Background Not Backdrop: The Importance of Time-Space in Fiction

Black and white scribble art depicting a hand holding a calligraphy pen, scratching on a sheet of paper. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/735634920356474407/

by Victoria Valle

Imagine that you are on a train—a subway. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like? This is a space you and other commuters occupy only briefly, one backdrop of many in a daily routine. You likely enter this space early in the morning and again in the afternoon, arriving and departing at certain times to meet certain goals. But there are other aspects of the train that coincide with each other that affect the experience of this space. Inside the train you have imagined, are you alone? Are you moving? The train is unique because it’s not only a space entered at a particular time—it’s a space in motion—a space in transition. In this way, and many others, individual aspects of place characterize our perception and conclusions about said place and vice versa.

Space and time, similar to and/or including the setting, are crucial to the understanding and analysis of literary fiction. “We often see that spaces in fiction…are infused with a special sense of time: time flying, standing still, turning into quasi-eternity,” and this is related to what is called the chronotope, or space-time (Klooster 6). The chronotope is a concept first explored in literature by Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin in the early 20th Century. To Bakhtin, a chronotope is a specific overlap of a time and space which culminates in a specific genre (ibid). However, it can also be used to define space-time relations on a smaller scale, such as within novels. This is not limited to literal space and time either, spaces can be metaphorical or implied space-times. In Klooster and Heirman’s introduction to The Ideologies of Lived Space in Literary Texts, Ancient and Modern, they touch on many configurations of space-time, including the “triadic model of ‘perceived space’ as the product of the senses, ‘conceived space’ as the product of the mind, and ‘lived space’” created by “social theorist Henri Lefebvre””(ibid). The chronotope in Prime Meridian functions similarly to this triadic formation. It’s not just a backdrop for the events of the story, it’s a multidimensional time-space that enriches readers’ experience of the story and affects the plot and characters of the novel. 

If you haven’t read Prime Meridian, it’s a novella by the author of Mexican Gothic Silvia Moreno-Garcia, published in 2017. As a work of speculative fiction, it touches on current problems such as rapid climate change, and growing income inequality through a lens that imagines the future of these issues. The story follows Amelia who is struggling to make ends meet in near-future Mexico City. She dreams of one day escaping to the colonies established on Mars if only she can save up the money. 

No one understands the reality of Amelia’s situation better than herself, and her story plus the reader’s experience of it cannot be extricated from the chronotopes she inhabits, visits, and imagines. While a chronotope necessarily encompasses any social constructs and inequalities involved in a given time-space, it’s not necessarily foregrounded in the same way it would be if the analysis were formed directly from a feminist narratological perspective. However, there is some overlap where Lefebvre is concerned. Along with his triadic model regarding space, he concentrated on urban space, in particular: “he argues that the city is a social product of the leading class, a tool of control and domination in a capitalist society”(Klooster 6). According to Robyn Warhol’s introduction, “A Feminist Approach to Narrative,” the term feminism “denotes the conviction that dominant culture and society are organized to the disadvantage of everyone who does not fit a white, masculine, middle- or upper-class, euro-American, not-yet-disabled, heterosexual norm”(9). Feminist narratologies would likewise take into consideration gender as well as sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, and class when analyzing a work (ibid). Lefebvre therefore successfully integrates the chronotope with a feminist narratological approach that benefits analysis of Prime Meridian

In Prime Meridian, the theme of urban homelessness and income inequality is embedded in its setting. For instance, when Amelia first goes to meet her new client and she observes the skyscrapers towering over “the old housing units that remained—homes of the descendants of factory workers, of lower-class citizens who toiled assembling cars and bought little plots to build their homes—existed under the shadow of behemoths”(Moreno-Garcia 24). The space-time described manifests a hierarchy that physically divides the upper and lower classes. The reality of this separation is also explicitly expressed in Amelia’s words and tone.  Amelia explains in a matter-of-fact way that, “since the expensive buildings required abundant water and electricity, the poor residents in the area had to do without” (ibid).  

A city, as a created space, will reflect the dominant culture it is produced by but also enact or reproduce the inequalities it was built on (Klooster 6). Another way of looking at this is by acknowledging the non-human agency of the environment and how it’s reflected in the chronotopes within fiction. When looking at space it’s illuminating to look at not only how we have shaped it, but how it has shaped us. Jane Bennett writes that nature acts and that often it acts in ways that are disinterested in human affairs (240). Similarly, Bladow and Ladino write about the agency of the environment, specifically the “powerful role” it plays in affective experience (3). This is in the context of material and affective ecocriticism, but I believe it can be applied to Bakhtin’s chronotope because the space-time in Prime Meridian does not stand alone—it has a bearing on the story, it has agency, it has affective power. This power can be seen in the connotative language Amelia uses in her descriptions of the city. She describes the place where her new client lives as a “tower” and “luxurious needle,” emphasizing and further separating it from “the old housing units” below. The sight of these buildings produces a visceral reaction in Amelia who in the same sentence pivots from “tower” to “monstrous building,” and later, “behemoth”(Moreno-Garcia 24). 

Besides its affective power, the chronotope represented in Amelia’s words has this specific effect because it reflects real-world chronotopes whose foundations allow for exploitation. The inequality Amelia witnesses is inherent to her surroundings. In the opening scene of the novel, Amelia is unable to board a train because “both of its entrances had once again been commandeered by a street gang that morning,” meaning it would cost her more money just to gain entry to the underground (Moreno-Garcia 6). The only way this is able to happen is because of the physical attributes of the space, as well as the purpose that Amelia for which she requires the space. Later, when she manages to actually get on the subway, the time-space shrinks to the car she has entered because the chronotope is as based on her perception as anything else. Amelia hardly gives details of the train or the subway station’s appearance, readers can glean meaning instead from what she chooses to focus on. “That night, a woman boarded Amelia’s train and began asking people for a few tajaderos—” a type of cryptocurrency (Moreno-Garcia 16). In that single moment, Moreno-Garcia demonstrates how a chronotope is not just a backdrop by prioritizing the human aspect. We live in a world, not on it.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. “15 Of Material Sympathies, Paracelsus and Whitman.” Material Ecocriticism, edited by Serenella Iovino, and Serpil Opperman, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 2014, pp. 239-252.

Bladow, Kyle, and Jennifer Ladino. “Toward an Affective Ecocriticism: Placing Feeling in the Anthropocene.” Affective Ecocriticism: Emotion, Embodiment, Environment, edited by Kyle Bladow and Jennifer Ladino, University of Nebraska Press, LINCOLN; LONDON, 2018, pp. 1–22. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv75d0g8.5. Accessed 26 June 2021.

Klooster, Jacqueline, and Jo Heirman. The Ideologies of Lived Space in Literary Texts, Ancient and Modern. Academia Press, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.blume.stmarytx.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03837a&AN=SMU.b1794763&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Prime Meridian. Innsmouth Free Press, 2017. 

Warhol, Robyn. “A Feminist Approach to Narrative.” Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates, by David Herman, Ohio State University Press, 2012, pp. 9–13. 

Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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