Saturday, April 14, 2007

Lippity, lippity, down the chronos path

This week I picked up Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature at the library. I suppose a biography of a woman known primarily as a writer and illustrator of charming books for young children wouldn't seem to be a terribly interesting read. I'm actually expecting it to be very much so: Potter was an accomplished amateur naturalist who made significant contributions in mycology, an excellent botanical artist, an innovative farmer, and a conservationist. Moreover, she faced the difficulties in her life with strength and character.

The prologue left me with that "Lost" feeling. I refer to the flashback-ridden television show, not the sense of abandonment. It's that disorienting feeling I get, as a non-"Lost" viewer, when I saunter through the living room while others are watching:

"Wait a minute, I thought Sawyer was dead. And what's John Locke doing in a wheelchair? What's a chick in stilettos and a business suit doing strolling along the beach? They have a submarine?"

This normally results in cries of "Mom! Either watch the whole show or stop asking dumb questions!"
But I digress.

I don't know if the practice has been coincidental with the rise of visual media, but it seems that some authors today (I'm hard pressed to think of any from centuries past who did it to this extent) feel the need to resort--heavily-- to the flashback as a literary device. Like most literary devices, it can be effective if used sparingly. Used to excess, its effect is eye-crossing. Here our author begins her story with Potter as a 52-year old farmer, searching the threshing floor for the ring her long-deceased fiance had given her. The reader is then catapulted back thirteen years to the time when, mourning his death, she had purchased the farm and thrown herself into farming to overcome her grief. A few paragraphs later, the reader is yanked back still farther to Potter's earliest experiences of the Lake District while in her teens, from whence he is at last allowed to feel his way forward in time through some two decades of summer holidays there (all accomplished in a couple of paragraphs,) eventually winding up back at the tragic loss of her fiance. It leaves one with a sense a bit like time-travelling with Merlin, only jerkier.

The author (of the book, not the show) did manage to get herself moving forward by the first chapter, so I think I may now follow the life of this fascinating child of the Victorian age without risking whiplash and paper cuts. That and make a mental note about the importance of being gentle with chronology in writing.

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