AWP Dispatch: Fiction in 4-D

Our last (but definitely not least) dispatch from Simple Sugar Bakery's (and Lighthouse's own) Tiffany Q. Tyson:

Fiction in 4-D

Panelists: Ellen Lesser, novelist and short story author; Phillip Graham, novelist, short story author, fiction editor; Clint McCown, screenwriter and novelist; Xu Xi, author and editor.

I didn’t know what to expect from this discussion of time in fiction, but I was intrigued by the description. Using the brilliant novel Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood as a jumping off point for the discussion, Ellen Lesser took us through the two story lines of that novel: the adult returning to her hometown for an art installation, and the child who experienced a traumatic friendship with a cruel girl. The two stories unfold simultaneously, one informing the other and both written in present tense. It’s been some years since I read this novel, but I now plan to re-read with an eye to the “time travel” Atwood employs.

Next, Clint McCown talked about Kurt Vonnegut’s manipulation of time in Slaughterhouse Five. He pointed out that Vonnegut actually tells the reader how the story will begin and how it will end in advance. It isn’t magic, he says, it’s revision. Of course it is. McCown also talked about the idea of Providential Overview, that time might exist unchanging and complete and that we might join it any point and move back and forth at will. It might not be true in reality, but it is true between the covers of a book and if we are careful and revise well, we can manipulate time and create characters that are not puppets. The only way to capture the experience of our characters is to manipulate the timeline, he says, and each choice we make about a character’s past (even those that don’t make it to the page) is a stone setting off ripples in the pond of the character’s story. As someone who is fond of flashbacks, I appreciated this particular point of view.

Phillip Graham talked about the novels of Ismail Kadara and reminded us that “time is elastic,” an idea I find both freeing and terrifying. Finally, Xi Xu talked about the manipulation of time in Jan Wiese’s very short novel, The Naked Madonna. I have expanded my “books to read” list to include The Naked Madonna and the novels of Ismail Kadara. So many books, so little time (even if it is elastic).

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