An Afternoon with Sophomores: Montage and Time Experiences in Fiction
By Erin Lillo
Seventh hour on a Friday afternoon, and I sit on a decrepit bar stool in the front of the classroom, my feet propped on an extra desk chair. Early September sunlight slants through the blinds and casts horizontal shadows across the projection screen, which shows the words “Vivid, Continuous Dream” in tall purple letters. Sophomore Honors English. Thirty-two sets of eyes focus on thirty-two separate points—the screen, the notebooks on desktops, the walls, the windows, the door, each other, me. I’m ranting about John Gardner’s vivid, continuous dream: the magic of literature as art, art built inside a person’s mind and shared with another’s through the vehicle of words, those arbitrary symbols inked inside a book. This rant is standard, and while I use enough energy to be convincing (I hope), my heart just isn’t in the performance. My mind travels beyond the last bell—what must happen in the short hours between Friday afternoon and Monday morning, how to get everything done.
“Nabokov says we read with our spines,” I say, “which means literature as art is physical, alive in our bodies as well as our minds.” Then I sigh, and a few of the nearby students laugh. We’re all tired. At this moment, the principal walks into the room.
* * *
If what Nabokov says is true, and I believe it is (more or less), then language serves as the writer’s conduit from mind to body. A successful fiction, poem, essay not only makes the transition from reader’s mind to body, but also holds the moment of crossover—literature straddles borders. During the time readers spend inside John Gardner’s vivid, continuous dream, literature exists in both mind and body at once. Through language, we arrive on the shores of undiscovered countries, but then we remain on the frontiers of the fictional landscape. My interest is in how we make this journey, as both readers and writers, how something as ephemeral as language takes on enough heft to propel us forward.
One such strategy seems to be the use of montage. In her essay “Film Technique in Fiction,” Nancy L. Sullivan defines montage as “a series of straight cuts assembled to create a new ‘image’ with its own emotional impact.” However, Sullivan goes on to explain how early 20th-century directors, such as Sergei Eisenstein, use novelists to inform their understanding of how to communicate story, so shots don’t “so much connect as collide” (Dick qtd. in Sullivan). An example from Maupassant makes Eisenstein’s (and Sullivan’s) point:
“A distant clock struck twelve, then another nearer, then two together, then a last one, very far away. When the latter had ceased to sound, he thought…” (qtd. in Sullivan). This tolling of the time creates the montage effect, according to Eisenstein: “The separate representations are built up into an image” (qtd. in Sullivan). Through layering thematically-related representations, Maupassant evokes experience, emotion, time—the spinal, animal realities of the human condition.
Other writers use montage as well, often to serve the story in different ways, and yet the outcome remains peculiarly the same. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Hocus Pocus opens with a flurry of montages, these quick successions of thematically-related images, and the novel maintains this strategy for the duration. A singular instance of montage is Vonnegut’s use of the idea of booby traps. Within the span of two pages, Vonnegut associates the phrase booby traps with “a young female war correspondent for The Des Moines Register,” “a pretty and personable young woman named Margaret Patton, who allowed [the narrator] to woo and marry her soon after [his] graduation from West Point, and then had 2 children . . . without telling . . . that there was a powerful strain of insanity on her mother’s side of her family,” as well as the narrator’s habit of “speaking of [his] first and only wife as something as inhuman as a booby trap . . . seeming to be yet another infernal device.” Vonnegut immediately follows this montage with this antithetical observation: “that mother-daughter team treated [the narrator] like some sort of boring but necessary electrical appliance like a vacuum cleaner.” As in the Maupassant example, this montage journeys through both time and space, and yet the moving parts differ—rather than tolling clocks, Vonnegut’s moves transpire between relationship, incident, episode. The novel establishes this motion—through the use of montage—as one of its primary structural devices, rendering the complexity of the human condition while simultaneously organizing disparate moments into story.
Another example of a more expansive montage occurs in Peter Straub’s “Little Red’s Tango.” In a narrative obsessed with collection, categorization, mystery, and art, a seventeen-page section titled ‘Miracles Attributed to Little Red” details the seven inexplicable incidents of New York eccentric jazz collector, Little Red. Straub also names the miracles: The Miracle of the Japanese Gentleman; The Miracle of the Weeping Child; The Miracle of C— M— and Vic Dickenson; The Miracle of the Blind Beggar-Man; The Miracle of the Greedy Demon (from Book I, Little Red, His Trials); The Miracle of the Murdered Cat; The Miracle of the Kitchen Mouse. These miracles—each rendered in scene as some hybrid between vignette and story—take place over wildly distant spans of time—but through thematic unity (all mysterious, supernatural events) and spatial cohesion (all linked to Little Red’s West 55th Street apartment), this montage generates feelings of cohesion rather than disintegration. In the end, the thematic project of Straub’s montage is to render Little Red as a Mystery, as stated in the opening of the story:
“What a mystery is Little Red! How he sustains himself, how he lives, how he gets through his days, what passed through his mind as he endures that extraordinary journey…Is not mystery precisely that which does not yield, does not give access?”
As Straub’s story collects these disparate moments and organizes them, the journey to the unfamiliar commences. We arrive on undiscovered shores—inarticulate and unknowable terrain becomes textured. We experience mystery. This effect happens, partly, as a result of an artist’s insistent layering of thematically-related detail through montage—in Straub’s case, a story where sentences like “Dirty dishes are just as sacred as clean ones,” and “In the midst of death, we are in life” collide into each other with ringing juxtapositions because the overwhelming effect of montage is to bind narrative fragments into a single whole.
While the principal took a picture of my color-chalk-rendered Skills & Objectives and Essential Questions, I sat a tad straighter on my beat-up bar stool. I asked questions, pointed to students with raised hands—normally, this is not how we do things. Normally, students in my classes shout out ideas, make clamor. Now, they are decorous. Mitch raises his hand, I point.
“Is there ever too much detail? To where it gets boring?”
The principal uses her smartphone to take the picture, my students tell me later. “She tweets everything,” the kids say after the ten-minute visit is over, and we’re back to our usual selves.
To answer Mitch’s question, I say yes. “When there’s no movement,” I tell him. I reach down, click the laptop spacebar to move the projection to the next slide. The opening sentences of Love in the Time of Cholera bloom on the screen:
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of
unrequited love. Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still
darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for
him had lost all urgency many years before. (García Márquez)
I point to the passage: “Now here’s movement.”
Three different colors highlight words, each color for a different way of moving through time, and students pick up their highlighters and mark their copies while I explain what the colors mean, how the words propel us forward, take us backward, swirl us around again to an unfamiliar beginning. Meanwhile, Friday afternoon plods onward. All of us feel the clock ticking in our bones.
García Márquez, Gabriel. Love in the Time of Cholera. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Straub, Peter. “Little Red’s Tango.” Ed. Peter Straub. New York: Anchor, 2009. 334-373. Print.
Sullivan, Nancy L. “Film Technique in Fiction.” The Writer’s Chronicle 35.4 (2003): 40+. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Hocus Pocus. New York: Berkley, 1990. Print.
In addition to writing, teaching, studying, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently, she’s losing. Her short fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review.