(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)