Sunday, February 10, 2019

Gaps in the Story: Kathy Page's Dear Evelyn and The Concept of Chronochasmus in Literary Plotting

Modern-day literary critics sometimes pay lip service to Aristotle’s argument that plot is the most important element in a literary work, but they rarely do more than that. When it comes to prose fiction, the shaping of character, or the imagery, or the diction, are far more often the focus of critical attention than is the plot. When reviewers and literary critics turn to the qualities that make a literary work worthy of praise, again and again they fall back on phrases such as “the sheer beauty of the prose” and quote a particularly striking image or a particularly memorable phrase. With rare exceptions, though, images of startling originality or phrases that bring the reader up short with their surprising insights do little to contribute to the overall effect of a work of fiction; indeed, to the extent that they may take us out of the story as we admire their brilliance, they may even detract from the overall effect. (“Murder your darlings”* is advice that most of us should heed more often than we do when writing fiction.)

The whole, then, is more important than the parts, however much the parts may sparkle. And plot is all about the shaping of the whole—the organization. The story is the raw material, but story material can be shaped in an almost infinite number of ways; the plot of a novel is the shape a writer gives to the material.

Aristotle’s definition of muthos (plot) (Poetics, 1450, 5-15) has been translated into English in several ways, among them “the ordering of the incidents” (T.S. Dorsch—Penguin) and “the structure of the incidents” (S.H. Butcher) . George Whalley’s edition of Poetics should perhaps be regarded as the most authoritative; he gives us “the putting together of events” as his translation, with “structuring” offered as a possible alternative to “putting together.” (See pages 70-73 of Whalley’s Aristotle’s Poetics for his translation and commentary.)

Having no Greek, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of any translation myself, but I can and will argue that to regard plotting as simply “the ordering of the incidents” is to misrepresent what is involved.

To be sure, it is on the ordering of the incidents that most attention has tended to be placed, both by literary scholars and in Creative Writing programs—flashbacks and flashforwards, beginning a narrative in medias res, enclosing a narrative in a frame from a later period—all these aspects of the ways in which incidents can be ordered have been fodder for a great deal of discussion.

Much less frequently noticed have been aspects of structure that have nothing to do with the order in which things are told. Here's one very important such aspect: the choice as to whether or not to leave gaps in time in the telling of a story—and, if one does leave gaps, how to space those gaps, and how long to make them extend. If one is telling the story that unfolds over many years, one can include significant pieces of story material from every stage of the story. But one can also choose to simply leave out large chunks of material—years and years of it—along the way. That’s the approach Kathy Page takes in her interesting and evocative novel Dear Evelyn (which won the Writer’s Trust of Canada award for best work of fiction last year); almost everything is recounted in chronological order, but a very great deal is skipped over.

The novel begins with Mavis giving birth to the child she and her husband Albert call Harry—and the book proceeds to give us the story of Harry’s life. That story is given shape largely in the recounting of Harry’s relationship with Evelyn, who first makes an appearance in the third of the book’s twenty chapters and who remains a secondary focus the rest of the way through. (For much of the time Evelyn is an unattractive character—self-centered to the point of cruelty; Dear Evelyn is fascinating not least of all for its convincing portrayal of how powerfully human love can persist even when its object becomes anything but endearing.)

Through the central decades of the lives of Harry and Evelyn, the gaps between the segments of their lives that are part of the novel each seem to be three or four years in length; in all there are ten of these more-or-less regularly-spaced segments. At the beginning and the end of the novel there is much less regularity to the temporal structure. The first part of the novel includes just two brief clips of Harry’s early life, followed by three segments recounting events occurring in little more than a year—principally, the development of a relationship between Harry and Evelyn and the ways in which the coming of World War II disrupts the nascent relationship.

At the other end of the book, there is a gap of perhaps sixteen or seventeen years between the series of regularly-spaced segments that make up the book’s second part (“Blue”) and the five segments that comprise the final section (“Hotel Paris”); the spacing of these final five segments is quite irregular.

What to say about this structure? First, perhaps, how fitting it seems in a book largely about the relationship between Harry and Evelyn to place the greatest emphasis on the years that are at the centers of their lives. But it also strikes me that this structure is gently suggestive of the ways in which we sense time to pass in our own lives—at a more regular pace through the middle years, and at more variable speeds in childhood and old age.

Page’s Dear Evelyn is of course not the first work of fiction to be structured in segments with long gaps between them. Another notable example (pointed out to me recently by Jamie Dopp of the University of Victoria) is Carol Shields’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 novel The Stone Diaries. But whereas Shields places each segment precisely in measured time (giving the parts titles such as “Marriage, 1927,” “Love, 1936,” and “Motherhood, 1947”), Page’s technique is more fluid. For one thing,** the segments in Dear Evelyn are undated; the sort of estimates I have provided above of time elapsed between segments are the product of analysis after the fact and are of necessity imprecise; there is nothing in the novel itself to draw attention to the exact number of years that has passed between each segment. Again, that seems to me to be a structure suggestive of the ways in which we sense time to pass in our own lives. Our active sense of how much time elapsed between events is usually dormant, and often imprecise; if we do reflect on such matters, we ask ourselves questions that it may take us some time to figure out the answers to (“When was it exactly that they moved to the island? Fifteen years ago? Perhaps it was more like twenty.” “How many years did Sheila spend trying to play the trombone? Three? Four? There were moments when it seemed like forever.”)

The inclusion of gaps of time in the presentation of fictional lives—and the spacing of those gaps—is an aspect of plotting that, so far as I’m aware, has never been given a name. In the highly-categoried world we inhabit, things should always have names—and, if they are to be taken seriously, it’s preferable that they be given foreign names. People are far more likely to take literary effects seriously if they have names like onomatopoeia than if they have names like flashforward (which sounds like something from a cheap adventure novel). I am thus giving up on the term time-jumpage, my working word for this aspect of plotting. Someone has kindly suggested to me Zeitspringen or Zeithuepfen (trans.: time jumping), from the German; another possibility would be chronochasmus (trans.: time gaps) from the Greek. I leave you to choose between these two enticing terms—but I urge you to read Page’s highly accomplished novel.

*Like so many famous quotations, this one has a tangled history. The source is apparently not William Faulkner but rather Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who offered this advice (under the heading “Extraneous Ornament” in a 1914 lecture entitled “On Style”:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (See Forrest Wickman, “Who Really Said You Should ‘Kill Your Darlings’?” Slate, 18 October 2013.)

**Page’s segments are fluid in other respects as well. They are named, but in ways that suggest their themes more elliptically than the titles of Shields' segments. “Chatterley,” for example, recounts Evelyn’s experience of trying that book by D.H. Lawrence everyone had been reading (“Was the whole rest of it going to be them either fucking, as they insisted on calling it, or talking about it?”) and then recalling a wartime near-romantic experience she had had with another man while Harry had been overseas.

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