Like many a parent, I watch summer retreat and my children return to school (this very morning, as a matter of fact) with considerable ambivalence. I am relieved that our schedules will once again prove predictable and productive, and heartbroken that the season, which seemed so golden and endless when I was a kid, is so finite, so fill-able, and can close itself out in a matter of a few weekends.
Many people more qualified than I have taken on the subject of time, how we perceive it, how we divide it, occupy and squander it, but I am always interested in how writers capture it. After all, inside a narrative, whether true or imagined, time is an illusion. However long we spend reading the book—hours, days, weeks—the time inside the story unfolds according to its own rules. I represent a short fiction writer who can, in the space of a few thousand words, create the impression that we’ve known a character for a lifetime. In truth, the author presents us with a middle-aged woman who recounts the events of single summer long past. Yet the psychological space between the perceptions of the college-age narrator and the recollections of her more mature self expands–almost magically–to create a whole life. It’s a bit like a painting, where close inspection of some cleverly rendered distant landscape is revealed to be no more than a field of contrasting colors that our brain has resolved into coherent shapes. Good writing enlists the power of suggestion, expansion, imagination.
Whether an author is stretching a single day into a world—as Virginia Woolf famously did in Mrs. Dalloway or Ian McEwan in Saturday, or folding generations and political and social transformations into a single story, as Geoffrey Eugenides did in Middlesex or Naguib Mahfouz in his Cairo Trilogy—the author is, in this endeavor at least, a master over time.
What books would you say weave the fabric of time from whole cloth? What works do you look to as models for temporality?