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Friday, October 29, 2010

Life on the Line—or Not

Warning: There is philosophy in this post.
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 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.


dmarks said...

"The same is true, I believe, for nonlinear novels. What is the first you read?"

I think I recently mentioned making a linear novel non-linear in audio form by listening to it with the 20 or so chapter sections scrambled into random order.

P. J. Grath said...

Had you not read a novel written in nonlinear form before? I think you must have, as you are such a big reader. Scrambling the chapters of the audio--what effect did that have on how you made sense of the story?

Dawn said...

Nonlinear writing keeps me on my toes, often gives me clues and somehow stretches my brain. Those are the good things. But if I'm tired, or want a fast read, or am simply impatient I can't read nonlinear and will switch to something less difficult...

Though lately, with working again I don't seem to have the energy to finish anything I've started to read. Yawn...

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed the vicarious trip up the eastern side of Michigan! :)

dmarks said...

I think I mentioned that Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series has a lot of non-linearness, even when you read and listen to it in the proper order. And I've read a lot of other novels, like "Dark Tower", which add a lot of time travel to the non-linearness of the storytelling. The TV show "Lost" did this extensively: they had a lot of non-linear story telling (done very well, I think) using flashbacks. Later in the series they added flash-forwards and flash-sideways (think of "It's a Wonderful Life" for a flash-sideways... what would things be like at the present time of things had gone differently?), and yes, a lot of time travel too. It was hard to tell what was going on after a point.

As for your question, I had read the novel when it first came out years ago, so I had some memory of it. That caused it to make more sense than it might have otherwise.

Personally, I sometimes remember things from a long time ago, but maybe remember a lot less than I think I might. Then something triggers memories much later and I remember a lot more.

As for the exercise, I'll come to that very soon.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I guess I'm with you on when my mind is sharp enough for more challenging reading and when it just wants something easy. I did enjoy my Lake Huron tour very much, thank you! There is a link to your blog in my list now, and I encourage others to check it out.

P. J. Grath said...

You’ve raised an interesting question, dmarks. Does the use of flashbacks alone make a film nonlinear? When they are brief, conventional flashbacks don’t seem to disturb the sense of forward chronological time movement, but longer ones affect us differently as viewers, I think, and I’m tempted to say the same is true with novels. But one viewer or reader might judge a jump in time “short” where another perceives it as “long.” And what confuses some will not confuse all. “Flash-sideways” is an interesting way to put it. Someone last night at a party was telling me about a book which alternated between two possible courses of events, so that in one version someone did something and in the other he didn’t, and the story jumped back and forth between did and didn’t. I think this would be very confusing!

Yes, no one has yet said anything of their own personal experience or memories. Did I detect a promise that you would, dmarks? Hope so. Someone needs to get the ball rolling. At least, I would be happy to see that happen.

dmarks said...

The TV show LOST for a long time heavily "alternated between two possible courses of events", and the story did jump back and forth and get confusing. But in hindsight, I weathered that OK. It was well done. What wasn't so good, more and more in hindsight, was that the source of all the weirdness was a giant stone bathtub drain in a cave in the island.

Oh. I mentioned the weirdness in the "Dark Tower" books, with the flashbacks AND time travel. Well, it gets weirder later on, when one of the main characters finds out that he is a character in a Stephen King novel.

P. J. Grath said...

As you walk or drive today through the hours, think now and then about how you are experiencing the day. I did this yesterday—not for the first time, but with the line image in mind. I’ll wait until later to say how my experience and the image fit or didn’t, as I’m hoping at least one other person will come forth....

Anonymous said...

The line simply begins before we have memory of it, and carries us
along . . . or perhaps it comes at us, like a spearpoint, out of its own past, pulling behind it everything that made it. It might
be a river, where we sit on the bank, watching, casting for fish,
bending low to take a drink. But I think the line is the arc of
self, come from stardust, returning to stardust, with only the brilliant part in the middle seeming to make sense.

I think we experience life in pools of light surrounded by dusk.
It is not as if things make sense as we go along. We're oblivious to, well, almost everything. Later on, when enough bits of
experience have accumulated, we begin to dimly apprehend the shape
of a life--but of course by then we think it's too late to do anything about it anyway, and on we hurtle, trying to steer a ship we can't see through an ocean of indeterminate size and shape toward a distant shore that might be a safe haven or might be a nightmare but in any case is the only place we can imagine going toward.

Who can tell, as the waves rise higher and higher, whether we have
been in this particular spot before? Whether we are on course?

And then some fool drops the anchor, thinking that will put a stop to the motion. On we journey, dragging our anchor below us.

No. I do not believe we experience life in linear fashion.

I cannot for the life of me remember the first time I encountered a nonlinear movie or book, but I gravitate toward them. I like most Altman films, for example, and most every novel or essay Margaret Atwood has ever written. Both of them are frequently either non-linear or something else that literary critics haven't gotten around to pigeonholing yet.

When a serious, accomplished artist like Altman or Atwood pulls out all the stops and shows off, it's dazzling. Take, for example, The Blind Assassin. I admire that novel extravagantly. All the time I was reading it I kept thinking about how masterfully Atwood was
working her craft. On the other hand, I'd have preferred to be
more deeply engrossed in the characters. Sometimes Atwood is too brilliant for her own good. Or mine.

Occasionally it is good to read a novel with a beginning, a middle
and an end, in that order. It helps me to quiet my mind, which is given to whirling off in several directions at once.

Of course I'm confused. I'm confused by everything. But I'm used to that. It doesn't bother me anymore. I just live with it.

My memory doesn't work at all anymore.

When a vignette from another time and place does flicker before my
eyes, I almost always see more than I did the first time around.
But then, I have a very, very good imagination. Who knows what is
real and what is something I made up as I slept? If my
comprehension of a thing is informed by something that happened years later, is it still the thing itself, or is it a new thing made up of all the perceptions I bring to it?

We all rewrite our history, and since we are all a part of some
kind of community, we are all subjected to each other's rewrites, too. There is a certain amount of consensus that we ought to tell our stories in chronological fashion, and I think we are conditioned to understand things when they are lined up in front of us in that order. But it's very easy to tell ourselves and each other fairy tales and lies if we are wedded to the notion that what happened then is a necessary precursor to what is happening in an inevitable now. A persistent memory that doesn't fit the chronology we've constructed should probably be studied.

P. J. Grath said...

Stardust to stardust...pools of light surrounded by dusk...distant shore that may be a haven...on we hurtle...dragging our anchor--Gerry, I'll have to think about this comment for twice as long as you took to think about my post. There is so much here, and I am grateful to you for sharing your thoughts.

When you are looking to shake up your mind with nonlinear fiction, I'd like to suggest two that I've read and featured recently as recommendations: L. E. Kimball's A GOOD HIGH PLACE and Naseem Rahka's THE CRYING TREE. I have not yet reviewed the latter--have been falling behind on discussing books read--but you don't want to miss either of these novels, I guarantee. Both are out in paperback. Should be at your library, too. If they're not, request them!

Dawn said...

Thanks PJ!