Suspended Narratives: The Short Story and Temporality
Trussler, Michael, Studies in Short Fiction
Genres provide a conceptual framework for the mediation (if not
the `solution') of intractable problems, a method for rendering
such problems intelligible.
Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel 20
In Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie writes of "a painter whose paintings had grown larger and larger as he tried to get the whole of life into his art. `Look at me,' he said before he killed himself, `I wanted to be a miniaturist and I've got elephantiasis instead'" (50). While the short story as a genre is not equivalent to the miniature, this passage implicitly suggests a nagging dilemma for short story enthusiasts: is there a relationship between narrative length and aesthetic scope? If Rushdie's painter finds it necessary to create a succession of ever-widening canvases in order for him to encapsulate "the whole of life into his art," does this then mean that condensed narratives such as the short story offer a reduced spectrum of human experience when compared with more expanded forms?(1) In order to differentiate between techniques of narrative compression and those that accentuate elaboration and expansion, let us first turn to McKeon's observation that genres crystallize certain philosophical predicaments. One problem explicitly manifested by the short story pertains to the complexity of negotiating temporal experience through narrative. All narratives engage temporality in some way, but short fiction intimates how thoroughly our apprehension of historicity has been conditioned by sequential narrative forms such as the novel. Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the "threshold," a chronotope in which "time is essentially instantaneous ... and falls out of the normal course of biographical time" (248) sets up a useful paradigm for thinking about short fiction's tendency to accentuate a single event, as opposed to the novel's propensity to knit numerous events together in a serial fashion. As we shall see, emphasizing the isolated event over the event-as-series has far-ranging hermeneutical repercussions. Suspending continuity, the short story intimates that the impulse to mold time into a sequential narrative is often incommen-surate with our experience of temporality.(2) Many short stories depict situations where characters are perplexed by a given set of circumstances, circumstances that seem to preclude a mode of interpretation that will allow a mediation back into what Bakhtin calls the "normal course of biographical time," where events are understood through their being integrated into a series.
As a means of making my discussion more concrete, I would like to use William Sansom's short story "The Vertical Ladder," as an illustration to describe short fiction's treatment of temporality. In this story, a young man attempts to impress a young woman by accepting a dare to climb two ladders, a 20-foot wooden ladder that leads to a second, this one attached to a gasworks that towers high above the ground. Most of the story pertains to the character's increasing terror as he painfully works his way to the summit. Close to the apex of the gasworks, after having taken with him the young woman's handkerchief to affix onto the rooftop, he sees that his companions have removed the first ladder and are about to leave him alone. To his horror, at the story's end, the young man discovers that the last rungs of the ladder are missing, which was something that couldn't be perceived from the ground. He can neither complete his quest, nor return to safety:
Flegg stared dumbly, circling his head like a lost animal ... then he
jammed his legs into the lower rungs and his arms past the elbows
to the armpits in through the top rungs and there he hung shivering
and past knowing what more he could ever do ... (original
Alone, paralyzed in a present that seems endless, Flegg; might be said to embody the manner in which short stories suspend the single event from the future and, often, the past. …