Classic time, as you may have guessed, is the default setting for a lot of works in the 20th and 21st century according to Joan Silber. She writes, “In novels that might serve as examples of classic time, the span is short enough to be easily seen as a unity and is often delineated by a natural border–a month, a season, a year.” It’s the time frame you don’t pay much attention too because it’s not something out of the ordinary; if anything, it’s what you’re expecting, and as such, sinks into the background, but like a lot of things you might be expecting, there’s a comfort there in knowing what you’re getting.
As a reader and a writer, I think I’m drawn to classic time. For writing, it helps me think about where I’m heading (or more accurately, when I’m heading), and since I don’t often know where I’m going, it gives me a sense of structure to work within for pacing. As a reader, it’s the same kind of thing: I want to have a sense where I’m going, and even if it’s not explicitly said the book will end at X point, I still have the sense it will be at the end of the vacation, or the summer, or the school year.
What’s so great about this chapter on classic time, is how Silber addresses the use of scene, summary, and generalized time. How do you move forward without showing every single thing? How do you give a sense of things happening over and over again without boring the reader? (The example she uses here is all the parties in The Great Gatbsy.) She talks about the “immediacy of scenes” and “highly inflected scenes,” saying that when you’re trying to figure out what to show in scene you have to remember that the “elements are reduced to their service of the story.”
For the Narrative Time class, we read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” first. In the story she says from the get-go that the lights are going to be turned off for five days, setting up the time frame. She plays with this a bit, but as a reader I like the sense I know where I’m going. She does a great job too looking at generalized time, showing how Shoba shopped for groceries, prepared foods, hosted guests before their lives changed, but in the generalization is very specific on details: “He watched in disbelief as she bought more food, trailing behind her with canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd, arguing under the morning sun with boys too young to shave but already missing teeth, who twisted up brown paper bags of artichokes, plums, gingerroot, and yams, and dropped them on their scales, and tossed them to Shoba one by one.”
We also read David Leavitt’s “Territory” a story that takes place over a week-long trip to visit the main character’s mother and that uses more full-scene flashbacks to tell the story. And finally, we looked at “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio about a thirteen-year-old boy escorting a woman home from one of his mother’s parties and intersperces backstory with less full scene but just as effectively.
While classic time might be the default, it’s anything but boring. Look for it in books and stories as you read, or in TV shows and movies, and you’ll see the range of possibilities it affords.
Next up: long time, of which Silber is a master.