- About Time: Narrative, Fiction, and the Philosophy of Time
Mark Currie’s thoughtful and lucidly argued new study, About Time: Narrative, Fiction, and the Philosophy of Time, offers an excellent model for placing philosophy and literature into productive dialogue. The book’s goal is to bring narratology up to speed with contemporary philosophical insights about time. In particular, Currie positions himself against the usual view that postmodern narrative is defined by its challenges to and revision of historical accounts of the past. He wants instead to focus on the future, arguing that central to contemporary fiction is an engagement with prolepsis, or the anticipation of future significance in the narration of present events. Thorough discussion of key philosophical perspectives on time is coupled in this book with attentive readings of recent English novels to mount a compelling demonstration that fictional narrative’s real [End Page 220] insights about time are found in its structural and temporal innovations rather than in its themes. Currie’s bold claims about narrative’s performative capacities in relation to philosophical knowledge comprise an important intervention in the scholarship of postmodernism.
In Currie’s view, fiction’s advantage over philosophy when it comes to exploring the aporias and contradictions in our understanding of time is its capacity to do something with time rather than simply say something about it. Fiction can explore individual instances wherein time is lived differently, experimentally, even disobediently, by fictional characters, and this exploration can play out at the level of the story’s temporal organization. But to grasp narrative’s performative operations in this way calls for a new calibration of narratological tools to parallel the sustained analyses of which philosophy is capable. Accordingly, the first chapters of Currie’s book examine concepts of time as laid out by Augustine, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida, with an eye to bringing these concepts to bear on the relationship between lived time and narrative time. Currie describes a “hermeneutic circle” between the acts of presentification and depresentification that “makes us live life as if it weren’t present and read fictional narrative as if it were” (86). On the one hand, our narration of lived events tends to posit them as the object of future (for example, archival) memory, imposing a temporal self-distance in our storytelling. When we read a novel, on the other hand, we imagine already-written events, whose future is fixed in the pages to come, as nonetheless transpiring in the present moment. Pursuing this hermeneutic complementarity between life and fiction leads Currie to focus on phenomenological notions of time as subjectively experienced and perceived rather than as an object of external measure. Currie’s examination of the temporal conundrums over which philosophers puzzle highlights the fact that literature has long been credited with the potential to explore understandings of time that diverge from strictly cosmological (clock) time or monumental (historical) time. If the critique of presence that drives so much of poststructuralist philosophy has no current equivalence in narratology, Currie begins to amend this shortfall by insisting that a degree of formalism is necessary to apprehend the temporal logic of contemporary storytelling and to sensitize literary criticism to its lessons.
Like other scholars of postmodern/contemporary fiction, Currie sees the anachronistic tendencies of contemporary fiction as more than formal experimentation or play. But where others have focused on the politics of postmodernism’s engagement with history and the past, Currie turns in the middle chapters of his study to the ways in which the present is marked [End Page 221] in fiction and in society by the future. He links the rhetorical definition of prolepsis—anticipating, with the purpose of dispatching in advance, readers’ criticism—with the narratological one (the plot flash-forward), and he adds to the list a more general “structural prolepsis”: the anticipation of retrospection that characterizes our everyday acts of narration. This expanded idea of prolepsis informs Currie’s readings of Graham Swift’s Waterland and Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow as examples of how the formal installation of future retrospect in present...