Sunday, November 06, 2005


Time attains a different degree in a hospital. It moves at a stranger rate. Even if you are in a darkened room, light from the hallway outside, the world outside, blends in and reminds you that life moves on, regardless. Nurses bop in and out of rooms. There is no sense of night. An artificial glare bathes everything in its own indifferent glow. Racks of ragged paperback books sitting tight on a rack in the lobby beckon to be read, if only to substitute a story for the plodding passage of minute after minute. Who am I to refuse the pleas of such lonely books? While lounging around the Bangkok Hospital last week I took another gander at John Irving's A Widow For One Year, a book I'd read twice before years before, and, like Twain marvelling at how much his father had changed in seven years, I, too, was astounded at how much this particular book had mellowed and improved since 1998. (Not that I'm comparing myself to Twain, of course.)

As an unreserved John Irving junkie, I've always loved his work, but it's only been recently, in the past few years, that I've begun to truly understand what he has always claimed is the most important component of his novels -- or, indeed, any novel, namely: the passage of time. How time affects us. How it changes us. How it allows characters to grow and shift in unexpected ways, and how narrative, too, achieves its own special flavor and slant depending on what happened to who, and when. Especially when.

I'd always taken that remark for granted -- but the more I think about it, the more I agree with it, and learn from it. Time is nothing if not space stretched out, and a novel is full of space. Irving's novels in particular tend to trace the entire arc of characters' lives, and can often take reckless leaps in narrative time that, in retrospect, seem not only bold, but absolutely essential. (One chapter towards the end of The Cider House Rules jumps ahead twenty years -- a surprising, disconcerting decision that is that much more poignant because of its ambition. The film version had to abandon such recklessness.)

It is only through time that we achieve any perspective, or meaning, or resonance, in our own lives and the lives of others, and the best works of art recognize that. Novels can do that so easily; turn the page, and presto-changeo, it's a decade hence. They rarely do so, of course, because that requires patience, and plotting, and the signs of a well-thought out story; in today's contract-driven, book-a-year world, who has time for plot? Who has time for craftmanship?

Film, too, is at a disadvantage, because the experience itself unfolds in linear time. And yet, upon reflection, some of my favorite films from my favorite filmmakers are obviously, even relentlessly obsessed with what time does to us. What time demands of us. The Oliver Stone films I particularly love -- Born On The Fourth of July, The Doors, J.F.K., Heaven and Earth, Nixon, Alexander --span months, years, even decades in the lives of its protagonists, a technique that lends some to argue that much is truncated, much is condensed, much is slighted in the race to cram as much life as possible into the shortest time possible. Fair enough; a valid criticism. But I would argue that it is precisely such 'cramming of life', so to speak, that inevitably creates the boldest, most emotional effects. Only time can tell us about ourselves, and only time can teach us, scold us, spurn us and reveal to us. Only time.

The days are long in a hospital room. I sat in a chair and looked out the window and read my battered copy of A Widow For One year. Took only a couple of days, it did, but within those days and beneath those pages I saw children grow old, spouses die, decades pass and minutes stretch out. Will my life follow a similar pattern? I think of my grandfather, who was my age in 1949. Will I endure a similar span? Who were we, and who are we? Where are we, and where are we going? How do we move on, and how do we retain the best of who we were? These are the questions I asked myself while reading the book, as the nurses made their nightly rounds, and the hallway lights, as always, stayed on.

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