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Poetics Today 22.4 (2001) 864-866
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Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism
Ursula Heise, Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xii + 286 pp.
Ursula Heise's book explores the ways changes in the cultural conceptions of temporality over the last decades manifest themselves in postmodernist narratives--narrative being regarded as the literary genre most directly and necessarily dependent on time in its deployment. The writer focuses on the narrative organization of postmodernist novels, regardless of whether or [End Page 864] not their subject matter involves explicit reference to time-related problems. According to Heise, two recent cultural developments present particularly serious challenges to conventional models of narrative and causation: "the shortening of temporal horizons in the late twentieth century, and public awareness, in Western societies, of the co-existence of radically different time scales, from the nanoseconds of the computer to the billions of years in which cosmology calculates the age of the earth and the universe" (6-7). These challenges already arose in the heyday of the high-modernist novel in the first half of the twentieth century and were met with innovative narrative strategies that resulted in a substantial weakening of plot in the conventional sense. But Heise claims typical modernist and postmodernist narrative strategies vary in this regard. The most essential difference is that in the former "narrative voice and fictional character remained and were even reinforced as crucial supporting pillars of the fictional universe," whereas the latter show a "disintegration of narrator and character as recognizable and more or less stable entities, and their scattering or fragmentation across different temporal universes that can no longer be reconciled with each other, or justified by recurring to different psychological worlds" (7).
The book divides into three parts. The first part is a general introduction, in which Heise discusses the issue of changing conceptions of temporality within the cultural framework and the manner in which writers respond to these changes through innovative narrative strategies. In this context she mentions three dominant strategies that operate in postmodernist fiction: repetition, metalepsis (the problematizing of relations between different narrative levels), and the use of experimental typographies.
The following parts of the book consist of analyses of specific novels. The second part, "Time Forks and Time Loops," deals with Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch), Alain Robbe-Grillet's Topologie d'une cité fantôme, and Samuel Beckett's How It Is. The analysis of Rayuela enables Heise to examine the question of the borderline between modernist and postmodernist poetics. She claims that, on the one hand, this novel uses potentially postmodernist devices, such as offering the reader two alternative orders of readings and, more generally, the foregrounding of the contingency of the text. On the other hand, these devices are used by and large to achieve modernist effects. Compared to Rayuela, the texts of Beckett and Robbe-Grillet constitute narratives that are more unambiguously postmodernist. In these two novels a radical destabilization of the most basic components of the represented world and its means of representation takes place. In Robbe-Grillet's novel, through experimentation with narrative repetition and recursion, time is redefined as a realm of simultaneity in which past and future are indistinguishable, whereas the world of Beckett's novel seems to [End Page 865] have no history at all and to allow for no narrative development. In this text the very existence of both narrative voice and the materiality of the printed page itself undergo a radical discontinuity.
The book's third part, "Posthistories," deals with Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Christine Brooke-Rose's Out. In discussing them Heise addresses the question of the relationship between time and history understood as a social and not only an individual parameter of experience. Both novels are characterized by their fantastic transformations of twentieth-century history and their multidimensional explorations of temporality and causality. In this context, however, a significant difference between the two books also exists, since Pynchon's novel deploys an abundance of figures and plots in a semifictional past, whereas Brooke-Rose uses in...