“For ‘tis our thoughts that now must deck our kings, carry them here and there, jumping o’er times, turning th’accomplishment of many years into an hour-glass….”
So instructs Chorus, the narrator and temporal tour guide of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Like any storyteller, he is charged with the task of guiding his audience—in this case, a physical body of late-sixteenth-century theatre patrons—and preparing them for the sweeping story that is about to unfold. With endearing self-deprecation, Chorus apologizes in advance on behalf of both playwright and company, and pleads for patience as he and his fellow actors attempt to render on a humble English stage “so great an object” as the epic—and time encompassing—clash of two mighty kingdoms.
But while Shakespeare (through the voice of his chorus) appears to be placing considerable responsibility on the audience’s “imaginary forces” to ensure the success of his play, he also clearly possesses the authorial talent to delineate the passage of time through words alone. Amid the myriad manifestations of Shakespeare’s skill, I find that I most admire his ability to compress or expand time, and to dart back and forth across the temporal landscape of his works.
In fact, for me, this signifies narrative mastery more than any other aspect of a storyteller’s proficiency. For a host of reasons, I am both fascinated and flummoxed by the concept of time. I love to ponder how time “works”—or at least how it appears to work, for there is only so much that we know, or will ever know, about it. And I’ve also learned great lessons by observing (and, of course, experiencing firsthand) the human mind as it interprets past events and impressions, or anticipates those to come—and, crucially as well, by recognizing the ways in which this process plays out within, and is profoundly influenced by, the context of the present-day. I first encountered this last, invaluable bit of experience in my capacity as both a student and practitioner of oral history, where interviewees invariably—and often unintentionally—reveal just as much about their current considerations as they do about the “past” that they are recounting on tape.
What a treat it is, then, to also discover the works of authors who not only appear to share my interest in what I like to call “narrative time travel,” but possess the capacity to present it on the page in convincing and memorable ways.
I often find that fewer words render the most potent results, though there are always exceptions. One fine example of the latter occurs in Ernest Hemingway’s deliciously vindictive Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, in which he describes his first encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eccentric wife, Zelda. In the brief scene, Hemingway and his wife Hadley pick their ways through a “very bad lunch” at the Fitzgeralds’ Paris flat, while Scott and Zelda suffer the aftereffects of the party they had attended on Montmartre the previous evening. Hemingway, who dislikes Zelda from the very beginning, suspects her of hampering her husband’s writing efforts out of petty jealousy. In one rather subjective and speculative paragraph, note the manner in which Hemingway describes in prose what he believes to be Zelda’s memory and mind at work, and also how effectively, and poetically, he flits between the past, present, and future in doing so:
Zelda had hawk’s eyes and a thin mouth and deep-south manners and accent. Watching her face you could see her mind leave the table and go to the night’s party and return with her eyes blank as a cat’s and then pleased, and the pleasure would show along the thin line of her lips and then be gone. Scott was being the good cheerful host and Zelda looked at him and she smiled happily with her eyes and her mouth too as he drank the wine. I learned to know that smile very well. It meant she knew Scott would not be able to write.
To carry off something like this effectively, it is of course necessary that writers grant a fair degree of cognitive license to their characters or storytellers. So perhaps it is no surprise that the best examples of narrative time travel are found in works that employ either first-person or third-person-omniscient point-of-view—both of which provide readers with decent glimpses into the mind’s workings. Time becomes malleable in the hands of such narrators and characters; they are capable of sweeping across the span of experience in the manner of a wide-angle lens or, conversely, to compress a lengthy event into a single sentence or phrase so dense with meaning that it carries an entire story on its own.
For an example of the sweeping power of narrative time travel, I should like to point out the Olympian command over the time (and for that matter too, over space) that Hemingway’s first-person narrator, a man named Horace, wields in the opening lines of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”:
In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople. You may not believe this. No one believes this; but it is true.
In this passage, a retrospective Horace draws from personal observations and his own memories, not only to describe his hometown as he recalls it from his youth, but also to editorialize over the manner in which it has changed physically. One can readily sense his present-day displeasure over an urban expansion that has altered his perception of “distances.” Just as strongly, it is nearly impossible not to visualize the “dirt blowing off the hills that have now been cut down,” or even to consider that Kansas City might have once embodied the mythic wonder of an ancient capital. And if his description is not convincing enough, Hemingway’s Horace takes the added and very effective step of asserting final authority over the matter by delivering a parting shot that both presumes and rejects the reader’s skepticism.
The most impactful forms of narrative time travel, however, are those that compress a span of time into a single sentence or very brief passage—or, to once again borrow Shakespeare’s description, they turn “th’accomplishment of many years into an hour-glass.” And while there are many fine examples of concentrated temporal energy in literature, I tend to draw from the same two passages to illustrate my point—both of them written by contemporary authors. The first example is also the one that initially inspired my thinking on the conscious use of time as a narrative strategy. Toward the end of Junot Diaz’s 1999 short story, “Nilda”—a tale of tragedy and transformation—the narrator, Yunior, identifies a particular season of his youth when, for him and everyone that he knew, life divided into the realms of what had been and what was to be; namely, it was “the summer when everything we would become was hovering just over our heads.”
The second example, and my favorite, is found in Jennifer Egan’s “Safari,” which appeared in the 2010 edition of The Best American Short Stories. Unlike Diaz’s “Nilda,” a first-person narrative, Egan makes use of an unidentified third-person-omniscient narrator in her story of a family (of sorts) and their travelling companions on a guided tour of the African wilderness. In one scene, eleven year-old Rolph is enjoying a private moment with his father, Lou—a playboy record company executive on holiday with his gentle and precocious son, his teenage daughter Charlie, and a current girlfriend. The two have wandered a small distance from camp during a native dance performance, and Lou has just imparted some opinion-laden advice to Rolph on the subject of women. It is a rare moment of bonding for the two disparate characters, a significant event far more apparent to the boy than it is to his self-absorbed elder. A brief passage of narrative time-juggling closes the scene, in the form of two short sentences (italicized) that provide both a poignant sampling of Rolph’s keen insight and a momentary look into his future:
… the [topic of] women fall away like the drumbeats, leaving him and his father together, an invincible unit amid the burbling, whispering bush. The sky is crammed with stars. Rolph closes his eyes and opens them again. He is in Africa with his father. He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right.
And what sort of future, you may well ask? The finality implied in this last sentence more than suggests it is an abbreviated one. And the answer appears in the closing paragraphs of “Safari.” In a masterstroke of narrative time travel that is at once gorgeous and horrific, Jennifer Egan sums up what is ahead, not only for Rolph, but also for his sister Charlie. It is the final night of their trip, and the two are at a disco party along with their father, his girlfriend (soon to become his second wife), and the other tourists. Fueled by an awakening maturity, Charlie begins undulating to the beat, and finally convinces her younger sibling to set aside his own inhibitions:
“Come on, Rolphus,” Charlie says. “Dance with me.”
She takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he were growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister. Charlie feels it, too. In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance. But the woman who remembers won’t be Charlie; after Rolph dies, she’ll revert to her real name—Charlene—unlatching herself forever from the girl who danced with her brother in Africa. Charlene will cut her hair short and go to law school. When she gives birth to a son, she’ll want to name him Rolph, but her parents will still be too shattered for her to do this. So she’ll call him that privately, just in her mind, and years later she’ll stand with her mother among a crowd of cheering parents beside a field, watching him play, a dreamy look on his face as he glances at the sky.
Words cannot describe the manner in which this magnificent passage affected me when I first read it, and every time thereafter; but if you too are a lover of narrative time travel and its capacity to enliven prose, then I venture to presume you would understand the feeling perfectly.