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  • Alan Bray

You Got The Time? - Station Eleven


How is time handled in Station Eleven? I can say straight off that time is discontinuous and episodic, two terms we’ve looked at before.

(You’re saying it’s “just like” something else?)

Settle down.

Discontinuous narrative, or nonlinear narrative, is a narrative technique, sometimes used in literature, film, hypertext websites and other narratives, where events are portrayed, for example, out of chronological order or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern of the events featured, such as parallel distinctive plot lines, dream immersions or narrating another story inside the main plot-line. Most of the time it is used to mimic the structure and recall of a character but has been used for other reasons as well.

Episodic storytelling is a genre of narrative that is divided into a fixed set of episodes. Multiple episodes are usually grouped together into a series through a unifying story arc, with the option to view immediately (rather than waiting for the release of each episode). Episodes may not always contain the same characters, but each episode draws from a broader group of characters, or cast, all of whom exist in the same story world. It is one of the most common forms of storytelling in tv film.

Interesting, no? I think it’s fair to say that most modern writing is both discontinuous and episodic. The contrast would be a story that tried to show continuous time—pretty hard to do and not terribly interesting. Umberto Eco made the humorous observation that pornography is like this—if someone goes to the refrigerator for a beer, the story shows each step of the way—walking to the refrigerator, opening the door, etc. And of course, sex acts are traditionally presented in continuous fashion.

(How do you know? Why do you keep bringing this up? You must like it.)

Oh, stop.

Let’s say Chapter One begins with Time 1. This is a threshold time just before the characters become aware of the pandemic. But the scene is about the death of a main character, Arthur Leander, which is a prescient touch in a book about a devastating plague. This Time 1 scene plays out in continuous time—not that each instant is shown, but time moves forward, anchored to a particular place and time—“a winter night at the Elgin Theater in Toronto.” Jeevan is introduced and tries unsuccessfully to revive Arthur. Kristen is introduced, as a child. The perspective remains Jeevan’s, albeit shown through the auspices of the narrator. There is minimal digression as far as Jeevan and/or the narrator bringing in memories or comments about the past or future. Then a paragraph break, and Jeevan leaves the theater—still on the same night. Let’s call this Time 2 as it’s a direct continuation of the initial scene. However, Jeevan’s memories begin to be shown. He encounters a group of paparazzi, and we learn that he had been a paparazzo himself. The guys know him, and question him about his new vocation—studying to be an EMT—and about Arthur Leander’s death (as they were gathered to try to photograph him). Jeevan breaks away from his old friends, walks on, ruminating over the events of Time 1 (Arthur’s death). We learn a bit more about him in terms of his feeling badly over not being able to save Arthur. Probably an hour or two have elapsed since page 1. The chapter closes with Jeevan heading for a park, not ready to go home.

Chapter 2 continues in Time 2, but the characters and perspective have changed. “There are few people left in the Elgin Theater now,” it begins. There’s a paragraph of description about the aftermath of Arthur’s death, and then the scene goes to a bar off the theater lobby where several characters are discussing the death. In the context of talking about whom to notify, the characters present some background information about Arthur’s multiple marriages and family, and this will be significant later, although the reader doesn’t have a sense of it yet. The chapter ends with the first foreshadowing of the pandemic, the information that of all those in the bar, the bartender will survive the longest. The narrator shows all this without going “inside” any of the characters’ heads. It’s all dialogue, like a theatrical play.

Chapter 3 returns to Jeevan walking in the park, a continuation of Time 2. He gets two phone calls from his friend Hua, a doctor in a city hospital, who warns him about the Georgian Flu. Jeevan realizes the seriousness of the threat and begins to gather supplies to take to his disabled brother’s apartment.

Chapter 4 is short. It collapses a Time 2 night with the next morning. The narrator shows the executive producer of Arthur’s play thinking about and calling Arthur’s lawyer, who calls Arthur’s closest friend with the news. The next morning, the friend “began calling Arthur’s ex-wives.” This morning (in a different time zone) may be called Time 3. A famous literary example of collapsing time is in Flaubert’s Sentimental Journey. “He traveled…He came home…He went into society…Years passed and he came to terms with his mental stagnation and the numbness in his heart.”

(Why’d you even bring that up? Pretentious bully!. Talk about mental stagnation.)

Chapter 5 shows one of the ex-wives (and an increasingly significant character) getting the news of Arthur’s death. The chapter is showing the ex-wife, Miranda’s perspective but at the end, the narrator comments, “This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.”

Chapter 6 is a different time altogether, let’s call it Time 4. The narrator is speaking, telling the reader about an “incomplete list” of all the things lost in the pandemic. This has been nicely foreshadowed, but it is not filtered through the consciousness of any of the characters. It is a different order because it’s not continuous time, it’s narrative time from a distance, the narrator who sees from the perspective of the whole story, the whole book.

So, we have a story that jumps around in time, and is told through the perspective of more than one related character. The narrator is not bound to one time period but can flit about, commenting on the characters. However, there is a firm boundary between the narrator and the characters—the narrator is not an “I” who is some kind of buddy to the characters. They are unaware of it (the narrator).

Get ready for a big leap next time, best beloved.

Till then.

#StationEleven #EmilySt.JohnMandel #AlanBray