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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Where or When?

Is Olive K. a dis-continuous narrative in the manner of such modernist works as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury? So says the Wikipedia entry for the book.

(whiny voice: Shameless name-dropping).

Discontinuous narrative -- a narrative style in which the narrative moves back and forth through time. A process that is discontinuous happens in stages with intervals between them, rather than continuously.


First, long-time readers will recognize that the title of this post is similar to one from over a year ago—Where and When. A failure of creativity? A lapse of caring? No, best beloved, they're different. Where or When vs. Where and When.

Texts handle continuity in different ways. Film critics talk about establishing shots that visually cue the viewer as to what she/he is seeing. Texts make similar use of written cues, often to establish when and where. Thus in Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (a delight) you have chapter two beginning: “It was nearly midnight on the eve of St. Thomas’s, the shortest day of the year. A desolating wind wandered from the north over the hill whereon Oak had watched the yellow wagon and its occupant in the sunshine of a few days earlier.”

Well, only the inattentive reader would be lost here. Straight out, the text tells you it’s midnight on the eve of St. Thomas (of course, everyone knows when that is), and that the setting is a place referenced in the previous chapter. Eezy-peezy, as they say.

What about The Sound and the Fury?” “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

The reader is left with more questions than answers, no? Where is this taking place? Who is hitting? Hitting what? When does it take place?

You have to read on, ya big ape.

And it should be said that the reader often brings assumptions to reading a text that provide cues of orientation. If you read Far From the Madding Crowd, you begin by knowing (probably) that it was written in the late 1800s, that it’s set in England, and that it’s highly acclaimed, so that if you don’t like it, you’re a clod. Similarly, with The Sound and the Fury, the reader probably knows it’s a very famous book, set in the American South in the twenties, and a challenging novel that can make its readers feel intelligent and self-congratulatory. It’s quite possible that you’ve had someone, say a whiny voice, “explain” the book, giving you all sorts of preconceptions that, right or wrong, must be worked through.

Texts have different styles to cue the reader as to the where and when of what they’re reading. You can have a lot of continuity, you can have dis-continuity.

‘Kay. What about Olive Kitteridge?

One story ends and another begins with no explanation. At the conclusion of “Pharmacy” Henry says they should have Daisy and her “fellow” over for dinner soon—what we don’t find is some kind of explanation about how we get to the next story, “Incoming Tide.” Like “The next day, Olive bought a bag of donuts and went to the waterfront where she saw her old student Kevin Coulson sitting in a car watching the water. She thought: oh, oh, he’s in trouble. I’ll help.” The idea is clumsy and laughable, but my point is that in Olive, there is no explanation, no siting of these stories in time. I believe a close reading reveals that most of the present times of the stories occur in a period after Olive and Henry have retired, still an indeterminate stretch of several years. Time meanders, goes back and forth between the perspectives of several different characters. Then, with Henry’s stroke and death, time lurches ahead, as Olive copes with her loss and the re-marriage of her son, Christopher. Finally, she confronts a new relationship with Jack, and in a moving conclusion, realizes she’s not ready to leave life just yet.

However, I don’t believe the stories ever go back and forth in time; they generally go forward; it’s just that they don’t spell out the exact interval of time. There are forays into the past, however these are generally handled not as “flashbacks” but as present time memories the characters have of the past.

Flashback is a literary device wherein the author depicts the occurrence of specific events to the reader, which have taken place before the present time the narration is following, or events that have happened before the events that are currently unfolding in the story.

Here’s an intentionally awkward example: “The backfiring of the bus sent the older man spiraling back to his youth.”

The distinction here is an important one. In Olive, what we are often shown is the characters’ experience of the past—not the author’s. Thus, in “Security,” we have Olive remembering Jim O’Casey. “She had first seen him at a town meeting held in the high school gym…There were nights she didn’t fall asleep until morning: when the sky lightened and the birds sang, and her body lay on the bed loosened, and she could not—for all the fear and dread that filled her—stop the foolish happiness.” This is the past mediated through Olive’s consciousness.

Here’s a contrast in “A Different Road:”

“An awful thing happened to the Kitteridges on a chilly night in June. At the time, Henry was sixty-eight, Olive sixty-nine and while they were not an especially youthful couple, there was nothing about them that gave the appearance of being old, or ill.” This is the narrator’s voice telling the story, and does fit the above definition of flashback, although we often think of flashback as occurring within a story, rather than as a separate chapter.

In any case, the usual beastie in Olive is that the past is shown—not by the narrator—but by the narrator showing a memory of one of the characters.

“Kay. It seems we’ve once again painted ourselves into a corner.

(whiny voice. What do you mean “we,” Mr. Pretentious Bully?)

Olive is not a continuous narrative, but it is neither a text-book dis-continuous narrative. Does the use of flashbacks and/or the showing of characters’ memories make a narrative dis-continuous?


(whiny voice. Isn’t Flashback the name of the movie where the woman dances and gets the water dumped on her?)



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