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Forward and Back… Up and Down… Diagonally?

September 10, 2008

A much-appreciated comment yesterday (from a much-admired commenter) added another book which lets readers explore it at their own pace: Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters, which readers can browse through at random if they choose. This prompted me to think of other books which defy strict linearity. Of course, one of the most famous experiments in “jumping around” in a narrative is Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, which you can read straight through from chapter one through chapter 56 (stopping at that point and leaving the rest of the book unread) or by following the Table of Instructions to “hopscotch” through those chapters and the others later in the book. Not entirely “reader’s choice” here, but it does broaden the idea of what makes a novel and how it can be read. And then maybe one of the best-known groups of books that encourage reader participation: the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. Again, not necessarily an experiment in time (the focus of that last post), but definitely one which expands as well the opportunities for reader engagement and authority in constructing the story. Don’t laugh; I’ve seen this series taught in post-modern lit classes, and in many ways, the books are a clear precursor to hypertext novels like Geoff Ryman’s 253 — one of many great hypertext titles that could be added to this list. 

 

Thinking about alternative narrative strategies also led me to considering all those books that turn linearity on its head — almost literally. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis may be one of the best-known works that tell the story in reverse (and he goes further than most authors in trying to make the backwardness complete), but he’s not the only one, of course. Look at First Light by Charles Baxter or Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace, the author of Big Fish. Or if you don’t want to invest in a full novel’s worth of this technique, check out Alejo Carpentier’s short story “Journey Back to the Source.”

 

And speaking of great Latin American writers, I’m also reminded of Mario Vargas Llosa’s experiments with layering different times and places in several books, including his masterpiece, Conversation in the Cathedral, sections of which literally and intricately interweave dialogue that’s taking place at different chronological and geographical points. And then thinking further back to one of Vargas Llosa’s own influences, we can find experiments in layering time in several of Faulkner’s novels, of course, most especially those first couple of sections of The Sound and the Fury

 

No lack of possibilities, nothing comprehensive here. Others to add to the list? 

 

— Art Taylor

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2 comments

  1. I think The Time Traveler’s Wife does tricks with time as well, though I haven’t read it.


  2. Mark Z. Danielewski’s “Only Revolutions” is designed to invite you to read it one of two ways, either from the man or woman’s perspective, and it’s up to you to surmise how important the historical dates in the margins are. I’m generally not a fan of metatextual funny business, but that one’s a fun ride.



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