Tag: nonlinear chronology in fiction

Short story: “The Dupe”

“The Dupe,” by Jim Fusilli

Appeared in D.C. Noir (2006, part of the Akashic Books Noir Series), edited by George Pelecanos

About 15.25 pages in the anthology, unknown number of words

A good little yarn.

I thought opening the story on the day of the crime was a bad idea, especially because the author (or editor?) avoids past pluperfect, resulting in awkwardness (“Five days earlier, Port was summoned”). I understand the need to put the drama up front, but I would have opened with “My father is disappointed, Jordie.”


Short story: “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”

“The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” by David Means

Appeared in the New Yorker, October 25th, 2010; read for the April 2015 episode of the podcast by Thomas McGuane

3,298 words

This story doesn’t feel packed with detail, but it is. Even the descriptions of the setting, which would usually bore me, reveal a lot about how the main character perceives the world.

I like this parenthetical insight a lot: “(yes, a stakeout was an act of humility that could easily, if not approached properly, turn to humiliation)”

Alternate-reality characters and unlikely happy endings

Following up on this, a recent installment of Homestuck included something that can only be done in speculative fiction, and I want to savor it by analysis:

Dave grew up with an abusive guardian who died before Dave got the chance to come to terms with his abuse. In this scene, he finds himself face to face with Dirk, an alternate-reality version of his abuser. While Dirk has technically never done anything to Dave, he’s already acquired the behavior patterns that could lead him in the same direction.

For the first time, Dave gets to vent some of his justified anger. Dirk not only looks and feels like Dave’s guardian, he also intuitively understands his other self’s cruelty and feels partly responsible. And because he’s not that other self, Dave can eventually forgive him, learn to trust him, and even ask him for the comfort and affection he never got as a kid.

If Dave had tried to reconcile with his actual abuser to this extent, he would have likely have gotten burned again. But with Dirk, he has a chance of starting over on his own terms. They’re even the same age this time. It’s an amazing scene of catharsis and the best kind of wish fulfillment.

How would a realistic narrative do this? I suppose Dirk’s role could be filled by a twin sibling or a son. Or Dave’s guardian could suffer a traumatic brain injury that makes him effectively a new person. Or the cathartic confrontation could occur in a dream sequence or a hallucination or a story within the story. But these are only approximations of the thing we’re trying to do, a thing that Homestuck offers in its purest form.

Compare the quasi-redemption at the end of “Bullet in the Brain,” which is made possible only by messing with chronology.

Short story: “Going for a Beer”

“Going for a Beer,” Robert Coover

Appeared in the New Yorker, March 14th, 2011; read by Joshua Ferris in the May 2015 New Yorker Fiction Podcast

1,083 words (My guess was pretty close: 1,000)

Unlike “The Babysitter,” this story is held together by its main character and a definite, if unconventional, chronology. It works much better for me. In fact, it’s beautiful in its unity and in its nightmarish power.

Edited to add that it’s worth a chart. Will add that later.

Section Word count
He goes for a beer 74 *


He dates the young woman 253 *





The wedding 73 *


Children happen 134 *


He goes for a beer, has an affair 106 *


The fallout 131 *


He doesn’t go for a beer, then does 205 *




Beers, orgasms 12
Deathbed, death 95 *



On freezing action in fiction

“It’s great to freeze action, you know. You can’t do it if you’re just sitting on the couch, because you’ll lose your reader every time. So Tobias Wolff does it by way of, you know, this bullet, and Steven Polansky does it by way of being stuck between second and third. So it gives you the narrative momentum to be able to digress because you know that you can keep your reader, you know, on the hook, essentially. And you can stretch that time as long as you want, as long as you just kind of keep the touchstones of what’s going on in the present, you know, situation.”

—David Gilbert, talking to Deborah Treisman on the November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast

Short story: “Ghost Days”

“Ghost Days,” by Ken Liu

Appeared here in the October 2013 issue of Lightspeed Magazine

9,332 words, according to Lightspeed

There’s a lot of good stuff here, and I think the use of parallel (yet also linked) stories is very effective. But the ending is too pat. It ties things up too neatly for the main character. The story hasn’t spent enough time with her to make me believe she’s matured so much emotionally.

I’m also not a fan of the occasional flowery, poetical passages. The stars and stripes image seems especially strained to me.

I didn’t recognize the nested structure until I read Liu’s interview. Nicely done, and the transitions are very clear.

Short story: “Cereal Days”

“Cereal Days,” by Bradford Kammin

Appeared in The Gettysburg Review, issue 23:1, Spring 2010

9 pages in the issue; maybe 3,000 words?

A gentle, concise story of grief. The opening cleverly jumps from one time to another without getting flashy about it.

This bit captures a phenomenon I’ve often noticed, but have rarely seen articulated: “What Kat said to me seemed harsh, but I took it in a different way. In all that slow-motion dreariness, Kat’s red apron stood out, alive, and I experienced a moment, a rare moment, where everything seemed obvious.” I think the narrator experiences Kat’s cruel words as the kind of honesty that his state of mourning, as well as the loss of his wife, has isolated him from.

I had to look up “silage.”

Short story: “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear”

“The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear,” by Jonathan Lethem

From the October 2009 Harper’s and available here

2,529 words

This story ought to be vaguely embarrassing, the way all clever takes on social media are vaguely embarrassing, but it’s so strange that it feels like a glimpse of another world instead of a satire or cultural critique or anything else with a sell-by date. Its strangeness is due only in a small part to the novelty of the Internet (did you know blog posts display in reverse chronological order?), much more to the conflation of physical place with mental place and to the narrator’s loopiness. In fact, one of the best things about the “blog” conceit is its inaccuracy. On real blogs, trolls rarely say anything as charmingly grade-schoolish as “WORMS SUCK EYEHOLES / YOU SUCK GUMBALLS” and few commenters use rhymed poetic imagery of any kind.

Anyway, the emotional content is right. The narrator, Jaw, creates a blog and is at first thrilled by the power of creation.

I offer this, my blog, to the world, but I do not require the world to need it or accept it, for it is my very very own blog.

Of course the mood doesn’t last. The story draws little distinction between online activities and “real” ones: a blog is a home, an online fan is a squatter and friend, a rude commenter is a vandal. A disemvowelment is a horrifying murder, staining the blog forever with blood and guilt.

The hyperbolic imagery is probably the reason this story is so unembarrassing. It’s over the top enough that you can tell it’s making fun of the whole concept a bit, which perversely makes it easier to care about the real pain Jaw goes through. This is sort of what I recently called “trying to short-circuit readers’ cynicism by anticipating it,” although I don’t think Lethem is consciously doing that, since most of his audience probably doesn’t share my allergy to this sort of thing.

Moral: Turn off comments.

Short story: “Bullet in the Brain”

“Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff

From the September 25, 1995 New Yorker (subscribers can read here), also from the February 2008 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (mp3; it’s episode 83 on iTunes and also on YouTube (the screen gives spoilers)); also read on NPR’s This American Life, episode 114, act six, October 23rd, 1998; also available on the NPR site here and in PDF format here; collected in The Night in Question and Our Story Begins

1,925 words

This is the kind of great story that somehow feels like a lucky accident. Not to underestimate the amount of work and taste and compassion that went into it—I just can’t shake the idea that writing this must have involved a ton of luck. The cartoonishness of the opening could fall flat. The change in tone halfway through could be jarring or disappointing or confusing. The narrator’s omniscience could be distracting or ring false. The details of Anders’ life could come off as sentimental or affectedly unsentimental or preachy (“the pleasure of giving respect”) or too ludicrous (“Mr. Mole”), or they could slow the pace too much, or they could feel like loose ends. None of those things happen to this story. You can take its pulse.

Only in fiction do we get to see a redemption take place in a handful of dying synapses while jumping several decades back in time. I find this more believable than most real-life apologies, rehabilitations, and deathbed conversions.

Edited to add: Why does the New Yorker offer abstracts for their subscriber-only fiction pieces? Do they just want to screw with people? Also, why do the abstracts steal so much of the language of the originals?