosmopolitanism? Who knows? In a classic surrealist twist, a postman arrives and they all get mail: “Everyone likes mail, except those who are afraid of it.”

Then time speeds up dramatically and the seasons pass in two lines:

“Winter on deck. All of the above covered with snow. Christmas music.

Then, spring. A weak sun, then a stronger sun.”

On one level, you could say that like in Madame Bovary, this leap in time shows characters in stasis, trapped by circumstance. On another, it seems like a great trick on the reader to show just how artificial narrative time really is.