In the second in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Edith Pearlman, recent winner of the PEN/Malamud Award and author of Binocular Vision (Lookout Press), discusses stories she has written that range in time from twenty minutes to a lifetime and some unconventional time structures she has used.
What is the shortest narrative time period you have ever contained in a short story? The longest?
The action in “Eighteen Questions” (Alaska Quarterly Review; not yet collected) takes about twenty minutes. The setting is equally restricted: a queen-sized bed. A married couple is engaging in post-coital game of twenty questions. The questions and answers, narrowing in focus and mounting in intensity, reveal a recent tragedy in their lives.
“South Market” (Pakn Treger, not yet collected) follows its hero from grade school to nursing home. He suffers from unrequited love throughout his life. Meanwhile he rises socially and financially and becomes an active citizen in the small city that is the story’s setting. The reader learns the man’s history, and also the history of the city’s sociology and architecture and ethnic groups.
In “Eighteen Questions” the strict rules of the parlor game – like the demands of an acrostic poem or a sonnet’s rhyme scheme – set up constraints that the story then seeps heartbreakingly out of. The tale could not have borne a longer narrative time period or another page. “South Market,” padded and stretched and deepened, could probably have been turned into a novel. However (see below), I don’t write novels; my imaginary, irritable reader wouldn’t stand for such a thing.
In two stories collected in Binocular Vision, I’ve used narrative time in a less straightforward way:
“The Ministry of Restraint” relates a series of events in the lives of a man and a woman. They meet as strangers on a train, and together endure its wreck. Then follow silent and accidental encounters, each separated by ten years or so. They yearn for each other, but they do not speak or touch. Some details of their individual lives separate the description of the encounters. In the final meeting one sentence is spoken. But the story is not yet finished; in its last paragraphs time reverts to the day the two met, all those decades earlier, and tells what happened immediately after the wreck. The reader, plunged again into the beginning of their history, solves the puzzle of the two lovers’ lifetime restraint.
“Lineage,” a few pages long, takes place now, during a half hour in a hospital room. Three doctors stand beside a bed in which lies a very old woman. The woman relates an occurrence that was told to her forty years earlier, an occurrence that itself took place fifty years earlier than that. The old woman urgently describes the ninety year old incident. Then the story returns to the hospital and the present. Circular time here runs counter to circular time in “Ministry”.
The challenge in each work was to convey the urgency of the tale inscribed in its circle – the restlessness of the old woman’s confession, the strength of the lovers’ mysteriously unfulfilled desire. I think that this sense of urgency must exist somewhere in every successful tale what ever its time schema; the sense that this story is begging to be told. As an author I become a small and nearly invisible girl pulling at the coat sleeve of a large and busy man; a man who has no time for novels; a man, say, on his way to the airport. “There is something I must tell you, Sir; please give me your attention for a just little while.” And because I have promised to be brief, I must exercise all my powers of compression and economy while allowing emotion intensely to flow. If I go on too long – if I become slack, if I am profligate with words -- my overcoated listener will shake me off, and you will find me weeping on the curbstone.
The narrative time of the story may encompass twenty minutes or half a century. The writing of it may have lasted a month. The reading of it (or listening to it) may take a quarter-hour. But let that quarter-hour be headlong and unstoppable -- for my busy man has a plane to catch.