Segue-ing In Narratives With Complex Time-Sequence

(part 761 of Obooki’s MA in Advanced Novel-Writing)

Now we’ve decided to use a complex time-sequence as the basis for our narrative, today we’re going to look at the tricky matter of shifting back and forth within this time-sequence. Our example comes from Philip Roth’s Everyman. He is here describing a man in hospital and how his brother comes and visits him, and he brings in a shift in time-sequence to give us some background information about his brother. See if you can spot how cleverly Roth manages this:

His brother flew in from California on the second day, and when he opened his eyes and saw him at the side of the bed, a big and gentle presence, unperturbed, confident, jolly, he thought, I cannot die while Howie is here. Howie bent over to kiss his forehead, and then no sooner did he sit down in the bedside chair and take the patient’s hand than time stopped, the present disappeared, and he was returned to childhood, a small boy again, preserved from worry and fear by the generous brother who slept in the bed beside his.
Howie stayed for four days. In four days he sometimes flew to Manila and Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and back. He had started at Goldman Sachs as a runner and quickly went from relaying messages to top dog on the currency-trading desk and began investing for himself in stocks. He had ended up in currency arbitrage for multinational and large foreign corporations – winemakers in the France and camera makers in …. etc … etc….

I know what you’re thinking: – WHOA! WTF! – One minute he was talking about a bloke in bed in hospital being visited by his brother, and the next he’s talking about his brother’s life as an fx trader, and I’ve no idea how he got from one to the other it was so goddamned seamless.

Well, don’t lose heart. It’s actually a lot easier than it might as first look. Here’s how he did it:

  • You make up some arbitrary aspect of the first narrative – for instance, that Howie stays in the hospital for four days
  • And then you make up a corresponding aspect in the second narrative – for instance, that, as part of his job as an fx trader, he often travels for four days
  • Then you juxtapose them. This will make the reader feel there is actually a connection between the two sentences, when in fact there’s not.
  • Then you can take up the second narrative and no one will notice the join.

(Next week: How to force your ill-thought-out novel into your pre-designed structure by using a lot of specious symbolism)

10 thoughts on “Segue-ing In Narratives With Complex Time-Sequence

  1. Your closing comment (the parenthetical one) was priceless. The rest wasn’t bad either. WHOA! WTF! How do I sign up for this MA program?

  2. I’m afraid the course will not be running this semester due to “insufficient supply”.

    I’ve not read any Roth since reading Portnoy’s Complaint a long long time ago, which didn’t exactly overwhelm me, but Everyman was pretty dreadful. Just uninteresting, unengaging – though, reading the reviews, it seems it’s not that representative of Roth. If only he wrote more shorter novels!

  3. This idea you have, that novelists just make things up, and arrange them to fit some preconceived notion which they have also made up, this idea may cause trouble and should probably be suppressed.

    Everyman had one interesting concept, biography via hospital visits. If only Roth had been a little purer with the concept, and cheated less. The novel might have been dull in a more interesting way.

  4. I’m not sure why Roth felt he had to introduce such a clunky link when no link was needed. If he wants to write about Howie, then start a new chapter and write about Howie – what’s the problem? But I haven’t read this novel, and wouldn’t want to judge it from merely a single excerpt. unimpressive though it may be.

    I get the impression that too many writers are influenced by cinema, and try to reproduce literary equivalents of cinematic editing. In a film, a body may fall into the water, but just before it hits the surface, we cut to a close-up of a sugar-cube falling into a cup of tea, and we’re seamlessly into the next scene. But what flows smoothly in a film can be clunky when applied to writing.

  5. Whoa there, AOG! What you’re talking about now is way beyond the scope of this course. This “carriage-return” idea you’re proposing is something I might set for my PhD students.

    It would have to be only a paragraph-long chapter though, because immediately after that paragraph Roth goes back to the hospital episode (in an only slightly less awkward manner). It just appears to be some background matter he’s levered in about the brother at this point for no apparent reason.

    I think my idea was that people should judge this book by this single excerpt, to save me writing a proper review of it and having to make an effort identifying just what it wasn’t that didn’t interest me about it.

    The cinematic influence sounds only too likely. (I wonder if this is even possible in novels. I can’t immediately call to mind any examples, but then it’s hardly the kind of thing I’m on the look-out for. It might work well though in a dream sequence I’ve been thinking of).

    I must admit, AR, the hospital biography didn’t really work for me. Maybe I just haven’t spent enough time in hospital so far in my life, and I couldn’t identify sufficiently with this everyman. (I rarely seem to be able to identify with the everymen who people contemporary literature).

  6. Sorry, I got a bit ahead of myself here, and didn’t articulate myself well (result of posting late at night after a long day!) My point was that a link can help a smooth transition from one scene to another in a film (in my example above, something falling into the water), but using links to move from one theme to another can appear clunky in writing.

  7. Ah, any sort of links you mean – not just images (or a few words).

    There’s a better example earlier on in Everyman where the hospital-goer, as a boy, is in hospital and there’s a boy next to him whose parents speak to him in Yiddish, and this Yiddish reminds him of his father’s diamond-dealing colleagues who are the only people he knows who speak Yiddish and so he has a flashback.

    This seems to work ok, perhaps because it all takes place in the mind of the boy: you can see him in the narrative working out the connections and getting to the flashbacked story.

  8. Always the best way to write a critique (it reminds me of my schooldays). You can give full rein to your prejudices, without having to justify your opinions by reference to the text.

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