Time and Space in Narrative
In my first novel, Rupert’s Land, I turned easily to dialogue, with very little description. Now in my second novel, I’m determined to have as little dialogue as possible. It brings the narrative thudding back to earth when I want it flying along in the imagination. It forces the reader out of the time and space of the imagination and into “real time” – literal, scientifically observable time, in a literal, scientifically observable 3-dimensional place. So I was intrigued by Nicole Brossard’s comment in her interview (TCR 3.19) that “Prose is about time, poetry is about present” (9). Prose is soothing, she says, because it slows down the excitement and tension of the constant unfolding and layering of meaning, whereas “Poetry is always unbearable in terms of the tension it creates in meaning (10).
What makes this comment especially interesting is that Brossard’s “A Noise of Universe” is a narrative in which prose is broken into lines as though it were poetry. It hovers on the border between the two. The most fun I had with dialogue in my novel-writing came when the lines of dialogue escaped the realist logic of characters speaking and became instead a resonant chord of playful motifs.
Realist time and realism – emphasizing sequence, linearity and progression – are of course lenses which we have been socialized to adopt as natural. As non-fiction. This is questionable. In narrative, it often happens that realist time – the everyday experiential way one moves sequentially from one place to another – does not match the time of the imagination, which leaps about pasting snippets of memory to current sensations, making the lacework of associations called character whiz from a comfortable chair in one sentence “unrealistically” to an opera stage in the next. The time of the mind or imagination is the poetic present Brossard refers to. Narrative can approach this poetic realm and yet still tell a story, still build around character history.
For example, Ashok Mathur’s “Bildungsroman: a life in line items” collapses the narrator’s life story into one-line bites; it grows and fades in fast-forward the way a flower does in time-lapse photography. Short lines have a similar effect in Derek Beaulieu’s “Extispicium” but here the narrative pauses to hover around several poignant events in the life of a family: birth, family arguments; parents’ struggles at work, receiving flowers as a veteran.
Part I of Clint Burnham’s “Three Chapters from Mixtape, a novel-in-progress” slows time down by including in the narration every repetition and hesitation found in normal speech and even perhaps adding more repetitions. Part II of this piece speeds up time through rapid-fire anecdotes of 60s and 70s pop music and movies, and incidental characters such as the artist’s ex hosing down the sidewalk or a crackhead’s idea of what crack was like, or the fact that girls all drank cider. This stream of anecdotes is deployed against a slower narrative movement of action and reaction: irreverent youth placing beer cans on the frames of exhibits in a gallery followed by the response of the proprietor.
In Alex Leslie’s “Vancouver For Beginners #3 – A Cyclist’s Dream,” time expands to infinitely present space-time – the completely open-ended ramblings of the mind of someone “lying cross-legged in the centre of a city drain” – the mind-time where all things happen simultaneously, not linearly. While Aaron Peck’s “from The Bad Arts” unfolds a narrative of shoplifting, it too expands its compass away from linearity and toward simultaneity by including numerous recollections and ruminations on things in the main narrative: speculations on the kind of surveillance equipment in the store; childhood allergies that led to his use of Pears soap; when and why the box no longer said hypoallergenic. In different ways these pieces access the coruscating shimmer of hundreds of tiny narratives, rather than broad causal strokes.
The selection from Gail Scott’s Obituary likewise builds not around conventional narrative’s progression of actions and reactions but rather as a series of reflections by the narrator about her neighbours and the streets of her city, punctuated by footnotes commenting in a metafictional way on the anecdotes recounted. What’s in a name, one asks, while another considers the nature of fact (which might well be a privileged kind of fiction).
Marcel Proust, whose fictional subject was above all time, thought that we haven’t actually experienced anything until we reflect on it through words, that is to say until we bring all the possible nuances of past time into our consciousness. Was he writing a novel or a very long essay, he often wondered. An essay in which even the writing of novels and making of art will be addressed. His novels move effortlessly back and forth between a story world and commentary on the making of our consciousness, the making of our worlds, and so escapes narrowly defined linear time. This kind of fluidity makes the work of Nicole Brossard, Gail Scott, and Aaron Peck particularly exciting for me.