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A Brief Story of Postmodern Plot.

There is perhaps likely to be a general quickening of interest in the concepts of time and history towards the end of a millennium. Stephen Hawking's best-seller, A Brief History of Time (1988), which explains to the non-specialist the complex physics of time and space, is a manifestation of this interest. Without attempting to trace in any detail connections between scientific theories of time and those in the wider cultural context, Hawking was working on a theory which posited the dissolution of the time boundaries of the universe (its beginning and end) in the 1970s, the time that literary theorists were deconstructing the idea of linear time and novelists dramatizing this chronological confusion.[1] Postmodern fiction is often and appropriately characterized by a concern with ontological categories, an exploration of the boundaries between fact and fiction, the world and the text. Lyotard makes the basic or commonplace distinction 'between the time it takes the painter to paint the picture (time of "production"), the time required to look at and understand the work (time of "consumption"), the time to which the work refers (a moment, a scene, a situation, a sequence of events: the time of the diegetic referent, of the story told by the picture)', stating: 'This principle, childish as its ambitions may be, should allow us to isolate different "sites of time".'[2] Childish or not, postmodern theorists are often too credulous of postmodern literature's ability to disturb the reader's ontological categories, including the distinction between real time and time in a parallel fictional world, because they fail to put themselves in the position of the 'naive' (non-academic or recreational) reader whose literary 'competence' facilitates the absorption of metafictive elements into the fictional world. The novels discussed below deconstruct linear time through thematic and/or plot devices, but it will be argued that where postmodern plot disrupts causality and coherence to a significant extent, the 'story' (here meaning both the temporal-causal chain of events and 'yarn') will suffer as will its potential to disrupt ontological-chronological categories.

The concept of linear time, or 'classical' time, can be found in Aristotle's Physics, although its very existence as a divisible entity is immediately called into question: 'The following considerations would make one suspect that it either does not exist at all or barely, and in the obscure way. One part of it has been and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet. Yet time -- both infinite time and any time you like to take --is made up of these.'[3] This time can be objectively measured because 'change is always faster or slower, whereas time is not; for fast and slow are defined by time -- fast is what moves much in short time, slow is what moves little in a long time; but time is not defined by time, by being either a certain amount or a certain kind of it' (p. 371). It is, however, dependent on motion: 'For it is by means of the body that is carried along that we become aware of the before and after in the motion, and if we regard these as countable we get the "now"' (p. 372). This '"now" is the link of time, as has been said (for it connects past and future time), and it is a limit of time (for it is the beginning of the one and the end of the other) (p. 375). The fact that this 'now' is both 'link' and 'limit' is highly significant for any deconstruction of time since it functions both to separate and to mediate the binary opposition of past and future. In fact Aristotle raises, though he does not finally endorse, the possibility of a radical deconstruction of linear time, when he remarks:

If coincidence in time (i.e. being neither prior nor posterior) means to be in one and the same 'now', then, if both what is before and what is after are in the same 'now', things which happened ten thousand years ago would be simultaneous with what has happened to-day, and nothing would be before or after anything else. (p. 370)

The argument cited against this notion rests on the relation of time to space: 'The distinction of before and after holds primarily, then, in place' (p. 371). The concept of linear time, the progression from past to present to future, is one which has been challenged by quantum physics, but which remains dominant in both the scientific and the popular imagination. For Derrida, however, whose fame rests on combining the spatial difference of structuralist linguistics with temporal difference in poststructuralist differance, linear time is no longer tenable because of its reliance on binary oppositions: 'At the point at which the concept of differance and the chain attached to it, intervenes, all the conceptual oppositions of metaphysics (signifier/signified; sensible/intelligible; writing/speech; passivity/activity etc.) -- to the extent that they ultimately refer to the presence of something present [. . .] become nonpertinent.'[4] In 'Spectres of Marx', Derrida questions the notion that the past and the future are mutually exclusive: 'Before knowing whether one can differentiate between the spectre of the past and the spectre of the future [. . .] one must ask oneself whether the spectrality effect does not consist in undoing this opposition, or even this dialectic, between actual, effective presence and its other.'[5] The 'spectre' of Marx functions rather like differance here, as the mobile force used to deconstruct the binary of linear history.

There is a clear connection between theories of time and theories of plot for the banal reason that plot represents events which happen over time. Aristotle's theory of plot, as formulated in the Poetics, is coherent with his linear theory of time: 'Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude; for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end.'[6] It is also causal: 'A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; and end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it' (p. 2321). Aristotle's model for plot is so structurally similar to his model of time that it appears to ignore the most common of plot devices, such as analepsis, and to confine itself to 'story' or the temporal-causal raw material of fiction as defined by the Russian Formalists. Derrida's theory of 'writing' can be found in his discussion of Heidegger's Being and Time and depends on differance: 'Such a differance would at once, again, give us to think a writing without presence and without absence, without history, without cause, without archia, without telos, a writing that absolutely upsets all dialectics, all theology, all teleology, all ontology.'[7] This model of writing suggests a radical dissolution of story.

Plot has always entailed arranging or deranging linear chronology, the significant disruption of the temporal-causal story, but before the twentieth century this artifice was not generally foregrounded. In most narratives the disruption of linear time is naturalized, for example through the memory of a character, or is a familiar device like the explanatory aside by an omniscient narrator characteristic of nineteenth-century realism. Even modernist fiction, which demonstrated an increasing preoccupation with time in its experiments with plot, did so in the service of realistic representation. Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway contrasts subjective and objective time: the disjunction between the former and the latter is signified by the chimes of Big Ben slicing into Clarissa's consciousness. Woolf wrote of her 'tunnelling method', which relies heavily on analepsis, but is motivated by memory. These plot devices are distinctive, but not deliberately foregrounded since their purpose is to render faithfully internal consciousness, including the perception of time.

In postmodern fiction, thematic and plot devices are designed specifically to question linear history and temporality. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is the story of the Buendia family over six generations and one hundred years until its final extinction, whose plot demonstrates a characteristic circularity. At the close of the novel Aureliano Buendia finds a history of his family in the form of a prophecy written one hundred years ago of the next hundred years, that is the book the reader has just been reading. The text Aureliano reads is in code, 'based on the fact that Melquiades [the prophet-historian] had not put events in the order of man's conventional time, but had concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant'.[8] This is an ideal to which a real plot cannot conform; although the story is peopled with revenants and history keeps repeating itself in successive generations of the Buendia family, it is, like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), conventionally chronological. As Aureliano, fascinated, reads more quickly, he hastens his own death as the real and fictional story come to a simultaneous close. This device could be read as metafictive, but the novel belongs to the tradition of magical realism and its treatment of time is naturalized within this genre. The conclusion of the novel does not so much deconstruct the time of the story as bend it in a circle, effectively sealing the self-contained fictional world.

Midnight's Children has elements of magical realism but has also been defined by Linda Hutcheon as an 'historiographic metafiction', a genre which foregrounds the narrative construction of history in direct opposition to those early-eighteenth-century fictions, such as Robinson Crusoe, which claimed to be real histories and were sometimes accepted as such. It is also engaged in a discussion of narrative technique. As the title Midnight's Children suggests, time is thematized; the narrator Saleem Sinai was born 'once upon a time [. . .] And the time? the time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it's important to be more . . . On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came.'[9] (This time is significant because it was the hour of India's independence.) However, the narrator muses: 'time has been an unsteady affair, in my experience, not a thing to be relied upon. It could even be partitioned: the clocks in Pakistan would run half an hour ahead of their Indian counterparts' (p. 459). Postmodern fiction tends to favour relative time over subjective time and to question the very possibility of objective time and measurement. Plot is discussed in metafictional passages; the narrator-protagonist is relating his story to his consort Padma, the naive reader incarnate who believes Saleem's narrative to be factual, history rather than story. Saleem particularly notes Padma's reactions to the metafictive elements of his narrative: 'Padma has started getting irritated whenever my narration becomes self-conscious' (p. 65). He modifies his style of story-telling accordingly: 'I must return (Padma is frowning) to the banal chain of cause-and-effect' (p. 295). These metafictive passages accurately describe the actual plot structure; although they represent time out of narrative time and remind the reader that 'distortions are inevitable', the story is related broadly chronologically and the present of the telling is fictionalized to the extent that it is not likely to shatter the boundaries of the fictional world.

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1968) also thematizes the writing of history, this time of the Second World War, particularly the bombing of Dresden. It opens with a qualified truth claim: 'All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.'[10] This parodies the eighteenth-century novelistic convention, as does the title page. Time is predictably unpredictable, even for the narrator, who experiences a conflict between subjective and objective time: 'The time would not pass [. . .] The second hand on my watch would twitch once, and a year would pass, and then it would twitch again' (p. 20). It is another framed narrative whose end is prefigured in its beginning as the narrator tells us that the story he is going to tell begins like this:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
It ends like this:

And so it does.

The narrator proceeds to relate the fantastic tale of Billy Pilgrim, wartime chaplain's assistant and time traveller. Aristotle's scenario, where 'nothing would be before or after anything else', is dramatized as the hero is abducted by benevolent Aliens, for whom

all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments [. . .]. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string. (p. 27)

This picture of time has its origins in Einstein's general theory of relativity (1915), a radical revision of Newtonian physics, contemporaneous with modernism, which presents the universe in terms of a four-dimensional space-time continuum although it does not directly challenge the idea of linear time. Tralfamadorian plot construction is coherent with four-dimensional time; their novels are emphatically anti-Aristotelian and bear a singular resemblance both to Derrida's idea of writing and Melquiades' fictional technique in One Hundred Years of Solitude. They are laid out in clumps of symbols which are read 'all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages [. . .]. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time' (p. 88). Conventional plot is considered in the initial framing chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five where the narrator discusses one version of the story which he has outlined in crayon on a roll of wallpaper:

I used my daughter's crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. (p. 5)

The real plot of Slaughterhouse-Five is somewhere between the Aristotelian plot and Derrida's 'writing' or the narrator's plot diagram and a Tralfamadorian novel. The postmodern plot and reading experience cannot match Derrida's ideal because the 'earthling' cannot read or write the scenes or symbols of the novel simultaneously. If we were to attempt to draw a real plot diagram of Slaughterhouse-Five in crayon, it would resemble coloured spaghetti. But although its jumps in time are more frequent and abrupt than those in either Midnight's Children or One Hundred Years of Solitude, the prolepsis and analepsis is still 'realistically' motivated by Billy Pilgrim's travel backwards and forwards in time, which is itself naturalized by his abduction by the Tralfamadorians or, if you cannot stomach that, by his madness, caused by a bump on the head in an aeroplane crash. The narrator describes himself 'as a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense' (p. 5). Slaughterhouse-Five is another highly 'readable' novel where cause and effect still operate and even though the conclusion is written in the introduction the writer cannot dispense with suspense, because the reader does not know for sure whether or how that conclusion is reached until he reaches it in real time.

According to John North, Stephen Hawking's deconstruction of the boundaries of time can be described in terms of a circular, self-contained universe which has no beginning or end. Possibly the replacement of linear time with circular or deconstructed time in postmodern theory and fiction is a manifestation of the fear of death, and these alternative narratives of time function to replace the religious narratives of immortality which have been discredited in a godless world. The Tralfamadorians have no such fear of death precisely because they can see the fourth dimension: 'When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments' (p. 27). Billy Pilgrim tries to spread the Tralfamadorian gospel, at one point speaking at a radio conference on the death of the novel, at another reassuring a little boy he is fitting for glasses that his dead father is really alive in other moments. Paul Ricoeur suggests in Time and Narrative that it is through narrative that we humanize time and resolve the disjunction between our necessarily limited experience and the scientific idea of time. Both Hawking's theory and the fourth dimension as depicted in Vonnegut's novel are imaginative constructions to the extent that finity bounds human experience, but they are read in different ways: one as scientific exposition; the other for its entertainment value.

Clearly, beginnings and endings have a special function in postmodern metafiction, marking the entrance and exit of the fictional world and its parallel time. There is a structural circularity in these novels which confounds linear time: the end of Midnight's Children returns to the present of the telling, a not unconventional plot device, but also foretells the future; the ending of One Hundred Years of Solitude is more complex as Aureliano reads his future in a historical document. The narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five is particularly taken with those songs whose last line repeats the first line 'And so on to infinity', like the story of Billy Pilgrim (p. 3). Derrida turns deconstruction on narrative time in 'The Law of Genre', an analysis of Blanchot's La Folie du jour, which includes in its final paragraphs its first line. Derrida reads this as a deconstruction of linear time:

These first words mark a collapse that is [. . .] unsuitable within a linear order of succession, within a spatial or temporal sequentiality, within an objectifiable topology or chronology. One sees [. . .] reads the crumbling of an upper boundary. [. . .] Suddenly, this upper or initial boundary, which is commonly called the first line of a book is forming a pocket inside the corpus. It is taking the form of an invagination through which the trait of the first line, the borderline, splits while remaining the same and traverses yet also bounds the corpus.[11]

This symbolizes the deconstruction of narrative chronology. However, this kind of metafiction could just as easily be read as reinforcing the self-containment of the fictional world together with its particular chronology in an infinite 'loop'.

The final novel, Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller (1979), is the most radically and structurally metafictive. On the penultimate page the reader is asked, 'Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end?'.[12] The novel plays mercilessly with the Aristotelian notion of plot. It opens: 'You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler' [sic]. The 'story' is enclosed within a full frame and ends in the same manner: 'And you say, "Just a moment, I've almost finished If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino"' (p. 205). But unlike the traditional frame which gently leads the reader into and out of the narrative, Calvino's is structurally closer to Derrida's parergon or chiasmus, a deconstructed, collapsed, or 'invaginated' frame that is both inside and outside the body proper of the text.[13] Calvino intersperses metafictive (numbered) chapters with named chapters which parody various genres. The numbered chapters, which form a continuous narrative, are addressed to 'you', the Reader and in this metafictional story, 'you' read the first (named) chapter, 'If on a winter's night a traveller', but find that the book has been wrongly bound and 'you' have in fact been reading the first chapter of a different novel. 'You' then return to the publisher for a copy of this book and are issued with a similarly deceptively bound but different novel, and so it goes on. The metafictive chapters parody the classic romance as 'you', the Reader, and Ludmilla, the 'Other Reader', meet, overcome various obstacles, and finally get married.

There is some debate as to the metafictive power of this text. For Welch Everman, 'the work goes beyond itself, beyond its printed text and into the text of the Reader's (real) world. This novel is purposely literary, and yet it wants to push against the limits of the literary and break through to a place beyond language'.[14] Peter Lamarque and Stein Olsen read the opening frame in a similar dualistic way: 'The first sentence is both true and fictional in intent.'[15] Elizabeth Ermarth maintains that postmodern novels, unlike conventional linear narratives, foreground the experience of reading as a continual present.[16] Although the reader of If on a winter's night a traveller is addressed as 'you', because he is inscribed in the text he can be read as an entirely fictional character. Linda Hutcheon concedes, 'The reader is [. . .] a function implicit in the text, an element of the narrative situation. No specific real person is mean.'[17] Elizabeth Dipple more pertinently points to the fact that the reader of If on a winter's night a traveller is a particular fictional character.[18] In spite of the documented assimilation by a wider non-scientific public of radical new theories of time and the assertions of literary theorists that metafiction disrupts ontological categories, in practice it is only academics who are consistently self-conscious enough to read metafiction as persistently disruptive. 'Real' readers can often quickly neutralize metafictional devices so that their ontological (and chronological categories) remain intact. This is something recognized by Lamarque and Olsen, who maintain that fact is largely irrelevant to literature because factual inference is blocked by what they call the 'fictive stance' (p. 88). The fact that readers temporarily suspend disbelief and imaginatively enter the alternative fictional world with its alternative temporality, renders them immune to metafiction.

Theoretical attempts to establish the ontologically disruptive capacity of metafiction are doomed to failure because of the primacy of context in interpretation, but one can predict that the power of metafiction will be drastically reduced if the reader is already familiar with the technique. Many readers are, not only because metafiction was a highly popular literary mode during the 1970s and 1980s, but because it has a long history, its origins in the British novel being almost contemporaneous with the birth of the genre. At one point in the archetypal eighteenth-century metafiction, Tristram Shandy, the narrator parodies the plot devices of the novel:

I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume -- and no farther than to my first day's life -- 'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it --on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back.[19]

Such metafictive devices foreground plot design as If on a winter's night a traveller foregrounds real (reading) time, but neither effectively compromises the simple fact that realism and reality are not identical, that literary and literal truth are different, and that real time and narrative time run parallel and are therefore separate.

There is one factor that tends not to be considered when discussing the potential of metafiction to disrupt ontological-chronological boundaries: where story is subordinated and there is no compensation for the loss of the readerly pleasure of 'consumption', there is even less likelihood that the ordinary reader's sense of separate worlds will be compromised because such novels are likely to remain unread. The reader of Calvino's novel might be able to fictionalize 'you' but for the fact that the novel is rebarbative in other ways. At one point 'you' remark that 'this is a novel where, once you have got into it, you want to go forward, without stopping' (p. 64), but its structure prevents this as each false fictional start is arrested, suspended, and then succeeded by another. If on a winter's night a traveller would be likely to irritate or frustrate a recreational reader to the point that he stops without going forward and simply puts the book down. A comment on Alphonse Allais's Une drame bien parisien, by Umberto Eco seems applicable to Calvino's text: 'The naive reader will be unable to enjoy the story (he will suffer a final uneasiness), but the critical reader will succeed only by enjoying the defeat of the former.'[20] According to the rather bossy narrator of Calvino's novel,

The dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years. (p. 13)

In spite of some jibes at humourless theorists, If on a winter's night a traveller neatly illustrates and even incorporates postmodern theory by means of a highly innovative arrangement of temporal-causal events, but at the expense of old-fashioned story-telling. Slaughterhouse-Five, Midnight's Children, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, on the other hand, play with time but their respective stories are neither subsumed nor exploded by their postmodern plot.

[1] See John North, The Fontana History of Astronomy and Cosmology (London: Fontana, 1994), pp. 611-12.

[2] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), p. 78.

[3] The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. by Jonathan Barnes, 2 vols (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1984), i, 370.

[4] Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. by Alan Bass (London: Athlone Press, 1987), p. 29.

[5] 'Spectres of Marx', New Left Review 205 (May/June 1994), 31-58 (p. 36).

[6] The Complete Works of Aristotle, ii, 2321.

[7] Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. by Alan Bass (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1982), p. 67.

[8] Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. by Gregory Rabassa (New York: Bard, 1971), p. 382.

[9] Midnight's Children (London: Cape, 1981; repr. Pan, 1982), p. 9.

[10] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Dell, 1968), p. 1.

[11] Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, ed. by Derek Attridge (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 236.

[12] If on a winter's night a traveller, trans. by William Weaver (London: Picador, 1982), p. 204.

[13] For a discussion of the parergon see Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 61; see also Acts of Literature, pp. 236-38.

[14] Who Says This?: The Authority of the Author, the Discourse, and the Reader (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), p. 122.

[15] Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen, Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 66.

[16] Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, 'The Crisis of Realism in Postmodern Time', in Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture, ed. by George Levine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 214-24.

[17] Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 139.

[18] The Unresolvable Plot: Reading Contemporary Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 107.

[19] Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67; repr. New York: Random, 1950), pp. 295-96.

[20] Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 10.
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Date:Jan 1, 2000
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