The Tension of Time
I wrote my last blog post on the structure of “Cloud Atlas”. The story jumps in time, setting, and cast of characters. The stories overlap and carry themes over a very long period of time. Since “Cloud Atlas”, we have read and discussed James Watson’s “The Double Helix”, Ian McEwan’s “Saturday”, and Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”. All of these stories use time in unique ways to maintain tension throughout the narrative.
In the case of Watson, the tension is not fabricated. The book is nonfiction and took place when it was a “race” to determine the structure of DNA. Watson divides up time from the perspective of himself at the time of the narration, focusing on hot vs. cold weather, grants and stipends, and locations rather than dates. This evolves time into more than just a simple passing of the days. Time brings scientific progress in every location and under every grant. While we may primarily follow Watson’s work, we are aware Franklin and other labs are also working tirelessly, creating the race.
McEwan’s “Saturday” gives us a single day with one set of characters. Within this small frame, we are privvy to thoughts and discussion, but this small frame really only allows for the main character to become fully developed. As readers, we wake up with Perowne, hear his thoughts, and see every other character and situation through his lens. By limiting the span to a single day, we hear his ideas in such detail that it is difficult to see situations or people objectively, leaving readers intimately entangled with Perowne’s views of the world.
I am about halfway in to “Oryx and Crake”, and the timeline has yet to converge. We see Snowman in the present with flashbacks to his younger self, who is conveniently called another name, Jimmy. We see this discontinuity often in the future, dystopia, or post-apocalyptic scenarios we have read. Sonmi and Zachry’s stories in “Cloud Atlas” both consisted of flashbacks to explain how they got where they were now. These stories create a future that is strange to the reader, such as Snowman living in the tree and fighting to survive amongst the unrecognizable animals and Children of Crake and Oryx, and then string us along as we try to figure out how this situation transpired. At times, Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” feels almost dishonest. A simple one line explanation in the present could explain Children of Oryx to the reader, yet instead we are fed a few paragraphs about Oryx’s childhood. This drives us to keep reading and helps us understand how Snowman is thinking – illogically, in bursts of memory. I’m looking forward to knowing all the answers, and I’m interested to see how Atwood keeps up the tension. I would predict developing action in the present, with Snowman’s “journey”, simultaneous with memories about Oryx and Crake, providing us reasoning for Snowman’s struggle as it happens.