Promise: It does get around to books and writing and fiction, so if you scroll quickly you can get past the philosophy part fast.
Plea: Give it a chance!
Hint: Thought questions posed are in boldface type. Those are what interest me the most today.
First, please imagine a line that starts out of itself. It doesn’t really—it has antecedents, of course, but we’re leaving that out of the picture. This line that starts out of itself grows longer in a very irregular manner. Sometimes it dashes ahead quickly, while at other times it is sluggish and seems almost immobile, but the appearance of immobility is only a temporary illusion. Always the line grows in length, twisting and turning unpredictably or forging straight ahead, though one can never predict what will happen next as it grows. Do you see it? Can you imagine it?
Now imagine that the line, as it grows, becomes ever bulkier in shape. No longer a simple line, it increases continuously as it grows--widening, deepening, reaching upward, growing humps and warts and bay windows and citadels, secret, hidden chambers and towers that announce themselves to the sky. Complicated, isn’t it?
Ask yourself, how would the line experience itself? As a line moving through and growing in space? Is this how you experience your life?
We generally represent life as linear, albeit it not necessarily heading always in one direction, and I’ve added the widening to account for experiences and memories and associations that we accumulate along life’s path. There: “life’s path” is a verbal image often employed. Nor would I (though others do) ever make claims about the possibility of time travel. Go backward? Through a black hole? Become ever younger? And then what—will your mother’s womb be there for you to return to, if she did not go through the black hole with you, and what of your father and his very necessary contribution to your being? No, I accept life as irreversible but still want to ask the question: Do we experience life in linear fashion?
The only way we can represent passing time at all, discovered French philosopher Henri Bergson, is by misrepresenting it, and thus the same is true for our own lives. For each of us, self is grasped immediately, by living consciousness, but can only be talked about using words, only represented in the way consciousness (for practical reasons that ensure survival) represents the material world, with sharp distinctions and symbols.
In place of an inner life whose successive stages, each unique of its kind, cannot be expressed in the fixed terms of language, we get a self which can be artificially reconstructed, and simple psychic states which can be added to and taken from one another just like the letters of the alphabet in forming words.
In this reconstruction, psychic states are “solidified,” ideas “crystallized,” and we get the appearance of permanent associations and inflexible habits, closing the door to freedom. Freedom was Bergson’s chief metaphysical concern in Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, but my concern here is much more restricted. What I’ve been thinking about more and more lately is nonlinear fiction, and I only hope that readers with an interest in fiction, impatient with philosophy, did not give up several paragraphs ago.
What was the first movie you remember seeing that did not proceed in straight chronological fashion? For me it was “Slaughterhouse 5.” Not a Vonnegut reader, then or now, I was completely lost during most of the film. Seeing it a second time, I began to make sense of the structure, but it was very unconventional for its time.
The same is true, I believe, for nonlinear novels. What is the first you read? My memory here is not as clear, and whichever was the first does not stand out for me. I can say, however, that the books I read as a child and a teenager and as a young adult all pretty much kept to a chronological pattern. Oh, yes, there were the occasional stories within stories, so that the first chapter set the stage for a narrator to go back in time, but within the bookended story chronological order was maintained. A came first, then B, then C, etc.
Between then and now the convention has been challenged so repeatedly that it has become one way to write a novel, rather than the way...one way to construct a film, rather than the way. Even among YA novels these days, nonlinear structure is no longer daring. Do young readers take it for granted, the way we took chronological stories for granted when we were young?
“I wish it hadn’t told me on the cover that it was nonlinear,” one woman in the bookstore recently complained. “That puts me off.”
Are you put off and/or confused by nonlinear writing? Why, do you think--or why not?
There are so many different ways such writing is worked out in fiction. Sometimes there are parallel narratives, with alternating chapters going back from one to the other. Or the parallelism can be more than double, and/or each different voice might have an entire section, the narrative then returning to the “beginning” in the next section. I’ve read at least one novel that focused on one life but jumped around within that life. Then there is the business of beginning at the end and telling the story in reverse chronological order, but, like the old "backwards" days at school, when we were supposed to wear our clothes backwards, there are limits, since just as no one could put their shoes on backwards in high school, no backwards film or novel I know of has sentences coming out of characters' mouths backwards.
How does your memory work? Your memories of your own life, do they line up chronologically?
These are serious questions, so no extra points are given for quick responses.