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  • Narrative Speed in Contemporary Fiction
  • Kathryn Hume (bio)

Many contemporary novels subject their readers to a breathless sense that the events are hurtling past too quickly for real understanding. Scenes and focal figures change rapidly, and helpful transitions are missing. The resultant feeling of excessive rapidity is what I mean by narrative speed. Why has speed become a commonplace in fiction? What effects do authors seek by using it? How does such a frantic pace affect audiences and their attitudes towards the texts? (Quite differently, one assumes, since some readers glory in the effect while others fight it or dislike the discomfort it causes them.) These questions confront readers of numerous recent novels, and they invite us to ask how one might best understand speed as a narrative technique. Narrative theory to date seems to offer relatively little insight into these problems. Critics have so far theorized pace (fast or slow) in just four basic fashions: (1) prose portrayal of physical speed; (2) narrative retardation; (3) the amount of story time covered per page; and (4) fictional reflections of cultural speed.

Critical concern with portraying physical speed focuses on the modernist fascination with physical speed and how to represent it in painting, sculpture, and writing. This is only marginally relevant to the kind of frantic narrative I am trying to analyze, because narrative speed does not necessarily increase as one describes physical speed, though the two sometimes coincide. DeQuincey's prose, for example, actually slows down as he attempts to catalog the sensations of fear provoked by a speeding mail coach. One significant connection between mechanical speed and prose speed has been helpfully analyzed by Stephen Kern. In exploring the speed-up mechanisms of the modernist era—bicycle, telegraph, telephone, car, and film—he notes that reporters wired stories to their newspapers. Kern attributes to this practice [End Page 105] the paring away of unnecessary words, the 'telegraphic' style that gains recognition in the writing of Hemingway (Kern 115).1

A second way to theorize narrative pace—retardation—was propounded by Viktor Shklovsky. His approach was conditioned by his viewing folktales as growing from a kernel that could be rendered in a sentence or two. For them to become stories demanded ways of delaying. Likewise, many novels could be summarized in a paragraph. He focuses on techniques for slowing down, and gives no thought to speeding up. Hence, for him, stories always consist of a string of delaying devices. He analyzes retarding techniques such as defamiliarization,2 repetitious structures, and the framing of tales within tales. Even characters can count as such techniques: Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson, he avers, exists "to retard the action" (104). Shklovsky's famous image of art slowing our automatic visual processing to make us see the stoniness of a stone puts retardation at the heart of his aesthetic.

Thanks to structuralist desire to make literary study a science, the third approach to speed tries to quantify the issue. Gérard Genette tried to describe narrative speed in numeric terms so that texts could be compared mathematically. He conceives of speed primarily as a ratio between the time span covered in the novel and the number of pages allotted to it, so that Proust's volumes contain passages that cover variously one minute of social action to a page all the way to one century to a page (Narrative Discourse 92). Genette's Narrative Discourse Revisited reuses this measure of speed and notes that Eugénie Grandet averages ninety days per page, while Proust averages five and a half days (34). Being able to derive a number this way is useful for the traditional fiction that concerns Genette, but it does not explain the contemporary phenomenon. Coover achieves the effect of uncomfortable and even upsetting speed in a three-hundred-plus page novel that covers roughly a dozen hours or very approximately two and a half minutes' action per page. Gerald's Party is very slow in Genette's terms, but not in readers' experience of that text.3

The fourth approach to speed almost passes as a given for many current texts. Critics simply postulate correlations between narrative speed and contemporary cultural speed. Speed...


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