Easy Chair — From the November 2015 issue

A Ring-Formed World

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I have recently developed a crank theory, for which I can adduce no real evidence, that the human sense of time has its origins in story, or is at least bound up with the telling of stories. If, as science suggests, we were nomadic creatures for a very long time, changing place often — as the mountain gorilla, one of our fellow primates, does today — then the lives of our ancestors would have been shaped by the sense of leaving one place and moving on a path toward a new place. As we went on, we would form a memory of the earlier place and what we did there, and we would begin to imagine the new place. Would it be better? Would we regret leaving the old place? Once, we were there; now we are here; soon we will be elsewhere. Passing between Here and There, we are in narrative.

“What does a novel do?” E. M. Forster asks in Aspects of the Novel. He imagines getting the same answer from many respondents: a novel tells a story. That’s what people expect and what writers of novels are compelled to deliver, lest they suffer (proudly or otherwise) the consequences. Forster acknowledges that some writers — he mentions Gertrude Stein — have contested the dominion of story, but while he thinks they have striven honestly, he also thinks they have striven in vain.

In Forster’s terms a story is “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence”: lunch follows breakfast, Tuesday follows Monday, decay follows death. Its power comes from the reader’s desire to know what happens next, and “next” is something that happens next in time, even if it’s the arrival of a storyteller who narrates past events. In some stories causality pushes the narrative forward — things happen because other things have happened — but that isn’t necessary: things can merely happen and go on happening with no reason ever to end.

In talking about a book or film, we often use the terms “story” and “plot” interchangeably, but Forster used them to mean different things. “Boy meets girl and then boy joins monastery” is for Forster a story — a series of events in time order. “Boy meets girl, girl spurns boy, and so boy joins monastery” is a plot. In fictions with plots, narrative events are related not simply chronologically but causally, and depend for their effect on ongoing acts of memory: readers have to remember the events in the story in order to understand what caused what else. Often an initiating event begins a plot, and a closing event responds in some way to that initiating event and tells us the story is over. We might say that “story” is the name for the ongoing adventures of the characters as they occur, while “plot” is the name for the events seen in the light of their ending.

“Boy joins monastery, and no one knows why, until it is learned that he was spurned by the girl.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, which Forster calls “a form capable of high development.” Notice that in my example the boy’s joining the monastery is narrated first, though it comes later in time. The causative logic of plots with mysteries is not fully revealed until the end, and the timeline of these stories does not necessarily proceed from past to present in a straightforward series of and-thens; instead the telling is often bent or altered or even reversed. Classic detective stories commonly proceed in two directions at once: the detective moves through a series of interviews, searches, and incomplete accounts, which lead him step-by-step back through the sequence of events that culminated in the murder. In effect, the detective goes forward in time while the story of the murder unfolds backward. As Jean-Luc Godard remarked, a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Time — its direction, its passage, its conditioning of action — is the backbone of all fiction, and as we have become more expert at living with and in the complex possibilities of time, so have our fictions.

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