Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, my first book, a novel called Safe in Heaven Dead, was accepted for publication. I was living on the south shore of Long Island then, with my wife and young children. The lump in Kim’s breast had not yet been diagnosed. We thought it was probably nothing, that lump, because nothing bad had happened to us, but then the doctor called with some news. “A little cancer,” he called it.
The horror of the terrorist attack, the joy of the book acceptance, the fear associated with the cancer diagnosis all occurred within a few weeks of each other, creating a tangle of emotion then and in my memory now, but the events themselves—9/11, the book, Kim’s cancer—were unrelated, except that they happened to me and my family at a particular time in a particular place. One did not cause another. They were not explicitly related, as they would have been in a novel. And they were certainly not unbelievable, since they were happening to us, though in a novel they might have been, since too much causality, too much plot, will stretch a reader’s credulity.
We weren’t the readers of our lives though, and we weren’t the authors of our lives, not really. We were blundering through our lives, unaware for the most part of the time that would define them, our beginnings and ends, though recently we were thinking more about ends. Our children were little, three and five, and what I mostly remember from that time is trying to hold on, to protect them, to protect everyone. And failing.
We are often reminded that truth is stranger than fiction, though I’ve never felt that way. Fiction has to seem true to create its illusion of another world, which is always a reflection of our world. I do believe that truth, or better, life, is less logical than fiction, less ordered, less pleasingly shaped, less coherent, less clearly meaningful. My mother often reminds me that everything happens for a reason. But I don’t believe that either, except in fiction, where everything does happen for a reason—to serve the narrative and the development of characters, to make a logical, emotional, beautiful whole. In fiction, one thing leads to another, following the logic of time, if time is logical.
My friend Kelly says time is an illusion, something else I don’t believe. Time is only too clear to me in how our bodies betray us as we age, how the people we love disappear. But time can be confusing and elastic too, especially in memory, which is where we handle it most, ordering the events of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, one event leading to another. I had a teacher who believed memory of place was really just memory of a time in your life. It’s impossible, he said, to separate a place in memory from the memory of who you were when you were there.
This makes sense to me, that time and place act as anchors for how we create meaning—and certainly they’re fundamental to how we create meaning in fiction. What fiction does best is people and consciousness, people located in time and place, one thing leading to another. And even if we try to subvert chronology, ignore chronology, destroy chronology, the clock is always ticking, fiction’s tyrant, primary and restrictive, from which opportunities and problems in plot and storytelling arise.In fiction, one thing leads to another, following the logic of time, if time is logical.
In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster differentiates story from plot, story being a lower form in his opinion, “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” the organic muck from which all novels must rise. “Oh, dear, yes,” he says, “the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist… It runs like a backbone—or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary. Its primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping round the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.”
We’re probably all familiar with that feeling—wanting to fall asleep or kill the novelist. But before we get to the killing or sleeping, I want to tell the story I started with, about my family and 9/11 and “the human heart in conflict with itself,” the only thing worth writing about according to Faulkner. But where and when to begin?
In an interview with Willow Springs, Stuart Dybek said that when he “taught sixth grade and asked students to write a story, many would begin with, ‘Briiiiiinnggg! The alarm clock rang.’ They wanted to start a story at the beginning, waking up—then next you brush your teeth and eat your Wheaties, and by the time you get to the part about how you killed your brother, you’ve got five pages invested in just doing your toilette.”
Holden Caulfield skips the alarm clock in The Catcher in the Rye, beginning his story with a time-limiting proclamation—that he will not be sharing his “whole goddam autobiography,” will not be spending any time on “where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” His story will be concerned with the recent past, “madmen stuff that happened to me around last Christmas,” though his recent past will be shaped and informed by a deeper past, glimmers of which will be revealed.
Dickens, on the other hand, begins David Copperfield with a clock, exactly like one of Dybek’s students: “To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”
I love simultaneity in fiction, events occurring at different times in different places and all at once. Today’s story—my story—will begin in just such a manner, with an image and a place and a moment in time juxtaposed against another moment in time, which we all recall, even if we hadn’t been born yet—because we’ve all been told over and over how we remember what we were doing and where we were that day, which was Dallas, Texas, in the very car the very moment JFK was shot, Jackie in her white gloves and pink poodle coat and pillbox hat (this is the image, and also the action, the clock beginning to move) throwing herself over the seatback and onto the trunk of that black Lincoln, chasing a piece of her husband’s skull, a shard of our beloved president’s broken crown. At first, I thought she was trying to escape the horror, throwing herself out of the car, but no. She was running after the horror, trying to undo it.
Remember how innocent we were then, how happy and corrupt and perfect?
It’s okay if you don’t remember, because today’s story isn’t really that story, though it does involve another memory and what would again be called our loss of innocence (because we’re constantly losing our national innocence). This story, the real story, begins on Sunday, September 16, 2001, the day I took my kids to see and feel more fully what was going on forty miles from home, in Union Square, the statue of George Washington surrounded by flowers and mounded candle wax, George and his horse covered in cards and peace signs and the word love, love, love written all over the pedestal next to plastic-wrapped photos and pleas—Have you seen my brother, my cousin, my daughter, my wife?—a fife-and-drum band playing patriotic songs from the eighteenth century—how weird is that? My three-year-old sat on my shoulders, such a sweet boy; my daughter held my hand, such a sweet girl; and these old-fashioned colonial people from Rhode Island played fife-and-drum songs, the taste of the towers on our tongues as if we’d been chewing on batteries for days.
Let’s pause for a moment—digressions are good in fiction. Stopping time. Breaking time. Though we won’t be able to outrun it forever. Forster says that there’s “something else in life besides time, something which may be called ‘value,’ something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity, so that when we look at our past it does not stretch back evenly but piles up into a few notable pinnacles, and when we look at the future it seems sometimes a wall, sometimes a cloud, sometimes a sun, but never a chronological chart….What the story does,” he continues, “is narrate the life in time. And what the entire novel does—if it’s a good novel—is to include the life by values as well….But the allegiance to time remains imperative.”
And to place too, which is why Union Square was jammed that day (and just an aside here, another digression: grounding in place is going to help us if we start playing with time, or grounding in a body, with taste, for example, or smell—the point being, we’re going to need some grounding, time being one of our main grounders, the when, the what happened first and the what happened second, but sometimes we get tired of the clock and want to subvert time, so we look for other ground, like image or place, Union Square, for example, which was jammed that day) with mourners, tourists, piles of rotting flowers and mounded candle wax, our mouths bright and blazing with the taste of batteries, the taste of everything that had been vaporized, pictures of the missing lining a makeshift wall along the Broadway side of the park, naming the dead, Jackie in her poodle coat and white gloves, holding that piece of her husband’s skull blown onto the back of the limo.
Did I mention the fife-and-drum band from Rhode Island, from the colonial era—how heartbreaking is that? I’m there with my kids, a three-year-old and a five-year-old, a few weeks before we will learn that their mother has cancer—everything’s always happening, is about to happen, has already occurred—and this fife-and-drum band is playing patriotic whistle songs, marching songs, murder songs on the north side of Union Square, my son on my shoulders and my daughter holding my hand and the taste of those towers and the dead a mouthful of batteries we’ve been eating all our lives.
“I am trying not to be philosophic about time,” Forster says, “for it is a most dangerous hobby, far more fatal than place. I am only trying to explain that as I lecture now I hear that clock ticking or do not hear it ticking, I retain or lose the time sense; whereas in a novel there is always a clock. The author may dislike his clock. Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights tried to hide hers. Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, turned his upside down. Marcel Proust, still more ingenious, kept altering the hands, so that his hero was at the same period entertaining a mistress to supper and playing ball with his nurse in the park. All these devices are legitimate, but none of them contravene our thesis: the basis of a novel is a story, and a story is a narrative of events arranged in time sequence.”
My children and I listened to those fifes flitting above the drums, a martial thumping, as we walked south, past Kennedy’s secret service contingent and a group of Amish girls or Mennonite girls, plain girls in plain dresses with white hankies on their heads singing beautiful hymns to the hushed people watching and listening and crying. The loss and grief were particulate matter constricting our throats. Up on my shoulders, Paul rubbed his hands over my head but didn’t talk—neither did Jane—the three of us walking the beach toward the tide pools I can’t remember how many years later in Oregon, definitely after the cancer had returned and their mother had to have surgery a second time followed by another round of chemo, those sweet Amish girls singing sad songs about death and redemption and Jesus as we walked past George Washington on his horse in Union Square, so quiet in ourselves and choking.
In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust talks about the tyranny of rhyme forcing poets into their greatest lines, but in his interview with Willow Springs, Stuart Dybek noted that “the tyranny of chronology is not as benevolent a tyranny as poetic musical patterns that lead to the invention of form, which is what Proust is talking about when he talks about the tyranny of rhyme. One can fall into a forced singsong pattern with rhyme—that’s a danger. But chronology can invite you into this numbing pattern of first this happened, then next this happened, then next that happened. There’s a valence that’s necessary as to what moments in our lives or imaginations are important enough to get written about that has nothing to do with chronology.”
But “fiction is a temporal art,” Dybek continued. “Its main subject is time. Its great power is chronology, because chronology has an inescapable way of translating into cause and effect. It’s deceptive and illusory, but that’s the power of linear narrative. If we write that such and such happened at ten and such and such happened at eleven, we assume they are connected and that what happened at ten caused what happened at eleven. It’s how fiction makes the chaotic world understandable—by arranging it along a timeline. But linear narration is only one way to perceive reality,” which doesn’t mean the clock won’t exist, merely that our narrative need not be linear.When we lose the past, our clock, the moments that came before now—our memory—we lose the story of ourselves.
And what about dreams and music and how time breaks down in so many corners of our consciousness? Even though music is always counting—1-2-3, 2-2-3….What about dementia? How, when we lose the past, our clock, the moments that came before now—our memory—we lose the story of ourselves.
We walked from Union Square toward Ground Zero, which was no longer smoking, though we could taste it. Down Broadway and across 13th, we came to a firehouse with black bunting hung over the bay doors and more people on the sidewalk surrounding another pile of fresh and rotting flowers, big horseshoe wreathes propped on stands for the dead firefighters, a handful of living ones taking condolences from the gathered people, and when the alarm went off, as we all must have known it would, and the bay doors opened, a ladder truck pulled out, nearly taking off a young firefighter’s head—he was wedged there by the frame of the bay door.
An older firefighter grabbed him from inside and jerked him into the station house by the neck of his shirt, a superhuman feat it seemed, the people on the sidewalk gasping as the firefighter was rescued, pulled back from decapitation or death by crushing. I was certain then that what I felt was what everyone felt, an uncontainable gratitude that this stranger was alive, that we had witnessed his salvation. The people on the sidewalk stared into the bay at the boy who’d been saved. I approached with Paul on my shoulders. We didn’t know about the cancer yet, but now I know we must have always known. “Hey,” I said—and then I couldn’t say anything else. The firefighters looked away; they’d seen enough, seen too much, had heard too many condolences. “It’s okay,” Jane said to them. Five years old. “He’s okay,” she said. “Yes,” a firefighter said, “he’s okay.”
But what about Jackie? What about Jane’s mother?
“Over the plot, as it unfolds,” Forster says, “will hover the memory of the reader which will constantly rearrange and reconsider, seeing new clues, new chains of cause and effect, and the final sense (if the plot has been a fine one) will be of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away—only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become beautiful. We come up against beauty here—beauty at which a novelist should never aim, though he fails if he does not achieve it.”
I can’t move my family more than a few blocks downtown, and Forster’s bringing up beauty, telling me I can’t look for it and must find it—but this isn’t a novel. This is just a story about me and my kids and 9/11 and their mother’s cancer.
We needed to get to Washington Square, where there were more flowers and pictures of the dead, but no fife-and-drum band, no Amish girls, no Jack and Jackie. Ground Zero was no longer smoking either, except in my memory, wreathes rising from the site a few dozen blocks south into the empty space above where the towers had always been. Everyone in Washington Square was gray, washed out, reading on the edge of the fountain, staring from benches. My kids ran by the chess players and up and down the skateboarding mounds, through the gates of the empty playground and out again, the only children in the park, moving in circles around its perimeter before zeroing in on the huge, spraying fountain. I lifted them over the pool’s lip and onto the top tier of steps. They looked back at me as they descended, and I nodded. They looked back again and then squatted on the lower tier to put their hands in the water up to their elbows. “Can we go in?” Jane finally asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Kim stepped over the lip of the fountain to help them out of their shirts and shoes.
Did I mention that Kim was with us? That Jackie was dead but Kim was there, the children’s mother, who didn’t know she had cancer yet but had scheduled a biopsy for the following week?
Maybe I’ll have Kim undress the children at the edge of the fountain then ascend to the sky and swoop down later, when we’re at Cannon Beach walking toward those tide pools, when she’s in Spokane going through another round of chemo. Or maybe I’ll project us further into the future, a car accident where she’ll swoop down or not swoop down because she’s fine, because everybody’s fine, though if everybody’s fine, I won’t have a story, unless the surface of our fineness reveals the depth and contours of our loss underneath. At least I don’t have to worry about Jackie anymore, though I’ve still got George on his horse twelve blocks uptown. Maybe he can force himself off his pedestal somehow and gallop south to save my children from all the pain that’s coming. But how?
The kids splashed in the fountain, marching past people at the periphery, flitting among the exhausted adults. One woman reached out to touch Jane’s hair. Jane stopped, and Paul ran into her. The children were motionless as the woman reached for them, then they flitted away, toward the center where the jets spouted, making a mist they walked through, oblivious it seemed, then fully aware that they were the center of attention, looking every minute or so to me or their mother to make sure they were safe. They were not, of course. Or, no—they were. For the moment.
“Nearly all novels are feeble at the end,” Forster says. “This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work.”
But my little story isn’t a novel. If it were, I’d have taken tens of thousands of words to flesh these people out, and toward the end, I’d be turning up time, hoping that, on the one hand, I’ve been fully inside the clock, the wheels turning to the story’s inevitable conclusion, riding the plot down this giant wave to the end, some kind of resonant close. On the other hand, I’d be trying to hold onto the characters, to keep them from going dead on me, to keep from sacrificing them to the plot. I’d be trying to feel the hand play out, the clock winding down, the ground approaching as we fall to the end.
But, again, this isn’t a novel. It’s just a study of time and place. How problem becomes opportunity. How grounding place in a story can allow time to become elastic. How grounding characters with a clock can allow place to become elastic. How some grounding in time and place allows dream to come into the story. This is about distortion, about playing with time to try to find clarity, to try to find… something larger.
“Mother died today,” Camus wrote to begin The Stranger. “Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” The ground is moving. Time is established but not quite clear. Things happened today or yesterday. A clock. But hard to read.
Hemingway begins A Farewell to Arms, “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plains to the mountains.”
Late summer, okay, but what year, what village, what river, what mountains? We start with a clock, an illusion of specificity, “the late summer of that year,” grounding us, but its vagueness also helps us float.
Joyce Carol Oates starts The Falls with a clock, a place, a still moment of premonition: “At the time unknown, unnamed, the individual who was to throw himself into the Horseshoe Falls appeared to the gatekeeper of the Goat Island Suspension Bridge at approximately 6:15 a.m. He would be the first pedestrian of the day,” meaning more pedestrians would follow, clock engine and story engine coming to life simultaneously.
Robert Lopez opens Kamby Bolongo Mean River with, “Should the phone ring I will answer it,” a possible future event promising possible action, but variations on that line take on the feel of a breaking chorus as the novel unfolds: “Should the phone ring I will answer it.” “Should the phone ring I will ask why it is I can’t dial out anymore.” “Should the phone ring I will drop dead all over the floor because it hasn’t rung since I don’t know when anymore.” Our narrator is trapped with a phone we initially believe will ring, that we later think rang last night, that we finally know hasn’t rung in years and never will again. There is no future in this place, and the present is static, leaving only a distorted past, the handling of which occurs in a mostly dead present. Still, the clock ticks as the narrator pores over his past and gradually becomes enraged by his present impotence and imprisonment.
Juan Rulfo goes further to eliminate present and future in Pedro Paramo, killing his narrator almost immediately. Much of the action is unhinged in time, grounded in place. “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Paramo, lived there.” Pedro is dead though, as our narrator will soon be—allowing his father to come back to life in the past, take over the novel’s present, and drive time forward and back in dreamy swirls.
In “Time Passes,” the middle section of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Wolff nearly eliminates her characters completely, and, with “a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began.” All we have here is time, the people gone, some of them dying offstage, some of them hidden, a world war unfolding somewhere with millions dying as the house decays “like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it.” People are mentioned only briefly, her main characters parenthetically, but, for the most part, as time passes, as the clock becomes paramount, or as the novelist needs to push time forward, the characters remain offstage, though they will return in the next section of the novel. Because fiction is not still life.
Though Stuart Dybek has said that with “Pet Milk,” a story about time and memory, he was trying to write a still life. “But,” he said, “I couldn’t bring the objects on the table alive. I don’t know why my still life was a can of PET milk, but it was. I finally asked myself that question, and I had the association with my grandmother. The story is based on an image. You have to create the image, and then the narrative is a way of exploring the image.”
Maybe Washington Square is a still life in my story, Jack and Jackie too, and the batteries and George Washington, though times passes with the movement of my children in the fountain, the pressure of time, past and future, leaking from what’s occurred in New York and from what’s looming. Do these people know what’s coming for them? Of course not. But the story does. Even when it tries to forget.This is about distortion, about playing with time to try to find clarity.
I’m trying to find the notes that will end this, trying to hear the song, which is made of time because it’s music, but which transcends time because it’s music, because it’s emotional, because our response to it transcends logic and is inexplicable, beyond language. And this is the part we can’t look at too closely. The clock can be prosaic, such a weight on us, yet it remains essential, fundamental. It’s what we have to work with. But it’s not the only tool we have. We can resist it, subvert it, work around it, come back to it, remembering always that the clock is not the song, not the music. I don’t mean music in the way Richard Hugo refers to it when he says of writing a poem that, if he has to choose between music and meaning, he will choose music. He’s talking about the music of the line, of language. I’m talking about an actual symphony, real live music. Or maybe we are talking about the same thing. And so is Forster, finally.
“Music,” Forster says, “though it does not employ human beings (meaning characters), though it is governed by intricate laws, nevertheless does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way. Expansion.”
And this is what feels like transcendence of the clock, even though it will always be ticking, the fifes whistling between beats of the drum as I hold my children’s hands, having no idea what’s coming for me, knowing exactly what’s coming, what’s already arrived, the flit and flitter weaving with the taste of the towers, so many dead, as the children splash through the fountain, falling further into themselves, invulnerable to what’s come to crush them, obliterating time as they define it for me so many years later.
“Expansion,” Forster says, “is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out. When the symphony is over, we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated; they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom. Cannot the novel be like that?”
In Union Square, at the firehouse, we saw it in the drawn faces, heard it in the sad music and hush, the crowd’s gasp as the firefighter was almost beheaded, smelled it in the rotting flowers and chemical stink of the vaporized towers, but now in the fountain at Washington Square, the children will splash and shriek, forgetting themselves entirely, forgetting to look to me or their mother to see if they’re safe. They have no idea and will never know—not in this moment—that their mother is sick and they’ll lose her for years, that she’ll recover and they’ll lose her again, and again, that I’ll have to be mother and father to them both for a while and will fail, that what is whole right now is right now coming undone.
Even surrounded by these rotting flowers, this melted wax, the burned batteries in our mouths and lungs, in this moment, right now, my children splash through the fountain, the only children in the park. They’ve forgotten us, and even as the drums beat uptown in Union Square and a sweet longing for this moment reaches back to me from the future, all the ways we will hurt them, all the ways the world will hurt them fade, my children close enough now that I can feel their splashing, single drops on my arms and face, my hands and neck, and I’m not supposed to look up, though they’re coming closer, because this is how we play in the plastic pool in our suburban backyard, a splashing game—I’m not to see them, to know what’s coming; I’m to look only at the sky for rain, feeling the drops on my face as the children crouch closer, preparing to throw themselves at me, to overwhelm me with a wave of water and their screams of delight, time falling away for a moment, forgotten.
“Punching the Clock” by Samuel Ligon was originally featured in the Gettysburg Review, Vol. 34, Num. 2.