Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The end of time

Well, at least the end of chronological time in mainstream fiction. I exaggerate, of course, but I found it interesting that in three recent novels, the narrative chronology is fractured and not always effectively. Modern readers have become used to reading timelines that are not straightforward. The concept of flashbacks in narratives has been around as long as there have been storytellers, I imagine, but the more complicated use of time--flash-forwards, moving in time without obvious signals to the reader or viewer--I think of as a 20th century device. The movie Citizen Kane may be a good early example of use of a more complicated timeline; there is a present-day throughline in which the reporter tracks down details of Kane's life which are presented as flashbacks in a more-or-less direct progression from youth to maturity to death, though there are a couple of stray moments presented out of order. Now we are used to having to keep track of movement from narrative present to flashback past.

But these three books don't actually make us guess. The last three current novels I've read (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Maplecroft) consist of chapters of journal entries or first-person interior monologues which are clearly dated, so theoretically there's no confusion. The first chapter might be August 29, 2012, told from Character #1's viewpoint, and the second chapter might be April 3, 2010, told from Character #2's viewpoint, and so on. This allows the author to spin her narrative threads out and delay certain revelations until later in the book to build suspense--two of the books are mysteries and the third, Maplecroft, is a horror/fantasy story that relies on plot ambiguities to provide tension.

While this can be effective, it can also feel like a lazy way to hide information from the reader. The technique works best in Gone Girl, as the chapters written by the wife actually are diary entries. In Girl on the Train, they don't seem to be written entries as much as dated interior thoughts, and in
Maplecroft, they are all written documents of one kind of another. But in the last two books, the bouncing back and forth feels contrived and gets a little confusing, so I found myself having to go back and check the chapter headings to figure out what was past and what was present, especially in Maplecroft with its many narrators.

But mostly the technique has come to feel lazy. I think the reader is supposed to gasp in awe and admiration when the narrative traps snap in place--think of the first time you saw The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects--but sometimes I wind up so on my guard that I either see through the trick or I am actually let down by the final revelations. All three of these books are enjoyable, but I can't help but wish that, especially with Train and Maplecroft, the authors had found other ways to keep us baffled.