Nebraska Stumps Newton; Three Types of Literary Time

Anyone who’s ever driven across Nebraska knows that Newton was wrong. Not about gravity, of course. Gravity is still a thing (sort of), but about his notions of absolute space and time. Newton believed that both space and time were the intrinsic scaffolding of the universe, that they were present even in the theoretical absence of anything else, like some sort of invisible graph paper and silently ticking stopwatch. In his words:

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external…”

Leibniz thought this was a pile of horseshit, and ever since Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the consensus has swung heavily toward Leibniz. Of course, if Newton had just bothered to drive across Nebraska, he would have understood that, despite the neat longitudinal grid of the map, the distance between Omaha and Ogallala expands until it is nearly infinite, while the time you get to spend in Las Vegas when you finally cross the country is always criminally short.

Things are even more complex inside the pages of a fantasy novel (or any novel, for that matter) where we encounter not just expanding and contracting time, but three simultaneously occurring and overlapping time frames.

Hunh?

Time Frame One: Book Time. This is the time frame experienced by the characters inside the story. If the main character wakes up in the morning and is pecked to death by penguins that afternoon, the book covers about eight hours.

Time Frame Two: Reading Time. The duration of Book Time need not match the time a reader must spend, ass in chair, reading the book. An eight hundred page novel could cover a single hour (probably a really miserable hour), and yet it will take a reader thirty or so to complete.

Time Frame Three: Real Life Time. When you find a really wonderful book, the sort that involves sitting down at 6 PM, reading straight through while pissing into an empty Gatorade bottle, Reading Time and Real Life Time are nearly synonymous. More frequently, however, it takes a matter of days or weeks, Real Life Time, to get in the necessary hours of Reading Time to finish a novel. This happens because of a) other demands and b) running out of Gatorade bottles.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to spend twenty hours over three weeks completing a book that spans twenty years. It can be helpful, even crucial for authors to realize that the emotional responses and psychological developments of their characters are taking place out of phase with those of the reader.

For example, if Jessica sneaks into Jimmy’s house on page twenty-five and takes a dump on his pillow, both the reader and Jimmy could be expected to feel a visceral revulsion toward and (unless the attack is warranted) distrust of Jessica. If the book leaps forward ten years, however, between pages twenty-five and thirty (probably through a section break or chapter break), Jimmy’s feelings toward Jessica have had ten years to evolve. The reader’s have had about five minutes.

I felt this acutely when reading Ken Follett’s wonderful novel Pillars of the Earth. The book spans decades, but I read it in days. As a result, my feelings about outrages committed at the book’s start were still burning hot, even when the feelings of certain characters against whom those outrages were committed had cooled, or changed. I had days to process events they had decades to absorb. Despite having loved the book (I recommend it whole-heartedly), the ending left me feeling a little confused, a little left out, largely due to this disjunction between my emotions and those of all the characters.

Of course, an author can use the overlapping time frames in her favor as well. One trick that comes across particularly well is rehabilitation of dubious or downright evil characters. There’s a guy in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a character we hate in book one. Martin later tries to bring us around to this dude, to make us see 1) that we may have misjudged him initially and 2) that he’s changed. This sleight-of-hand certainly worked for me, and seems to have worked for most readers, and it leans heavily on the fact that, for most of us, years and years of Real Life Time have passed between the character’s initial evil-doing and his later rehabilitation. In Book Time, however, it’s less than a year. It’s the obverse of the situation mentioned above – we, the readers, are ready to forgive, while most of the characters, understandably, are not.

In the end, the most important conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that if Leibniz hadn’t spent so much time dicking around inventing calculus, he could have written some bad-ass fantasy novels.

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9 thoughts on “Nebraska Stumps Newton; Three Types of Literary Time

  1. I’ve heard my friends from the Midwest talk about driving through entire large, rectangular states…. *shudders* It’s not exactly on the top of my bucket list.

    But navigating the three types of literary time is!! Great post. Your blog is so helpful.

    • If I’m not in a real hurry, there’s something wonderful about driving through those big states — there’s a sense of expanse and openness that you just can’t get in New England (much as I love it). The states I really love, though, are the big square ones with mountains in them…

  2. The game of thrones example is one I actually didn’t think about that much while reading the books and watching the show yet one I think is very true.
    Funny that I’m actually learning about Leibniz in calculus class right now. Keep doing this, posting things related to my schoolwork, its nice. Organic chem for the next post? I think yes.

    • Hm. Organic chem might be a tricky one! Let me see what I can come up with.

      Those Newton/Leibniz debates about the nature of space and time are really fascinating — easily findable on the web…

  3. Not going to lie, I didn’t love this post until you started talking about Pillars of the Earth, but mostly because I’ve never been to Nebraska.

    However, I think you said it perfectly. I couldn’t believe that whats-her-face couldn’t remember being raped! (Okay, okay, she blocked it out to cope with life,) but you’re right, I was still burning with rage as well, and it wasn’t even a part of their daily life. Thanks for putting that into words that I couldn’t.

    I like you for that.

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