Linear narrative and the myth of certainty

Originally published in the PN Review, March-April 2003

In print, works of fiction are conventionally expected to be linear, which means having a beginning, a middle and an end. Matters may be complicated by the use of flashbacks and so forth, but on the whole we expect works of fiction to tell stories, and consecutive stories at that. This expectation of consecutive narrative is at least partially dictated by our habit of reading a book through from the beginning to the end - which is how books are designed to be read. But because webpages are laid out differently from pages in a book - in a "cloud" rather than a fixed sequence - writers who use the Web as a medium are presented with an opportunity to challenge the linear convention. Not only is it easy for web-writing to be nonlinear: in a sense it's more natural. The medium lends itself more readily to the nonlinear form.

But why should we wish to challenge the linear convention? We can start to answer that question by recognising that the challenge is by no means a new one. George Eliot, a great moderniser of the English novel, writes at the end of Middlemarch that "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them [she continues], and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years? For the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web..." Note the web-image.

Eliot is saying that real-life stories do not come ready-made with handy beginnings, middles and ends. In real life we never reach the point at which all dramatic tension is suddenly resolved and we can spend the rest of our lives living "happily ever after". And her use of the web-image implies that any linear narrative is merely a thread, whereas life itself is a tapestry. Whatever story we choose to tell, its real-life equivalent will be far more complex, connected and interwoven with other stories at every point. We can only make a beginning for our story by taking a pair of scissors to the fabric and cutting off whatever came before; we can only make an end by doing the same to whatever comes after; and we can only isolate a particular narrative by trimming away what lies to either side.

Of course beginnings, middles and ends are not entirely foreign to our real-life experience, because our personal histories have them. We begin at birth; the experiences of our existence can only be lived through in one direction, from youth to age; what connects these experiences is the single thread of an individual consciousness; and this thread, so far as we know, comes to a definite end with death. But to say this is to imply that every narrative with a definite beginning, middle and end should be a biography - all other linear narratives are artificial. And if all literature were composed of biographies then not only would it be extremely tedious, it would also present us with the same view of life and society over and over again - the individualistic view, where the emphasis is always on personal experience rather than relationship and context.

Then there is the question of time. Conventional linear narrative puts events into a consecutive sequence. If a novel starts on Monday, 3rd July 2000, we don't expect it to end on Thursday 15th June the same year - we expect the beginning to precede the end. A certain amount of lateral movement is acceptable if the narrative has more than one thread, and so are "flashbacks" to fill in essential background information - but we don't expect David Copperfield to start as a mature man with his future life assured, and end as an infant whose story has hardly begun. Furthermore, while the story is being told we expect Wednesday to follow Tuesday rather than the other way around. Time should move in the right direction. We expect the narrative to show us, in fact, how one event arises naturally from another, and how over a period of time these events fit together into a satisfying self-referring pattern, so that the beginning of the story contains the seeds of the end, and the end fulfils the expectations which were raised in the beginning. Linear narrative is particularly good at doing this.

But in some senses a narrative of this kind is highly artificial. Granted we can only travel through our lives in one direction, from youth to age - yet our experience of being alive is by no means this simple. In our minds, what we experience at any given time is not just the present moment, in a fixed relationship with everything which has gone before and everything that may follow, but a kind of soup, composed of our awareness of the present, our memories of the past, our imaginings about the future, and various other thoughts and images which may not correspond directly with any of our personal experiences at all. Our bodies may live through time in a linear fashion, but our minds refuse to do so. Man's ability to separate his consciousness from the flow of time is one of the attributes which appears to distinguish him from the beasts.

As for the logicality of events - the idea that one event arises from another in a natural and perhaps inevitable sequence - this tends to be far more evident to us in linear narratives than it is in our everyday lives. Our everyday lives are a jumble: eating, shopping, going to work, making love, arguing, things to be done, things to be avoided, encounters with friends, telephone calls and so forth, all crowding towards us at once and getting in each other's way. The bigger themes - a gradual climb towards self-fulfillment, or a gradual decline into failure - are much more apparent in retrospect, or in the lives of other people, than they are in the here-and-now; and in real life they can often be mixed together in a confusing way. One aspect of your life may be going well, while another is going badly. Your financial status may be improving, for example, while your health is failing; or your marriage may be failing while at work things have taken a sudden turn for the better.

Linear narratives present us with a particular view of how things happen, and on the whole they tend to embody a dramatic progression from one state to another - a spiritual journey. Typically there is tension, conflict and resolution. We start with an apparently-tranquil state which nevertheless contains the seeds of change: an imbalance or tension of some kind, a need waiting to be fulfilled, a buried conflict waiting to be resolved. Whatever the problem is, it comes to the surface in the middle part of the narrative and plunges everything into apparent confusion. But by the end everything has been resolved, either for good or ill; the main characters have all learnt something and been changed by their experiences; and looking back over the narrative as a whole, we can see that the whole sequence of events was already implicit in the beginning, simply waiting to be sparked off.

Real life isn't necessarily like this. There are sequences of events in real life which do seem to display a logical progression, but equally there are plenty of other events which seem to happen more-or-less at random. Just as fundamentally, in real life conflicts don't always get resolved. Let's say you have always harboured feelings of resentment towards your parents. In a linear narrative these feelings would surface and some kind of denoument would result, either for good or ill. In real life, on the other hand, you may perfectly well go on harbouring them, unresolved, until the day you die. Linear narrative presupposes progression, even if it's only progression from bad to worse, but in real life no progression is necessarily apparent - just a constant muddling-along.

Linear narrative also tends to involve a certain method of characterisiation. In narratives where a great deal of emphasis is place on cause and effect, people are naturally shown to act in certain ways because of their characters. To use George Eliot and Middlemarch as an example again, in the Finale of the book she sums up the lives of two of her main characters, Lydgate and Rosamond, in the following terms:

[Lydgate] always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do. His acquaintances thought him enviable to have so charming a wife, and nothing happened to shake their opinion... [Rosamond] simply continued to be mild in her temper, inflexible in her judgement, disposed to admonish her husband, and able to frustrate him by strategem... He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a mudered man's brains.

Lydgate is a doctor, and starts the novel as un uncompromising idealist; but he falls in love with Rosamond, who is beautiful but shallow, and makes the mistake of marrying her. She soon forces him to give up his ideals, in favour of a wealthy practice and a conventional social life.

Eliot's narrative style is so powerful that we can only detach ourselves from it with a wrench, but once we have done so we may begin to wonder whether the issue between Lydgate and Rosamond would ever seem so clear in everyday life. Eliot's view of the matter, which she spells out not only in this passage but throughout the novel, is that Lydgate's early promise has been brought to nothing by his involvement with Rosamond - partly because of her own inflexible vanity, and partly because of his own weakness in giving in to her. Lydgate is like a snooker-ball travelling across the green baize in a particular direction, only to collide with another ball of greater mass and be carried off at an angle. His story, as Eliot tells it, is not about him alone, but about how the course he follows can be explained by his interactions with others. Cause and effect are demonstrated and explained with great clarity. But if we imagine Lydgate and Rosamond as characters in real life for a moment, we may feel entitled to ask ourselves whether a real-life couple in the same situation could ever be summed up in the same definitive terms. In real life, of course, people are not like snooker-balls. We don't know their relative masses, we don't fully understand the forces which impel them, and their interactions cannot be described in any straightforward manner. This being the case, it is always a matter of opinion exactly what is going on between any two people.

Eliot herself admits that Lydgate's "acquaintances thought him enviable to have so charming a wife", but we are encouraged to disregard the opinions of these acquaintances because Eliot, as author of the book, is claiming her privelege of superior insight, superior understanding of the situation's "inner truth". In everyday life, Eliot's opinion would only be one amongst many. People who thought the Lydgates well-matched would be just as much entitled to their view as anybody else, and perhaps just as likely to be right. The picture would be much more confused than Eliot makes it seem. In real life there is no overview, no omniscient author: what we have instead is a multiplicity of viewpoints and a jumble of partial evidence, from which we are obliged to draw our own conclusions. But this is a state of existence which linear narrative finds it difficult to represent.

Imagine a car-crash to which there are four witnesses. Afterwards, in court, the witnesses are called to give their accounts of the incident. In all probability they will agree with each other about some of the particulars, but disagree about others - the exact time of day when it took place, the colour and make of the vehicles involved, the speeds at which they were travelling, and so forth. How can the court establish the truth of the matter? In plain terms, it probably can't. Certain facts may be brought out by an examination of the cars and the scene of the accident, but the rest is shrouded in confusion. The witnesses didn't fully take in what they saw in the first place, they have half-forgotten it since, and now they reinterpret their memories in order to make their evidence seem coherent.

Now imagine trying to write a linear account of the car-crash. The temptation would be to choose a single interpretation of the evidence and stick to it, because linear narrative is much better at following a single path than several paths at once. But this would be a falsification of what we really know, or rather what we really don't know, about the circumstances.

Consider the biographer, researching the life of his subject. He studies previous biographies, a collection of letters here, the fragment of a diary there. He visits surviving friends and relatives and listens to their reminiscences. He looks at old photographs, old school-reports, the birth-certificate, the death-certificate, the family tree. He makes pilgrimages to the school, the workplace, the various houses. Gradually these fragments come together into a coherent pattern. When he presents the fruits of his research to us, he does so in a linear fashion. A biography begins with the birth of its subject, and works its way forward through the various stages of youth, maturity and age until it comes to death, stopping there or shortly afterwards. But this is a falsification of the way in which the subject's life gradually unfolds to the biographer. His understanding does not move forward in an orderly fashion: it branches outwards in many different directions at once. As the branches extend they eventually begin to cross-refer and connect with one another, until they cohere into a network - a web.

Works of fiction are not often presented to the reading public in the same way that fragments of information are presented to the biographer - inviting the reader to explore sideways rather than forwards - but there are examples. Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet is one: a set of four novels, each of which describes the same events from a different viewpoint. Another is William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, in which the narrative is divided up between four different voices, and the full meaning of the story only becomes apparent once all the voices have been heard. Interestingly, the titles Faulkner gives to his four different sections serve to call into question the conventional linear choronology of the novel: "April seventh 1928", "June second 1910", "April sixth 1928" and "April eighth 1928".

The web offers an opportunity to take this kind of writing further. As I mentioned earlier, pages on the web are not related to one another in a fixed order, but laid out in a cloud. Potentially at least, a biographer working on the web could dispense with chronological narrative and present the reader with facsimilies of, or extracts from, his original research materials, leaving the reader to explore them at will. A fiction-writer could do the same thing: put together his story as a kaleidoscope of fragments, leaving the reader to make his own pattern.

In some ways the experience of reading a non-sequential fiction in this way - the reader making his own choices, his own explorations and his own discoveries, rather than being led by hand along a readymade path - would replicate much more closely than conventional narrative the process by which we normally learn about events in the world around us. Even if we witness an event personally, our eventual ideas about its full shape and significance are likely to be patched together from several different sources, not only personal experience, and for this reason the story of what has happened is unlikely to unfold for us in chronological sequence. It is true that our printed literature, particularly in recent years, has found ways of suggesting that the truth may not be fixed and any narrative must be regarded as partial and provisional. But writing in web-pages rather than in book form offers us the opportunity to tell our stories in a new way, a way that will show partiality and fragmentation as inherent properties of the narrative. It may be the best opportunity since Modernism to remake our fiction in a more expressive form.