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[Easy Chair]

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.

Novels must by default be about people, Forster asserts, though we can extend that judgment to cover other sufficiently peoplelike entities — fairies, aliens, orcs, robots. But Homo fictus — the species of beings who inhabit fiction — actually differs from Homo sapiens in interesting ways. We out here must eat every day (or suffer if we don’t); they in there need food chiefly as social glue. We sleep away a third of our lives; they rarely spend any time asleep — usually no more than a line break. Out here every person has equal ontological standing — that is, we each experience ourselves as the center of the lived world — but in books there are only a few such centers, often just one, and everyone else consists solely of observed actions and speech.

In the world we denominate as real, events in time can be experienced as subjectively longer or shorter — an experience that is familiar, indeed central, to fictional people — but nevertheless our clocks and the planet go on turning in an unbroken continuum from the past toward the future, at the rate of one second per second, one hour per hour, one day per day. In fiction, time passes at a rate that expresses the world of the story and the nature — you might say the soul — of the characters. Days can go by in a sentence, years in a paragraph, and then a single half hour of a character’s life will take a whole half hour to read about. Time that means nothing or adds nothing to a story can be left out. Our morning commute may seem endless or it may seem brief, but it can’t be shrunk to a sentence or got rid of with a relative clause. (“When she got to work the next day . . .”) No, we’ve got to do it; the hour has to pass.

But the greatest difference between how things are here and how the same things appear in novels is this: in our world, causes produce effects; in novels, effects bring about causes. The final weddings in a Jane Austen novel — which Austen has identified in advance, very likely before beginning to write — determine the events and decisions and coincidences that will bring those weddings about. This is essentially what Alfred Hitchcock’s concept of the MacGuffin implies: if the workings of the MacGuffin — the gimmick in a story, the thing sought or feared by its characters — will not bring about the desired ending, it’s not the ending but the MacGuffin that must be changed.

Success, a novel by the Russian-English writer Sebastian Knight, openly employs this reversal of cause and effect — a move that the Russian formalist critics of the 1920s called “baring the device.” Sebastian Knight certainly didn’t know this term, and not only because he is himself an imaginary character in Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. In Success (which exists only as Nabokov’s summary), we are told of a salesman, Percival Q, who one evening meets by seeming chance a young woman, Anne, a “conjuror’s assistant, with whom he will be happy ever after.” The remainder of the imaginary novel examines how Q and Anne were brought together on that evening: how they passed through the city unknown to each other, making choices to do this and not that, to go this way instead of the other:

In each case fate seemed to have prepared such a meeting with the utmost care; touching up now this possibility now that one; screening exits and repainting signposts; narrowing in its creeping grasp the bag of the net where the butterflies were flapping; timing the least detail and leaving nothing to chance.

Of course fate has nothing to do with it except as a mask worn by the author (and by the author of the author), who is the one staging a boy-meets-girl story that ends with the boy meeting the girl. Readers often realize what the ending of a novel will be long before they get there; they guess how the successive events are bound to produce the conclusion. But in Success the (imagined) reader knows, and can take delight in knowing, that the opposite is also true: the final meeting, destined from the beginning, is the cause of all the events that brought it about.

Everything that fictional characters do over the course of their life spans (which may consist of only a year, a week, or a single day) is constructed by their conclusion: an ending that determines all that comes before, not only by its unavoidable placement — the last page’s last paragraph — but often by its distributive or judging power as well. By that I mean that novels can end with justice achieved and everything wrapped up, or they can end in the middle of things with nothing resolved, but they must end. The characters themselves might not give evidence of knowing this necessity, but their author knows — more exactly you might say that their book knows, for the author, having finished the book, is done with them.

If a living being from our world were somehow to find herself among what Forster calls “the nations of fiction,” this is the greatest difference she’d perceive between herself and the characters she meets: she has no ending yet, and won’t have one until it’s reached — the timing of which she can’t know, even if she’s mortally ill or sitting on death row. The characters, on the other hand, are governed by their endings. To her, they’d give the illusion of moving forward while having the strange unbound grace of people in films run backward. She alone would subsist in a freedom that would surely seem to the others at once giddy and hellish — they can’t live randomly, and would be spoiled as characters if their free will were anything other than illusory; she can only be free, even if she believes in destiny. Central to this incongruity is time, which in fiction passes not from the beginning of the universe to its inconceivable end but only from the first page to the last — and that last page, like a Calvinist election, determines all that goes before.

Of course readers experience narrative chronology differently: we feel that people in stories are subject to time in just the way that we are. We know that the end of the story is already determined — it’s in print! — yet as we read we feel that a fictional character is capable of choice, and that her fate is always in doubt. Isn’t it strange? Late in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland worries that she and Henry Tilney might never marry — an anxiety that, Austen writes, “can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.” Does that confession spoil our suspension of disbelief, if there really ever is such a suspension? If we sense that the writer has jiggered time to make certain outcomes inevitable, we might feel cheated, or we can be gratified to recognize a beloved story form worked out in the familiar way; in any case, we know that the people we have come to love and hate and fear for have no choice at all in what they do.

Does this attitude toward novels seem aggressive, deflating, even snotty? The attempt of a weary cynic to show the straw inside Elizabeth Bennet and Raskolnikov and the rest? It’s really not: I want to show that the limits that fictional characters seem to suffer are what make them finally more free than we are, not less, and more consequential in their realm than we are in ours. This is why we are drawn to them, why we never forget them and their acts.

In his essay “On the Marionette Theater,” the weird German writer Heinrich von Kleist takes up similarly contradictory conditions in a very different art, and reaches conclusions that resemble mine. While wandering in a park, Kleist meets his friend C, a famous dancer, whom he has seen visiting the puppet show. This dancer’s interest in puppetry surprises Kleist. But C tells him that he loves the marionettes. A good dancer could learn from them, he says, but could never surpass them, since they have qualities that living dancers don’t.

These marionettes, like fairies, use the earth only as a point of departure; they return to it only to renew the flight of their limbs with a momentary pause. We, on the other hand, need the earth: for rest, for repose from the effort of the dance; but this rest of ours is, in itself, obviously not dance; and we can do no better than disguise our moments of rest as much as possible.

Puppets haven’t discovered gravity, know nothing of inertia — the real-world laws that human dancers must labor (and will always fail) to transcend. It is not despite but because they are inanimate that they can become pure animation, as the puppeteer grants his own life to their suppler, freer bodies.

A visual-effects artist I know tells me that Kleist’s essay is well known in the world of animation, where characters transcend physics even more vividly than puppets can and inhabit a world more perfectly expressive of their desires and frustrations. If it’s hard for a human dancer to achieve the grace of the jointed doll, it’s impossible for a human to do what an animated person can do. As C says of the puppets, “Only a god can duel with matter on this level, and it is at this point that the two ends of the ring-formed world grasp each other.”

Just as the puppet and the cartoon character evade the tug of physics, so the fictional character, whose course is fixed immutably, transcends the force of time — and in the same exhilarating and heartening way, through a reversal of cause and effect. How can people so constrained by their endings seem as rich in possibilities as we are, or actually more so? How can freedom seem to reside in fiction, and constraint in physical life? I think it’s because however time may hurt or baffle characters in fiction, it is at bottom made for them and by them. Time in fiction, like love in fiction and streets and houses and blood and money in fiction, is made only of meaning, unlike the ribbon that we ride, or that rides through us, which is indifferent to human need. Time in fiction stretches and shrinks like the bodies in animated films, gets rearranged and loses parts, all to produce the causes that will achieve the endings that characters need or deserve. This grants an interior freedom to fictional characters that we don’t have, though it’s a freedom they may never know about. And just as they need our knowledge of them in order to exist, so do we need their apparent freedom to raise our spirits as we make our timebound way around the ring-formed world from There to Here and on to There again, beginning and middle without end.


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November 2015