Friday, 2 October 2009

Flashback (No More heroes Anymore)

Flashbacks: shimmering frames, black and white footage, softer focus. Lots of readily accessible clues to tell the viewer we're in flashback mode in a film. Now consider the novel's equivalent.

Do you write the flashback in the same tone as the carefully constructed temporality it is supposed to momentarily lead you away from? If so, no matter what cues you give in the words, it tends to leach into the main story, since stylistically it is undifferentiated. If you opt for a different tone, then it takes the reader out of the 'presence' you have established through your writing up to this point. How do you thread the reader back into the flow and the tone you had established before the flashback? The seamless temporal rhythm has been disturbed, possibly fatally.

Why have flashbacks at all? Often it is to convey key psychological information that enables the reader to unlock the motivation behind certain decisions and events involving the characters. The issue is that in such cases, frequently such information is either leadenly conveyed, (the info-dump) or in order to do it justice, it takes on such a huge life of its own, that as above, the flashback undermines what has gone before it. Simply because the weight the author has given it in terms of length, cuts into the centrality of what formerly has been given centrality. An incident from childhood for example; either it can get the most cursory treatment in order to suggest the origin of a flaw that the character is fated to repeat in adulthood; or you can deal with it at length and examine it fully, so that it takes on as much importance as whatever other characterisation you had established prior to introducing the flashback. The only hitch being the flashback stuff has already happened in the past and is over, even if its legacy lives on into the time in which the action of the novel is actually taking place. The dilemma, to return to a film metaphor, is one of synchronising the two time periods into one seamless flow.

Whatever length and intricacy, flashbacks disrupt the temporality of the novel. Unless this is a formal conceit, whereby the author deliberately plays around with the temporality throughout, I see this as a predicament. If you wanted to make reference to a character's childhood and their relationship with a parent or some formative experience, you can paint it with just one sentence. I don't think you need a flashback of one or more paragraphs.

Musing on all this leads me into a wider consideration of times and temporality within the novel. Traditionally, novels take the reader on a journey through the eyes and maybe conscience of its main character, be they hero or villain. Usually the character gains insight and undergoes a change in their dealings with other characters or with the wider culture they are engaged with. This can either be a story ending with redemption of the character, or a tragic outcome, as the character realises their flaws even as they or a loved one dies. The difficulty I encounter with this conventional structuring, is that much of it is predicated on good and bad, virtuous and sinful, godly and devilish because these were the prevailing notions of humanity as treated in the arts within drama and later the novelistic form. But such moral compasses do not hold today, where the world is much more ambiguous and harder to distinguish such clearly delineated poles of behaviour. Is there even any room for a hero in today's fiction? (I am not talking about fantasy or other genres). There are protagonists and antagonists, but beneath their respective skins are there many differences between the two? Iago is clearly ineffably evil and Othello has many noble traits, only finally being brought down by his all-encompassing jealousy and the social barriers he has faced through race. However, Gordon Geko in the film "Wall Street" while being odious, is also held up as being a model capitalist entrepreneur and speculator in late twentieth century capitalism.

The journey my characters undertake is a tad different. When the reader meets them, they are already plunged into the world, our world, and immersed in all its ambiguity and lack of guiding signposts. Their journey is twin pronged, how do they come to be here, at this point in their life with all their attendant attitudes and foibles? And how do they navigate themselves from this point on, are they able to strike for any clearer waters? The journey they make moves through less temporality than within the more conventional structures. The character arc has less radical divergences, choosing not to deal in the termini of redemption or abyssal. In our current day and age, how much do people really change? I'm not saying it isn't possible to change one's habitual behaviour and the huge industry in self-help books suggests the desire to be able to change oneself is great, but we are creatures who tend to be locked into repeating the same conduct again and again. Escapist literature diverts us entertainingly away from this reality. Serious fiction seeks to address it.

Though society may cry out for heroes, we are only served up confused, flawed mortals. Be it a Michael Jackson, a venerated Afghan War hero, a blank canvas like David Beckham, a reality show contestant who overcomes dire circumstances to live out their dream. We are definitely scraping the barrel if this is all we have to show for it. If our notions of what it takes to be a hero, (and increasing acceptance of the banality and quotidian nature of monstrous villainy), then maybe our story telling has to change as well to reflect this. Rather than the personal epic scale of the hero who overcomes his shortfalls to gain redemption, or at least die trying, maybe we can just take a character head on (heroically) trying to move off his tiny spot in the world and gain some sense of his/her orientation within it.

The present is in such a state of flux, with technological breakthroughs, instant global communications, a fiendish event like 9/11, the flashback past is almost outmoded as any useful point of reference. New novels, of atomised characters trying to reach out and connect and relate, both to other people and to the world around them, might more fit our current disposition and appetites. Although I posit this as a realistic take on the world, the author is not restricted to realism in his/her approach. The destinations at the end of the novel may be more modest than our predecessors, but the stopping off points can be wildly more imaginary.

This is the journey I'm, aheaded down with my protagonists. Care to hitch a ride?

1 comment:

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Oh dear. There are flashbacks in chapter 2 of Songs. There were many many more, but I pruned the lot of them bar these few - they're actuallt flashbacks within a very long flashback that lasts the whole of the meat of the book.

I know what you mena about the deliberate disruption as a conceit being acceptable if done well. Kundera is a particular master of the art, but I've never found anyone who could imitate what he does and have it work