The Uses of Tense

I read extracts from the following two books:

  • Kevin Barry, Beatlebone  (2015) – the part where John Lennon is being driven both East and West across an unknown landscape in an old Mercedes whilst considering, in present-tense,  the state of his life
  • Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child (1989) – the part where the narrator describes the party at which Harriet and David met and the sense of inevitability that pervades this event and those that follow.

When reading the extracts, consider the way that time is conveyed, and the role of time in the narrative.
Because the protagonist in Beatlebone is dead, the narrative properly belongs to the past. and yet he has been resurrected and brought into the present. This lends this piece of writing an immediacy that is fresh and welcome. It’s obvious from the tense that these events are happening contiguous with the reading of the prose and that time has therefore been used to provide this sense of freshness.
The Fifth Child is set in the past tense, but it is written in a way that gives it the same immediacy. There exist life, love and passion in these few words. The passage of time is marked by the thoughts of the two characters; by their reaction to the people around them at the party; by the things they think about each other; and about the way that they move towards each other on an intellectual, emotional and, finally, in a physical way. Time moves on strongly and insistently. The role of time here is in conveying the inevitability, to them, of the role of personality and events in bringing them together at that ‘famous’ party.

  • How does the use of the present tense in Beatlebone relate to Barry’s stated intention of ‘aiming to mesmerise’?
    There is a sense of mesmerism about prose, particularly when read out loud. There a drone to the words that drowns out the world, especially the family conversation and the Christmas movie that’s playing in the same room. I’m not sure, though. whether it’s tense or just my will to blot these things from my consciousness with the bread of anything that comes to hand. Yeah, I’ve just read part of it again and it would be just as mesmerising in past-tense.
  • How is the sense of being ‘a voice inside the reader’s head’ evoked?
    Any text that’s sufficiently interesting can become a voice inside a reader’s head. The best writing, though, goes beyond being a voice and instead becomes the evocation of a world that the reader moves into and lives inside. This text is interesting. John Lennon is (was) a cultural icon and a source of fascination to millions, so any book that purports to give an insight into his inner life is going to be absorbing to a certain kind of a reader, especially if it’s well written. And this is.

In The Fifth Child, the past tense is used to introduce the reader to Harriet and David at a ‘famous’ office party.

  • Why does this adjective itself suggest the passing of time?
    The adjective ‘famous’ tells us that this party has achieved iconic status in their life as they look back on it. It is the retrospective look at a series of thoughts, feelings and actions in the past that gives the narrator, who is set in the present, a powerful grasp of the inevitability of their attraction and subsequent bond.
  • Where does the party sit in relation to the various periods referred to in this novel’s opening?
    The party is in the middle. If the events referred to in the opening were to be arranged on a table-top in a quasi-chronological order, then the events of the party would be the centre-piece and the other events would be the candles, plates and napkins on the surface. The party is what catches the eye and everything else is merely functional. Useful, but disposable.

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