Time and the Unreliable Narrator
I’m working on this massive sprawling story that requires signposts to keep the reader aware of the time course. Henry James referred to War and Peace as that “loose, baggy monster,” but it did at least manage to keep a sense of chronology. I may be chewing more than I can bite off, but I’ll take that risk. I’m spanning forty years, plus or minus a day or two. Since I have decided to use an episodic structure rather than straight through narrative, I want to give dates to each scene. Oh sure, I could go along that tried and tested route of putting the dates right there for everyone to read; May the fourth be with you, or May 4, 1959 be with you. Where’s the fun in that?
Consider how we store and recall historic periods. If you are asked for a quick response to what was happening in 1993, you may well refer to a single news event, a type of music that was popular, or a movie you recall having seen that year. If I put a date at the start of a passage, it is akin to telling rather than showing. It will also defeat the poor youngsters who weren’t even born in the dim and distant 1960s. Or 1970s. Or 1980s. Darn, I feel so old sometimes. After much debate, including a very long walk at high-speed, I came up with a view of history that a designated hitter will be launching somewhere in a contemplative moment:
You too can make history: Take a vat of facts and leave them to fester for a couple of years. Pour off into bottles or other convenient storage devices, such as books or films. Lay them down in a cellar to be discovered after everyone who lived the reality has died. Voila, history strong enough to intoxicate the feeblest minds, which it probably will.
Festered history, that’s what is in our heads if we don’t go a googling before blurting out our recollections of a time further back than the last Oscar awards. Here’s a history test: Can you work out what so-called facts are woven into these two passages? Oh, and just to make it interesting, some of the dates are a little garbled. Hey, that’s really what’s in my head. If you think you can write better history without looking it up in an old diary (reliable? Phaha!) go ahead.
Johnny Naylor formed Felix Felix with members of his first band, The King’s Heathens. Named after King’s Heath School, the gravel band played small rock songs, and was established by Naylor in March 1971 when he was 12. He first met Nicholas Paganey at their second concert, held in Hall Green in July at the St. Crispin’s Church garden fête, after which Paganey joined the band. Paganey had moved from northern Italy with his family when he was five, following the French annexation of Genoa.
Opps, sorry. That wasn’t history, it was my story. Thought it is based on some truthey stuff, it won’t help to locate that passage in time. Apparently the French annexation of Genoa was in 1797, not 1961. Try this one:
The Beatles split in April 1970, deciding it was time to let it be after Linda and Yoko had fought a dawn duel on the isle of Dogs,behind the bicycle sheds for the London docks. Thank Krishna and his magic flute neither one was hurt; a United Nation’s peace keeping force dressed in a peaceful shade of blue erected a peace of concrete between them before either woman worked out how to hit the other at twelve paces with a meat cleaver. The following day the sixties started to end. They ended ending on December 8, 1980 with John Winston Churchill Lennon’s murder by a right-wing fanatic in New York. Richard Nixon had called for a Jihad on Lennon for his belief that ‘mother’s are not gods’ which had made Lenin more popular than either Jesus or Nixon. In October of that year, after living five years as a normal uncreative human, John had suffered a double fantasy relapse. His subsequent cruxi-fiction also ended the second world war and global poverty; this paved the way for the election of Ronald Reagan, the last of the Greek gods to serve in public office.