Telling Time: Fiction As Clockmaking
By Alix Ohlin •
A few years back, in New York, I sat through four hours of Christian Marclay’s 2010 video art work “The Clock.” This was actually the third time I’d seen it, but I still went in without hesitation, losing the afternoon and all of the day’s light to it, and I’ll do the same again whenever I get the chance. If you don’t know it, “The Clock” is a twenty-four-hour long montage of scenes from film and television that feature clocks and other timepieces. It’s not just about clocks, it is itself a clock: whenever the work screens, it’s synchronized so that the time shown in a scene is the actual local time.
Although there’s no storyline as such, “The Clock” is fully, instantly absorbing; I grew late for an appointment, yet had a hard time pulling myself away. Part of the draw is the quick cutting—you always want to see what scene will come up next. Another is how the film offers a memento mori, a reminder of mortality—as you watch, actors age, sunsets fade, and flowers wither. Whatever the reason, I have an intense emotional reaction to “The Clock.” It makes me lose time yet feel profoundly conscious of its passage. I would sit in the dark all day and night if I could, watching the hours fly past.
I think about “The Clock” a lot when I’m writing, because the relationship between time and narrative is endlessly fascinating to me. The elasticity of time in fiction—how we compress or expand it, flash back or forward, summarize action or delve into scene—is one of the great muscular flexes of the form, and the choices we make around time are so suggestive and important. Like Marclay, fiction writers are clockmakers, structuring time and showing the reader how to measure and mark its progression. When Virginia Woolf writes, “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” she’s not just introducing a character whose attitude towards her errand indicates her privilege. She’s also forecasting the time span of the novel, which will move around radically in time while remaining tethered to the party taking place that evening.
The reader’s experience of time spent with a work of fiction can align or push against the time territory within it: a flash fiction piece can cover years, as in Rabih Alameddine’s touching “Break,” while a novel can take place entirely on a ride up an escalator, as in Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. Most stories inhabit at least two time zones, the moment of action and the moment of telling, and writers can chart the reader’s travel across them. The control of time can maximize suspense, underscore theme, develop characters, and influence structure; there is no aspect of fiction that it does not touch.
One beautifully made fictional clock is Justin Torres’s story “Reverting to a Wild State,” which narrates a breakup in reverse chronological order. It opens with a section labeled, enigmatically, 3; subsequent sections labeled 2, 1, 0 make the pattern clear. In the first section, the narrator cleans an apartment in a skyscraper in the city, naked, as his client observes him. Semi-feral, nameless, the narrator declares himself content, though the declaration feels ambiguous or at least complex: “I am a very good pretender. So, more than anything, I want to say this: in that moment I was happy.”
The narrative then moves backwards through the fraying of the narrator’s relationship with his boyfriend Nigel, his unfaithfulness, to the moment of their original youthful romance. In addition to the numbered sections, Torres uses locations as time stamps: at first alone in a skyscraper, the narrator interacts with Nigel in the city, and then at the farm in Virginia where they first fell in love. Another tracker of time is an old white cat which by the end of the story has become a “dirty white feral kitten, that scraggly runt of the barn litter.”
The question of what it means to be feral runs throughout Torres’s story. At the beginning of the story, which is the end of the relationship, the narrator has reverted to a wild state, feral as that kitten. Time moves in one direction, while his journey towards reversion—and that declaration of happiness—moves opposite. As each journey progresses, the story juxtaposes wildness and domesticity, security and danger, natural spaces and urban ones, beginnings and endings.
“Reverting to a Wild State” measures time in segmented scenes, covering years in a short space, and its structure functions much like a clock mechanism does. A spring-loaded clock stores its energy in a wound spring; the gears are then stopped and restarted by the mechanisms that move the watch’s hands. “Reverting to a Wild State” stops and starts the action repeatedly, regularly drawing the reader’s attention to the passage of time. The cat who becomes a kitten, emblematic of the young love that the reader knows will fade, is a spring loaded with energy that turns the gears of meaning at the story’s end.
Another fictional clock is Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which covers decades in the marriage of Grant and Fiona, though the bulk of its attention is devoted to the period when Fiona is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and enters an assisted living institution. While there, she forgets about Grant and becomes enamored of a man named Aubrey.
The inciting incident of the story is Fiona’s departure from their shared home: “She looked just like herself on this day—direct and vague as in fact she was, sweet and ironic.” But the opening paragraphs begin much further back, with the early days of Fiona’s life and her proposal of marriage to Grant, and the story takes its time getting to the moment of leaving. With this lapidary, unhurried introduction, Munro signals that the story won’t be just about Fiona in old age. Two time spans will be at play, the long marriage and the shorter period of illness; Fiona, direct and vague, will inhabit them simultaneously.
The narrative structure of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is akin to the movement of a minute hand and the second hand in a clock. The minute hand measures the larger units of time in the marriage, while this final episode, which is a smaller unit in time, is the second hand. To understand Grant and Fiona it is necessary to follow both hands as they move around the dial. (The toggling between the two time spans, which can feel blurred in places, also gestures thematically toward the confusion of Alzheimer’s.)
In the longer narrative, we learn that Grant’s serial philandering with students at the university where he teaches almost costs him his job, but instead Fiona’s father dies, leaving them a house, and he retires. “Just in time, Grant was able to think, when the sense of injustice had worn down. The feminists and perhaps the sad silly girl herself and his cowardly so-called friends had pushed him out just in time.”
Just in time, repeated twice here, is like a clock ticking in the background. As with Marclay’s artwork, Munro’s story insists unrelentingly on the passage of time. The narrative timelines, past and present, overlap, just as minutes and seconds and hours overlap. In the final scene, Fiona thanks Grant; she may or may not know exactly who he is or what she is thanking him for, but she is grateful nonetheless. “‘You could have just driven away,’ she said. ‘Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.’” These shaky words draw attention to Fiona’s loss of language, and they also echo the words “forgetting” and “forgotten.” They even sound as if they could be different tenses of the same verb—coexisting multiples of time.
It is the multiplicity of time that underscores the endurance of Fiona and Grant’s marriage under circumstances that profoundly challenge it. Time keeps going. In an interview about “The Clock,” Marclay notes that “a lot of footage is about waiting for something. Waiting to act. It’s that strange moment where you can’t do anything because time is going to decide for you somehow.” In narrative, time can decide a structure, can allow past actions to coexist with the present, can create shifting layers of meaning. To read fiction as a clock is to venture deep into time, as I did that day in New York: emerging into the evening with the richness of hours behind me.
ALIX OHLIN’s most recent book is the novel Dual Citizens. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The New Yorker, and many other places. She lives in Vancouver and chairs the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia.