As we continue to emerge pale and bruised from the end of the last decade, writers have learnt to battle the inevitable fallout one day at a time. An increasing preference for fiction set in and around a single day leads one to question what exactly it is that we’re waiting for – and how, if at all, we can prepare against it.
That is not to say that this mode of writing is anything new, (James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s 1925 Mrs Dalloway spring to mind here) simply that, for one reason or another, the unit of time constituting a single day is being increasingly thought of as a containment vessel for the ominous, rather than a Petri dish for the unexplored. Douglas Coupland’s last full-length novel, Player One (2010), took things a step further by opting to make its temporal perimeter a mere five hours: one for each character. There’s Karen, a receptionist for a psychiatric clinic who’s expecting a date; Luke, a small-town pastor on the run after losing his faith and stealing church money; Rachel, a young autistic woman looking for a man to father her child; and Rick, an ex-alcoholic bar-tender drawn toward the teachings of an empowerment guru. The fifth, the eponymous ‘Player One’, is more of a suspended voice that comments on each of the protagonists’ lives outside of the boundaries of the novel’s timescale, as well as the events of the day in question. The fact that the action centres around an airport cocktail bar is also noteworthy: a group of people on the same day, collected in the same place, all desiring to travel beyond the boundaries of their shared world (spiritually as much as physically); all unable to do so as that shared world crumbles around them.
Those familiar with Coupland’s fiction will feel at home here: the same themes of communication, spirituality and man’s relationship with technology and modern culture (and accompanying alienation and disillusionment) are plain to see under his stylish and distinctly modern prose. But the Generation X author seems stuck in his own loop: what was dangerously imminent twenty years ago is now very much here, and yet we’re all still wondering how we’re supposed to react. Leopold Bloom summarizes Ulysses fourth episode with the words, ‘Poor Dignam!’: a reflection on the death of a fellow Dubliner. The phrase is echoed in Player One in Karen’s exclamation, ‘Poor humanity!’ Suddenly its use is wider, less personal and intentionally melodramatic in a 50,000 word novel concerned with the events of just five hours; often its individuals, not crowds, who spark the revolution.
Of course, Coupland isn’t the only contemporary writer to have been drawn towards the power of structure that a single day affords: Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) is the product of an author who has been concerned with the fallout from a single moment for the best part of his career, and yet McEwan had previously shied away from framing those consequences within such a finite temporal space. Set on Saturday, 15 February 2003, the main character, Henry Perowne reflects on events taking place a few streets away from his Fitzrovia home: the large anti-war protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Here, thoughts concerned with similarly all-encompassing themes seem more rooted, more digestible, precisely because they are filtered through the lens of a single perspective – not in spite of it. McEwan’s handling of endings, however, involves an insistence that fiction is inherently moral, and must, therefore, find a destination for every wayward strand. For all this philosophy’s resulting finality, it’s hard not to feel that viewing fiction in this way sours much of the early promise of McEwan’s work with closing scenes that feel contrived – and Saturday is no different.
It isn’t only novels that have been nailing themselves in – hoping that tomorrow brings better fortune. Dennis Kelly’s 2009 play, Orphans sees its main protagonist, Liam, burst in on his sister and her partner’s evening meal, covered in blood and unsure of how it got there. The next hour and a half follows the story in real time, mapping Liam’s misguided sense of reason and chronology, and occasionally daring to hint at the horrors that lie outside the window of this otherwise comfortable, middle-class existence. What becomes apparent is that, novel or otherwise, the medium doesn’t matter in itself: what’s important is the fact that writers have identified the unit of a single day as a compelling vessel to analyse events that we still have no real ability to comprehend, let alone explain.
Once again, however, it is important not to over-simplify the significance of this trait. What Player One, Saturday, Orphans and the non-real time examples, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor and Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, all have in common is an uncertainty of outlook. In Saturday, the cloyingly neat way that brain surgeon Perowne ends up operating on the man, Baxter, who had broken into his house a few hours before, doesn’t actually change the fact that in the long run, he can’t help him: Baxter has Huntingdon’s disease, for which there is no cure. Similarly, with Orphans, Kelly leaves us characteristically dangling by a thread as the curtain falls, mid-argument, between Helen and Danny as they battle out whether or not to bring their unborn child into a world so full of horror.
So, why this insistence on darkness? What is it about the events of a single day that so often lead writers into a study of what’s unrealized and yet unfalteringly foreboding? 1922 was still rearing its head from the worst war the world had seen to that point, and yet Ulysses closes with the most life-affirming and positive ending of all – that of re-discovered love, and hope. Today, the world holds its share of terrible things, be it unconquerable economic gloom, militant regimes, or famine, but we are better prepared, more knowledgeable and more united in how we address them. Perhaps what writers are really reacting to are not terrible things in themselves, but the way in which those terrible things are presented to us: an onslaught of round-the-clock, on-demand news coverage, which never fails to find what’s bleak in a world still so full of possibilities for the good.
Early in Saturday, Perowne witnesses what he at first believes to be a comet hurtling through the night sky, burning beautifully through the cold February air. It is for this reason that he decides to wake his sleeping wife, but just four seconds later he is readjusting his perspective, having realised the mistake he has made: ‘Despite the city lights, the contours of the plane aren’t visible in the early morning darkness. The fire must be on the nearside wing where it joins the fuselage, or perhaps in one of the engines slung below’. In witnessing this horror, he no longer thinks to wake Rosalind; ‘Why wake her into this nightmare?’, and turns instead to the security of searching for the story as it breaks on early morning news stations. Like Perowne witnessing a tragedy through the safe filter of television, writers have come to use the structure of a twenty-four hour narrative as a means to examine fear from a comfortable distance: close enough to engage us in the moment; far enough away to view it objectively.
As the day ends, so too does the narrative. For this reason, the structure is perfectly suited to an ominous ending: there is not enough time for closure. By the same token, however, it allows for the possibility of readjustment and resolution beyond the temporal scope of the narrative. Whether the ebullience of the closing of Ulysses can be rediscovered by another author, however, or whether instead the cool indifference of our modernity has permanently negated such optimism, remains to be seen.