I broke my leg once, on holiday in Greece, and in the nanoseconds before impact, time seemed to balloon. I was suspended for what seemed like many long minutes, my soft body floating above the hard marble cobbles that would fracture my bones. I knew, even before the moment of impact, that I was going to break something. Maybe it had already happened and in the scrambled experience, my brain re-ordered the before and after, so that in my memory of the accident I was, for a suspended moment – registered as oh no – floating in a no-time which seemed to stretch on for ever.
Now, once again, I am experiencing this sense of timelessness, hours expand and contract, punctuated by long minutes of anxiety. I struggle to remember what day of the week it is. I am back in that suspended pause before impact – floating above myself, waiting for the crash. A few weeks ago, in the Before Times which preceded the Covid-19 pandemic (which already feels like years ago) I had plans, a diary full of appointments, commitments; time had a familiar hectic flow.
In the midst of all this I have been trying to gather my thoughts to write a lecture on time for my students which I am now due to deliver unexpectedly online. An exegesis on the nature of time in fiction – how a writer might indicate the way that a character moves across a page, picks up a cup, throws it against the wall, walks out of the room, which is the chronology of what they do as they move through the story; and then what they might be thinking about while they do these things – how they float in the space of their consciousness – or how they experience what Tobias Wolff calls, in his famous short story Bullet in the Brain, ‘the mediation of brain time’.
In the story, Anders, a bitchy, burned-out literary critic has been shot in the head because he laughs in the face of the generic gangsters robbing the bank in which he is queuing. As he dies, we are given access to his final thoughts and, ‘in a phrase he would have abhorred,’ what ‘passed before his eyes’. But Wolff twists this to give us a list of all the things Anders does not remember, saving the one thing he does remember for the end of the story.
It’s a story about time and death and it shows how stories – as are our lives – are made up of these two kinds of time: chronological time, which governs the passing of the hours, and our experience of time – what goes on in the mind as the clock ticks. The way time expands and contracts according to what we’re doing. A clumsy writer won’t notice the order of actions, or they will forget to attend to them – and often we won’t know what is happening when. A good writer will understand that as a condition of living we are all trapped inside this paradigm, and they might even mess with these structures to create effect. A minute, a second, can last pages. They also understand that our experience of brain time is directly affected by where we stand in relation to the clock. A homeless person, or a refugee, or a doctor in critical care, will all be experiencing time in a very different way to those in lockdown alone, or in a house full of bored children, or in a care home.
In the world Before, there was a sense of the relentless acceleration of time, fronted by a kind of macho posturing labelled ‘populism’. Populism which might more readily be seen as the sleight of hand performed by confidence tricksters who want you to look the other way, while they empty your pockets. Even as we disavowed it, it was clear that the fruits of our labours were falling ever upwards to line the pockets of our gangsterish overlords. This, accompanied by the kinds of warped thinking espoused by certain philosophers of the right which would have us buy into a kind of nihilism or death drive on steroids – namely that the world is fucked, but rather than trying to change it, we should put the pedal to the metal and drive it off the cliff as fast as we possibly can. Accelerate the coming apocalypse rather than try to change our behaviour. This approach – as with a lot of right-wing ideas – seems to show a profound lack of imagination, as well as expose the kind of zombie-individualism, which has boxed late capitalism into a moral dead-end.
In Wolff’s story, Anders’s final thoughts are memories of a baseball game played years before with a boy from the South whose imperfect English piques his attention. The boy uses tenses incorrectly – saying ‘they is’ instead of ‘they are’. Wolff describes Anders as ‘strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music,’ and the story ends with Anders softly chanting the words to himself: They is, they is, they is.
The poetry of the piece lies in the way it ends in the present tense. The dying man realising, finally, the weird elasticity and infinity of the present – a tense we often neglect in our lived experience. We are all, for the moment, denied a future tense. We don’t know what next week or next year will look like, except that it will be fundamentally different and we will probably be financially a lot worse off than we were before.
The irony, which is hard to ignore, is that this moment is happening, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, in the middle of spring. When the trees are unfurling, plants shrugging off the sluggishness of winter, the sparrows busy building a nest in the neighbours’ garden. It’s the moment when most of us give some of our attention to the natural world. In this hiatus, I feel as if I’m being tasked with pausing to look at my life through the mediation of brain time. Which means time ungoverned by the clock and the system designed to monetise it; time as the product of an intricate ecology, which invites me to acknowledge that this virus is a consequence of our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world. What I can do to change this, will be the question of the soon-coming future, but for now, in this vivid spring, it’s enough to be bravely present in the moment, and to know that this is how it is.
Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where she directs the MA in Creative Writing. She written three novels, most recently The Dark Light (2015) and is co-editor of The Creative Writing Coursebook (2019). Her poetry, lyric essays and short stories have been published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal and elsewhere. Her new book Radical Attention is published by Peninsula Press in September 2020.