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Aug 2, 2010

Chronological Out Order Of

I believe the structure of a story should reflect the theme. Sometimes that means not telling events in chronological order. Instead, events are fitted together like pieces of a puzzle, where they best serve the story, and time lines are plaited like hair in a braid.

I may have mentioned before an excellent example of this is Ursula LeGuin's Dispossessed. The story is about a scientist raised in an anarchist utopia who becomes disaffected with his homeworld. He travels to another planet where his genius is recognized and applauded, though eventually he realizes this society, too, has a dark underbelly. He is a physicist who has invented a device -- the ansible -- which makes timespace both simultaneous and sequential, thus allowing instantaneous communication across lightyears.

What's amazing about the book is how the structure mirrors this theme of events being both simultaneous/sequential. There are two story lines, told in alternate chapters. One tells of the main character's childhood and decision to leave his homeworld. The other tells of his gradual disillusionment with the other world and his eventual decision to return home. The book thus ends with him both leaving home and arriving home, simultaneously yet sequentially. More importantly, the reader appreciates how the past makes us, but the possibilities open to us in the future make us too, past and future are plaited like a braid that crosses in the present.

Another book I've raved about recently is Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro also tells his story out of chronological order, although he is subtle about it. (He's pretty subtle about everything, so is that a surprise?) That is, except for the fact that the story starts in the "present" and then begins a series of reminiscences about Kathy's growing up in an odd institution, the story appears to be in chronological order. Look more closely. It's not. In fact, the narrator jumps from incident to incident based on what the incidents have in common. It's as though Kathy is having a conversation with you, and although she is trying to relate the events of her life in chronological order, every now and then she forgets herself, or else suddenly she remembers one other thing that happened earlier, which she forgot to tell you before.

Ishiguro makes all of this look artless and natural. But he is in absolute control of what is revealed when, and his timeline is solid. Frankly, I don't know how he keeps his threads from getting tangled, but at the end of the book, Kathy's life does not look rambling after all. On the contrary, it has been charging straight forward toward a horrible, inevitable crash, like a train headed for a broken bridge. Even after you see the bridge coming, you can't turn left or right. There's no where to go but off the cliff.

The method I employ in the Dindi series is more similar to LeGuin's than Ishiguro's. In my notes, I keep a chronology for every character in the story, as well as for the world itself. (Dindi's people don't have calendars, because they don't have writing, but they give each year a unique name and symbol, which allows them to mark their years by carvings in a totem pole.) I could just start the story at Point A and plod along to Point B, but that doesn't reflect the theme of how memory and forgetfulness, knowledge and ignorance shape how one sees the world and others. The intertwined chronologies reflect how our views of the past alter our views of the future.


Unknown said...

Those both sound like facinating books. I love it when authors play with traditional formating to get their story across more poignently.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I can't wait to see Never Let Me Go, but I think I should read the book first. This is really interesting! I definitely did this in Monarch, and it finally worked out well. I have to keep telling myself not to think of the jungle scenes as flashbacks. :)