7 Novels That Play With Time

Updated on May 6, 2017

The common-sense everyday notion of time is that

*Time flows and it does so in one direction from the past into the future

*You must go with the flow of time; you can’t go back in time

*The past is unchangeable

*Causes precede their effects.

Novels that play with time do so either by exploding some of the rules listed above or by presenting the story in a nonchronological way. Stories told out of order are also called nonlinear narratives, disrupted narratives or disjointed narratives. The purpose of the play with time is to mimic the way in which human memory works, to depict psychological time and/or to effect scientific notions of time and their philosophical implications for human beings.

The nonlinearity of these novels, always in opposition to linear mechanical (clock) time, works to highlight the heterogeneity, plurality and instability of human experience of time. It also shows that time resists our constant attempts to subjugate it in simple and unambiguous definitions.

1) Reversed time – Martin Amis: Time’s Arrow (1991)

The whole book is narrated backwards: people get younger, patients leave doctors’ offices with injuries and then wait in the waiting room, everyone walks and speaks backwards, and so on. This is what eating looks like:

“Eating is unattractive too. First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher, which works okay, I guess, like all my other labor-saving devices, until some fat bastard shows up in his jumpsuit and traumatizes them with his tools. So far so good: then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Various items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skillful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon. That bit's quite therapeutic at least, unless you're having soup or something, which can be a real sentence. Next you face the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage, before the return of these foodstuffs to the Superette, where, admittedly, I am promptly and generously reimbursed for my pains. Then you tool down the aisles, with trolley or basket, returning each can and packet to its rightful place.”

The narrator is a consciousness, a kind of doppelgänger, who inhabits an old man’s body at the moment of his death and then accompanies the newly revived man through his life lived backwards. It is only at the end of this small book that it is revealed who the old man was. Manipulations with time are engaged here to deal with trauma and genocide.

2) Reversed chronological order – F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (1922)

The short story by Fitzgerald, reworked in David Fincher’s 2008 film, features a character, Benjamin, who is born with the physical appearance of a 70-year-old man and starts to age backwards. The difference with Time’s Arrow is that here it’s only Benjamin who lives backwards while in Amis’s novel everything happens backwards. The play with time serves to underline the themes of age and identity - how age dictates identity, the sociocultural expectations connected with age and our inability to see beyond appearances.

Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in the film
Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in the film

3) Relativity of time – Alan Lightman: Einstein’s Dreams (1992)


This small book, written by a theoretical physicist and writer, is a series of dreams that Einstein allegedly had when he was working on the relativity theory. Each of the dreams is set in a different place with a specific way in which time works: in one of them time has stopped, in another one each part of the town “is fastened to a different time,” in yet another place everything is in motion and because time passes more slowly for those in motion, “everyone travels at high velocity, to gain time.” The imaginative stories provoke reflection on our experience of time and how various ways of understanding it influence our life.

4) Parallel timelines – Andrew Crumey: Mobius Dick (2004)

There are many novels that feature events unfolding in parallel universes. One of them is a novel by Crumey, a theoretical physicist, for whom parallel universes is his favourite narrative conceit. In Mobius Dick a new project is developed in a research facility to build a device consisting of special mirrors whose purpose is to harness vacuum energy. The danger is that it could produce parallel realities, existing next to each other simultaneously.

One of the side-effects of the experiment are time loops, as a result of which the protagonist, the physicist John Ringer, meets his other self in the potential past. At the beginning of the novel he receives a strange text message: “Call me: H,” however, the only ‘H’ who comes to his mind is Helen, his lover, who disappeared in unexplained circumstances twenty years before. John tries to find out who the mysterious ‘H’ is.

The themes of the novel include reflections on how we change over time, whether we are a different person from one day to the next, and how the past is already “another world.”

5) Eternal return – David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)

The novel consists of six stories in different genres, stretching across time and the globe from 1849 to post-apocalyptic age, from Pacific Islands to a colony on a different planet. Each story is cut in mid-sentence to make room for another narrative, and then finished in a reverse order (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1).

The main protagonists of each story share a comet-shaped birthmark which is their mark of connectedness. The stories are also linked by coincidences, uncanny moments of recognition and feelings of déjà vu as well as repeated themes, motifs and images, all of which are manifestations of the idea of eternal return.

A graph showing connections between the characters in the film Cloud Atlas
A graph showing connections between the characters in the film Cloud Atlas | Source

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal return or eternal recurrence assumes that time is infinite but the number of combinations of events is limited and therefore they must be repeated eternally. The novel depicts this doctrine showing patterns that rule our lives: violence, greed, the desire to control other people, the struggle for freedom, and the search for love.

6) Memory of the future – D. M. Thomas: The White Hotel (1981)

The novel relies heavily on the technique of deferral (delay) and disjunction, that is, it presents a series of narratives in a disjointed way and pulls them together at the end of the book. It thus consists of intense erotic poems, an exchange of letters, a patient’s journal and a written-up psychoanalytic case study. The protagonist is Anna G., a young woman who suffers from unexplained psychosomatic pains and that is why she comes to Sigmund Freud for psychoanalysis. While together with Freud they analyze Anna’s childhood and her dreams, and he identifies the reason for her pains in the seminal childhood incident, it finally appears that the pains are the memory of the horrible event that awaits Anna in the future. The techniques of deferral and disjunction are a way to cope with this traumatic event as well as the violence of history.

7) Digital time – Penelope Lively: Moon Tiger (1987)

Moon Tiger, “a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness" lies beside two lovers – Claudia and Tom – on one of their last nights together in Cairo during the second world war. The whole book is an account of the protagonist, Claudia, reminiscing about her life.

The novel alternates times, tenses and standpoints: some passages are narrated in the first person in the past tense by Claudia, while other parts are narrated in the present tense in the third person. The protagonist’s memories are alternated with the same events narrated from the other characters’ points of view. This technique points to the rejection of the experience of time as something ordered and sequential. Time is instead experienced as “broken up into a hundred juggled segments, each brilliant and self-contained so that hours are no longer linear but assorted like bright sweets in a jar.” Claudia also rejects the alleged objectivity of reality and history, proposing a kaleidoscopic view of time, and comparing it to computer time:

“The question is, shall it or shall it not be linear history? I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out. Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once. The machines of the new technology, I understand, perform in much the same way: all knowledge is stored, to be summoned up at the flick of a key.”

Digital time is characterized by fragmentation (short segments of time, disconnected from one another), instantaneity, simultaneity of multi-directional activities, and acceleration. The structure of the novel reflects digital time on its thematic and formal levels.


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