Exploring the art of prose


This or That: Simultaneity in John O’Hara’s BUTTERFIELD 8


By Ian Randall Wilson •

When I wrote in third person, it was in third-person close. The concerns of simultaneity didn’t occupy much of my attention. There may be a flaw in my thinking here, but my reasoning was that because the world was seen by a focalizing character, other characters were subservient to the primary consciousness. We understand through inference that other characters are perceiving at the same time, other things are happening, but we are only privy to the perceptions of the one. Those other consciousnesses could only be suggested through the direct discourse of dialogue or through an action (or reaction). I didn’t think I had to evoke simultaneity, it sort of happened. That was until I began to move away from third-person close and used narrators that were more omniscient.

When the omniscience changes, becomes more editorial, the need to deal with the mechanics of stage-managing more than one character suddenly leaps out as a concern. Reading BUtterfield 8, I started thinking about simultaneity and how language, by definition sequential, somehow evokes things happening at the same time. How is the effect managed? The novel showed me several kinds of simultaneity and/or the sequential which are worth looking at.

John O’Hara’s novel opens this way: “On this Sunday morning in May, this girl who later was to be the cause of a sensation in New York, awoke much too early for her night before.” The opening establishes a time marker and we meet one of the principals, Gloria. We follow her as she rounds up what’s left of her clothing, steals a mink coat then takes a cab where the section finishes a few pages later: “At the corner of Madison the driver almost struck a man and girl, and the man yelled and the driver yelled back. ‘Go on, spit in their eye,’ called Gloria.” Then after a space break, we get: “in the same neighborhood another girl was sitting at one end of a rather long refectory table.” I first thought that one incident had occurred and concluded, and another was beginning—pure sequence. But only a few pages later we have:

At Madison Avenue they were almost struck by a huge Paramount taxi, and when Jimmy swore at the driver, the driver said, “Go on, I’ll spit in your eye.” And both Isabel and Jimmy distinctly heard the lone passenger, a girl in a fur coat, call to the driver: “Go on, spit in their eye.” The cab beat the light and sped south in Madison.

This is the same near-collision from another angle of refraction. What I thought was sequence turns out to be (also) simultaneity. It’s like two trajectories whose paths cross in an X. The moment with the girl at the refectory table turns out not to be happening afterward but happening at the same time. O’Hara makes us figure this out rather than signal with some transitional device like “meanwhile” or “at the same time.” The effect is to disrupt our sense of conventional time.

This sense of sequential and simultaneous is now established in the narrative. A section later we read: “When Sunday morning came Paul Farley never liked to be alone with his wife, nor did Nancy Farley like to be alone with Paul.” The order in the narrative suggests that this is a following event. But the time marker— “When Sunday morning came” —echoing the opening of the novel, gives us a sense that here is yet another strand of a many-stranded story starting out at the same time or around the same time as the others. At the meta level, we start to see a collection of character timelines in relation to one another and the effect is that the omniscient narrator is evoking something larger—an entire city. This is a point that Robert Boswell makes in his essay “On Omniscience”: “city is “O’Hara’s principal interest, the city with its striations of class and culture. . .”

At the beginning of chapter five, again this sequential / simultaneous effect is at work:

On Monday afternoon an unidentified man jumped in front of a New Lots express in the Fourteenth Street subway station. Mr. Hoover was on time for the usual meeting of his Cabinet. Robert McDermott, a student at Fordham University, was complimented for his talk on the Blessed Virgin at the morning exercises in her honor.

It’s a long selection which I won’t quote any more of but it continues in this way with its list of events and individuals from all walks of life and classes of society, ultimately bringing in two of the main characters, Gloria and Eddie. Boswell writes, “the story engages social class in New York after the stock market collapse.” Not only does in engage but it creates a sense of the city in an even larger fashion than chapters one to four.

The rendering here is objective. The point of view, which had originally moved in somewhat on individual characters, now pulls back to a journalistic reportage of all of these events going on in New York. Is it sequence or simultaneous? There are only a few time markers: Monday afternoon, 3:16 p.m., late lunch, luncheon, spent the afternoon, the entire afternoon. None of them follows one another. There is no firm sense of progression. Time is suspended as we loop back and forth among sparse indicators but it’s clear from the passage that the entire afternoon is being considered. There’s a sense that these markers are being used in the same way as they were in the first four chapters. At the same time suddenly we’re aware of what’s going on all over the city.

I want to quickly make the point that if in this list section, O’Hara had shifted into the present tense, things would be much more apparently simultaneous. Consider this revision:

On Monday afternoon an unidentified man jumps in front of a New Lots express in the Fourteenth Street subway station. Mr. Hoover is on time for the usual meeting of his Cabinet. Robert McDermott, a student at Fordham University, is complimented for his talk on the Blessed Virgin at the morning exercises in her honor.

What I think would get lost, though, in my revision, is the suggestion of the sequential, the suggestion that life is progressing throughout the city as these many events occur. And they aren’t the only events, clearly. They’re a selection, a small part representing a larger whole.

O’Hara has evoked a much larger canvas this way. We cannot help but be aware of the city as a larger force and the place that Gloria has in it. O’Hara underscores this in two more significant ways, one local and one global.

Gloria arrives at a speakeasy at the request of Liggett. O’Hara writes: “She was there before four, and took a small table by herself and watched the world come in.” If he were simply matching the early city section, O’Hara might say, she watched who came in. It’s a curious phrase—the world. Whose world? Gloria’s? She an accessory to various levels of society, her beauty and sexual availability her currency. She moves among stratum, but no, not her world. It’s a different world than what we’ve seen so far yet “[t]hat afternoon the speakeasy was visited by a fairly representative crowd”:

Among these was Mrs. Dunbar Vicks, of Cleveland, in town on one of her three or four visits a year to see a friend’s private collection of dirty movies and to go to bed with a young man who formerly worked for Finchley.

Mrs. Vicks stands at the bar with her back to a Hollywood supervisor who is talking to a director. “Percy owed a great deal to Walter” without whose support after an accident on one of the films, “Percy would have been in a hell of a fix.” We’re pointed to another part of the room, to Mrs. Lincoln seated with her niece, “the source of cocaine supply for a very intimate group of her friends in society.” Wix enters. White, a drunk the house wants to get rid of, is sent to a telephone call passing Dr. Fry. More arrivals: The Hofmans who are joined by a cousin. And so it goes.

O’Hara establishes this world both simultaneously—because everyone is there at once, and in sequence—announcing their arrivals or moving them through a series of handoffs as their relations in the space of room connect them or by simply telling us where someone is in the room. The tone is not objective as in the listing section, but sometimes judgmental, other times intimate; the narrator knows things about these people. The level of diction lowers to the colloquial: “a hell of a fix,” Wix “tries to get the eye” of Loskind. The narrator is on a first name basis with many of the characters. Here is the city, too, sketched in over a few pages in a series of arrivals and departures and in the knowledge of their coming or ongoing debauches. It’s another way of establishing the small while maintaining the large, a sliver of the lives of another group against the background of the living city.

The last move I want to point to is brief and global. O’Hara writes: “Wednesday passed for all those living in the world at that time, and it was Thursday.” For a moment, the narrator pulls back, increasing the narrative distance in space. Yet it’s not an objective reportorial statement. The narrative does not say, Wednesday ended with the sound of twelve clock strikes at St. Anthony’s and Thursday began. The order of language is slightly poetical yet colloquial as in our good friend Wednesday has passed away and we, who are still among the living, are caught up in the cycle of life and death of the city (somewhat ironic when we consider what’s coming for Gloria). What this brief transition does is continues our connection to the larger city that the novel maintains for us. And then we’re right back with Gloria.

The narrative effectively manages a significant group of characters and significant groups of people when they’re together. We have a sense of action at the same time with progression. O’Hara evokes the city as an interconnected domain of many lives and maintains that rendering behind the various actions of the piece. I am reminded of a famous closing line of narration for a different movie and subsequent TV series, (The) Naked City, that came fifteen then twenty-five years later, respectively: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” In this case, this has been a whole lot of them.


IAN RANDALL WILSON has published two novellas, Great Things Are Coming (Hollyridge Press 2009) and The Complex (Colony Collapse Press 2015). His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in many journals including The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and North American Review. His first poetry collection, Ruthless Heaven, was published by Finishing Line Press. He has an MFA in Fiction and in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. He is on the fiction faculty at the UCLA Extension. By day, he is an executive at Sony Pictures Entertainment.