Thursday, June 10, 2010

Time in Passing: Mentions of Time in Fiction

I've managed to sneak in a few fiction reads. (I needed to. The books on my shelves call to me if I leave them alone for too long. Some call louder and more persistently than others.) But it seems that even in fiction, my research interests persist.

There I was, sitting in the sun thinking, "Hah! I'm taking a break from reading about circadian rhythms and death and teamwork and digital media and—ahhh! Okay, I'm taking a break. I'm taking a break." With this protective chant running through my mind, I settled back into my chair, breathed in the smell of freshly mowed grass, and turned the page. And found Time waiting for me. I dismissed it, and picked up another favorite—Time was waiting there too.

In any event, I managed to devour three books from authors who are my pick-me-ups—the ones that I can always go to because we know each other almost by heart. And Time was waiting in all three. Here's a look at what I found.

I first read Bellairs in elementary school, and I was hooked almost immediately. (You'll soon see a trend in the topics of a few of my favorites, Reader.) This was magic before Harry Potter—this was magic made by mortals; tales of sorcery and witchcraft and puzzles.

This first book introduces us to the characters in the series. I won't tell too much (I still think its a good read) but in this book, freshly orphaned Lewis, a chubby, friendless boy, comes to live with his uncle Jonathan in a rather strange house. It has a clock in its walls, you see. And the clock ticks persistently, driving Jonathan crazy. He believes the clock was planted by the previous owner of the house, Izard who was known as a black sorcerer. But for what purpose?

The following quotation was taken from a discussion between Jonathan and his neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman as they try to determine how the clock fits with Izard's plans:
Jonathan sighed. "Maybe you're right. I don't know. The important thing is that he did miss his opportunity. That's why he had to build the clock. To bring the time back. The exact time when everything was right and in its place. That's what he means when he talks about 'a device to redeem all time.'"

Stephen King, Cell
I still sometimes need to sleep with the light on after reading certain Stephen King books. If I read too many in a row ... I tend not to sleep too well for a few nights. I love the worlds he creates, and despite my fear (and need to check that the closet is truly shut) they keep me coming back. That is all I will say about that.

Cell imagines what would happen if a pulse were to be transmitted over the cellular network that could effectively "re-program" humanity. It wasn't a pretty picture. This quotation is taken from a scene soon after the "incident" when the the leading man, Clay has a chance to take it all in. (His frame of mind is, "Yes. this is really happening. Really, really.")
With these things seen to, and Alice Maxwell's radically abridged tale told, Clay finally went to the phone behind the desk. He glanced at his watch. It was 4:22 p.m., a perfectly logical time for it to be, except any ordinary sense of time seemed to have been canceled. It felt like hours since he'd seen the man biting the dog in the park. It also seemed like no time at all. But there was time, such as humans measured it, anyway, and in Kent Pond, Sharon would surely  be back by now at the house he still thought of as home.

This is definitely one of King's more unusual stories. It offers a different perspective on spookiness surrounding the Mary Celeste, Roanoke, and the Bermuda Triangle. It asks you to think about what happens to the past.

In this story, a number of sleeping passengers on a plane wake to find that their fellow travelers have disappeared, leaving behind an assortment of material goods. The motley crew that remains includes (among others) a pilot, a British secret agent, a blind child, a violinist, and a mystery author. The author, Robert Jenkins, is the one who deduces the circumstances of their situation, which is the basis of following longish quotation:
 "I said not fifteen minutes ago that it felt like lunchtime. It now feels much later than that to me. Three in the afternoon, perhaps four. It isn't breakfast my stomach is grumbling for right now; it wants high tea. I have a terrible feeling that it may start to get dark outside before our watches tell us its a quarter to ten in the morning."

"Get to it, mate," Nick said.

"I think it's about time," Bob said quietly. "Not about dimension, as Albert suggested, but time. Suppose that every now and then, a hole appears in the time stream? Not a time warp, but a time-rip. A rip in the temporal fabric."

[Discussion on how said time-rip would actually work.]

"All right," Bob said. "The bottom line. Let's suppose there are such things as time-rips, and we've gone through one. I think we've gone into the past and discovered the unlovely truth of time-travel: you can't appear in the Texas State School Book Depository on November 22, 1963, and put a stop to the Kennedy assassination; you can't watch the building of the pyramids or the sack of Rome; you can't investigate the Age of the Dinosaurs first hand ... Take a good look around you fellow time-travellers. This is the past. It is empty; it is silent. It is a world—perhaps a universe—with all the sense and meaning of a discarded paint-can ..."

I'll leave you with these quotations. I've felt somewhat Serling-esque in this narrative, but I won't attempt an analysis here—though I have quite a few opinions. Instead I'll invite your interpretations. I had a mentor who encouraged me not to overlook the contributions of fiction to reason and research, so you can thank him for this interlude. What do these snippets mean to you? I'll also invite you to post your fictional time finds below.

Until we meet again, Reader, may Time be on your side.


  1. One never can get away from one's research interests in anthropology. It's the curse of thinking deeply in a field that takes everything human as its object of study.

    I read fiction totally differently than I used to. Now I continually stop to wonder, "Hmm, is this character being defined in terms of his/her own supposed cultural context or seen through the cultural lens of an outsider?" It drives me nuts when I just want to relax, but I can't help it.

  2. Hi, I've been checking your blog for a while and enjoy it. I just have to mention in response to this post that Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is soaked through with reflections on time and our experience of it. Fascinating topic! I even wrote a short story about this issue (a very silly one) long ago. Or was it yesterday. ;)

  3. Joe, I have that problem with movies ... it makes for poor and sometimes frustrating movie-watching experiences. It's never been quite so bad before. I think I may just have too many competing interests this time!

    Cynthia - welcome! And thanks for the Mann reference. At some point, I'll try and check it out in a relatively soon "tomorrow." :)