In praise of…achronological stories

From our perspective, time only goes on direction. Our brains are wired this way and it has influenced the way our stories are written. Most stories will be written with the beginning first, followed by the middle, and concluded with the end. Some fancy writers will start things in medias res, but cause still precedes effect. Very rarely, however, an author will write a story where things are told out of order, achronologically.

Without a linear progression of events, we are unmoored from our normal modes of understanding. Without time to organize causes and effects, we have to work harder to make sense of things by tracing the development of themes or sifting narrative layers to find an idea that links things together.

The first time I read an achronological (non-linear) novel, I hated it. It was Slaughterhouse-Five and I could not figure out what the story was trying to tell me. If you haven’t read it, Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of a man who does not experience his life chronologically. He jumps from point to point in his life and so must we. Looking back, I don’t think the book would have worked if its plot was chronological. I wouldn’t have taken it seriously enough; I probably would have considered it a weird bit of literary science fiction. It is a weird bit of literary science fiction, but there’s more to it than that.

I know not every reader likes the out-of-time experience of an achronological novel. They are difficult to get into. If an author is not very skilled at moving us back and forth through timelines, we get lost. In a good achronological novel, there will be a center around which events revolve. Without a center, things really will fall apart. Achronological novels, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins, will return to their center again and again, giving us more information each time so that we can mull over the book’s theme from different points of view.

If I was more clever, I would have worked out a way to play with the formatting of this post to make it parallel its subject. Since I can’t do that, I’ll simply say: Take a chance on an achronological book. You might be surprised at what you learn.

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