How, why, and to what effect do contemporary British fictions depict times other than the present

When portraying times other than the present, writers are freed in some ways from restrictions that come with depicting their own time period. By representing the past, or indeed the future, the author is able to explore narrative styles, genres and thematic content that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. The past and the future both offer genre options as well as stylistic and thematic content that would have otherwise been inaccessible to the authors. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn both use portrayals of alternative time periods for different effects.

Why O’Flynn gives us the narrative of a little girl from 1984 and why Mitchell chooses to, amongst others, write about a charismatic composer in 1931 is what will be explored in the course of this essay. Both novels use non-linear narrative structures, with Cloud Atlas in particular displaying a complex framework. The depiction of the past in What Was Lost is used as a framing device for the main plot. The novel begins with the story of Kate Meaney in 1984 and concludes with the narrative from the past reappearing after the characters from the present have deduced what has happened to her.

When compared to Cloud Atlas however, What Was Lost is a relatively simple way of structuring a narrative. The best analogy for describing the narrative of Cloud Atlas is a Russian doll. Each story (there are six), interlocks with another tale from a later age with the main character of the new story coming across the previous narrative and offering their thoughts on it. Mitchell takes the ‘story-within-a-story’ idea and expands upon it six-fold. By having six different time periods available to him due to this structuring, Mitchell is able to weave thematic content throughout the novel as he binds the narratives together.

Before looking at the themes that are prevalent in both the present and the alternative time periods, it is worth commenting on the ability of the novels to explore different genres due to the style of the narrative. What Was Lost begins as a novel from the perspective of a child; the narrative shift that takes places allows O’Flynn to expand upon this and employ many different perspectives. The adventures of a child and her toy monkey, on the surface at least, contrast greatly with the musings of Kurt and Lisa and the satires of the consumerism culture that follows.

The shift in time, and in character, means that O’Flynn is able to alter the tone of the novel. The naive, upbeat adventures of Kate with ‘Mickey the monkey’ are replaced by the grim reality of Kurt and Lisa’s lives within Green Oaks. Observations such as ‘they had fallen into some kind of relationship about a year ago and now neither seemed to have the energy or the impetus to leave’, with regards to Lisa and her boyfriend, contrast greatly to the imaginative interpretations Kate draws from the world and this has the effect of portraying the consumerist world of the latter day narrative as destructive to all originality.

Cloud Atlas has even more genres present in the text due to the numerous characters which take up the narrative mantle. Mitchell’s novel is a blend of many different styles of writing as each character’s story is conveyed using a different method. A journal, epistolary letters and a futuristic interview are a selection of some of the means that Mitchell utilises. The inclusion of many different time periods due to the configuration of the novel means that Mitchell is able to explore many different genres as a result.

As each story in Cloud Atlas exists within another, Mitchell often has characters commenting on the style of the previous narrative. Robert Frobisher doubts the legitimacy of Adam Ewing’s diary as it is ‘too structured’1 as well as Timothy Cavendish criticizing Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’s ‘neat little chapteroids’2. These instances, as well as the ultimate example of the self-referential nature of this novel in Frobisher, describing a musical piece where ‘each solo is interrupted by its successor’ before questioning whether it is ‘revolutionary or gimmicky? 3 means that Mitchell is constantly drawing attention to the composition of the novel.

What often links novels which have narrative shifts within them is their thematic content; Cloud Atlas and What Was Lost are no different in this case. A theme which is prevalent in both novels is exploitation, although it is represented in slightly different ways. Mitchell continually exhibits instances of someone or something being taken advantage of in Cloud Atlas to the extent that it is the dominant theme within the novel.

From the naive Adam Ewing being gradually poisoned by Dr. Henry Goose, to the struggles of a genetically engineered fabricant clone in a dystopian future, Mitchell presents the reader with the theory that time and location are irrelevant; the dark side of human nature will always lead people to manipulate others for personal gain. In What Was Lost, the exploitation is there also; however it is presented in the alternative style of showing how the problem develops. O’Flynn’s main target for criticism in the novel is the consumerist culture.

By initiating the narrative in 1984, using the upbeat outlook of a young, intelligent girl, O’Flynn is able to then strike a piquant contrast with the dour monotony of the lives of Kurt and Lisa. The main reason that Kurt and Lisa’s lives are presented as being so desperate is the shopping centre which had just opened as the Kate’s account begins. Although it is not Kate that fulfils the role of narrator in 2003, O’Flynn uses her as a means of criticising what Green Oaks shopping centre represents.

Kate’s dream of being a detective is supplanted with Lisa’s dead-end job in ‘Your Music’. The shopping centre is shown to have sucked the life out of Kurt to the extent that he only exists during the night to guard its doors. The high street of the town where once ‘local shops’ thrived has become a ‘ghostly place’ filled with ‘hair-spray sniffers and white cider drinkers. ‘ When Kate disappears, the only character that showed any capability of resisting Green Oaks is gone; O’Flynn uses the past here to show the roots of the consumerist ‘poison’ that envelops this area.

The manner in that Green Oaks is presented in What Was Lost is as a quasi-dystopian establishment. When the word ‘dystopia’ is used, it often conjures up images of a futuristic society which has in some way degraded and repressed its people- An Orison of Sonmi~451 in Cloud Atlas being a prime example of this. The conditions of a ‘dystopia’ are easily fulfilled though, by both Green Oaks and Aurora House in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. M. Keith Booker puts forward that dystopian literature: … onstitutes a critique of existing social conditions or political systems, either through the critical examination of the utopian premises upon which those conditions are based or through the imaginative extension of those conditions and systems into different contexts that more clearly reveal their flaws and contradictions. 4 Under these conditions therefore that literature that contains ‘oppositional and critical energy or spirit’ fits into the dystopian idea, the premises of a retirement home and a shopping centre can be examined along with the more ‘conventional’ futuristic example.

Where dystopian theory relates to reasons for depicting times other than the present in What Was Lost is in O’Flynn’s subversion of the ‘typical’ scenario. As mentioned earlier dystopian literature often (but not always) involves looking ahead to what might occur in the future. By beginning the narrative in 1984 O’Flynn is able to create a ‘dystopian future’ in the present. Green Oaks is still present in Kate’s time; however it is not as the overwhelming, spirit-crushing presence which dominates the modern day narrative.

By arranging the temporal structure in this manner O’Flynn is able to infer that looking to the future is not always necessary as there are examples of dystopias to be found in the present day. Another story which is close to the present day is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Although the dystopian idea has been addressed earlier on with Luisa Rey and the Seaboard corporation, Adam Ewing and the slave trade and even to some extent with Robert Frobisher in his failed ‘utopia’ with Vyvyan Ayres, it is not until Timothy Cavendish’s tale that the theme becomes central.

It is no coincidence that the story of an accident prone elderly gentleman’s wrongful imprisonment in a retirement home precedes the archetypal dystopian narrative. The function of the different ‘times’ here is to show how society could eventually lead to what is portrayed in An Orison of Somni~451. The unnecessary totalitarian behaviour exercised by the staff of the retirement home is replicated in the future by the ‘Papa Song Corporation’. Also, it is easy to see traits of Somni~451’s oppressors in the behaviour of Adam Ewing’s generation towards the slaves.

The temporal shifts in narrative are used here to criticise man’s exploitative nature. By using the narratives of different ages Mitchell is able to draw attention to the cyclical nature of history and forewarn against future exploitation by mankind. In terms of history repeating itself, surveillance in different forms reoccurs in What Was Lost. Kate’s sleuthing in 1984 is echoed by the security cameras that film the halls of Green Oaks in the modern day narrative.

It would be incorrect to make the connection that Kate’s observations leads directly to the ‘Big-Brother’5 style surveillance seen at the shopping centre. However, thematically the instances of watching, being watched and watching the person watching you are present in both narratives. The presence of different times in this case allows O’Flynn to show the premise of something trivial as a little girl’s detective game being taken to the extreme so that a shopping centre is being watched 24 hours a day.

O’Flynn plays upon the unsettling voyeuristic nature of surveillance by having it represented by the sinister figure of Gavin the security guard. The way Gavin is described as ‘looking as if sunlight had never touched him’ and how he creepily revels in ‘knowing all the secrets’6 of Green Oaks is unsettling to the reader. Gavin eventually is revealed to be a key link between the narratives of the novel as he is the only one who knows exactly what happened to Kate. Gavin is representative of the enveloping nature of surveillance as he watches Kate, someone who is using his craft trivially, and leads her to death.

By having a figure who stands for surveillance committing the dreadful act which results in the death of a child, O’Flynn is drawing attention to the way that those conducting surveillance are often not afforded the same scrutiny as those being surveyed. Abuse of power, similar to the manner of Gavin, is something which is common in Cloud Atlas. As discussed earlier under the theme of exploitation, it occurs across time in Mitchell’s novel. The selection of narratives spanning centuries shows that in Mitchell’s view abuse of power has happened, is happening and will continue to happen.

The main character’s struggle against this abusiveness is what drives the narratives of both novels. All of the key figures in both novels are involved in a struggle of some description. Whether it is Lisa and Kurt’s attempt to free themselves from the bindings of Green Oaks having been sucked into the shopping centre’s tedium in their respective moments of grief or Luisa Rey’s crusade against the Seaboard Corporation to name but one example from Cloud Atlas, each character has a trial to overcome in the course of their narrative.

The presence of other characters from different eras undergoing similar hardships means that both authors maintain a sustained theme of struggle in both novels. The twenty year gap in What Was Lost appears irrelevant as people are still using consumerism to escape from their problems. Equally in Cloud Atlas a gap of hundreds of years is insignificant as Somni-451 faces a problem akin to the likes of Tim Cavendish and even Adam Ewing. With all of these characters facing some sort of hardship, the presence of a temporal shift in of both novels fulfils a simple narrative function.

The ‘Russian-doll’ style structure of Cloud Atlas allows Mitchell numerous opportunities to use cliff-hangers, somewhat literally in the case of Luisa Rey! By using this technique Mitchell inevitably draws the reader in as they wait to see if the fate of the character is resolved. Similarly, in What Was Lost, the 20 year gap heightens the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Kate. O’Flynn eventually reverts the narrative back to Kate’s time and this serves the purpose of confirming what happened to the lost little girl. Aside from the narrative function of the temporal shifts another purpose of them is to foster hope.

As mentioned earlier a shift in time in these two novels is often preceded by a character being left in a perilous situation. Conversely, when the narrative returns to the original time, it often results in an uplifting scenario unfolding. Timothy Cavendish escapes from Aurora house, Luisa Rey brings down the corrupt Seaboard Corporation and Adam Ewing devotes his life to the abolitionist cause after his life is saved by Autua. Tragically, Kate cannot be saved in What Was Lost as the consumerist, surveillance crazy society had already accounted for her.

However, her death is shown to be the inspiration for Kurt and Lisa to escape Green Oaks. Also, even in her lifetime Kate is shown to have made someone’s life better. Theresa is afforded the focus of the final narrative and the image of her: content, driving off into the sunset with ‘the light all around me’ would have never been possible had Kate’s selfless gesture in writing her name on the school entrance exam never happened. Overall, there have been many motives for depicting times other than the present day discussed here. However, it appears that the overriding reason for a temporal shift is to show that nothing changes at all.

Characters in the past, and indeed the future, are shown to be experiencing the same concerns as their present day counterparts. Thematically, there are instances in both novels of characters from different times tackling remarkably similar issues. Aside from the literary function of having multiple timelines and the opportunities it presents as a result; the reason that these authors choose to depict times other than the present is to show that they do not necessarily need to look to the past or the future as the cyclical nature of history means that the same problems will continue to arise.