"It's Sunday Again: Literary Fiction and the Vagaries of Time"
Updated: Aug 15
As I’ve mentioned before, my southern fiction debut novel, What the River Wants, traces a coming-of-age journey for a teenage grandson, Lee, while also following a grappling-with-age saga for his grandfather, Tom. The old man has retreated to live on the river as a recluse, but the boy comes to visit him, to solicit stories about their family history.
Envisioned as a way to mythologize my own mother’s life, the deceased matriarch of this fictional story, Saralynn, becomes the core around which the theme of time runs for this fictional multi-generational family. Tom knows stories keep his mother’s legacy alive, but they also provide lens each member of the family can use to see their genetic and behavioral similarities. These stories symbolize how literary fiction works for a reader using an author’s imagined world as mirror for penetrating deeper into their own challenges of emotion, circumstance, or history.
A similar reflective value of self can be found in the raising our children, a deep well of literary examination. There we celebrate their successes, promote their sense of well-being by making sure they understand the boundaries of safety we put around them and the bounty of love we shower upon them. Parents relish that giving as it satisfies our deep knowledge that we’re producing a loving, respectful child, a fledgling human who will grow into a responsible and caring adult. Now, what happens when we flip perspective? When we look at time not arriving at a child’s life full of potential but rather receding from that of a parent?
Tom and Lee invest in each other’s future. But for Tom, too much time has already passed, and his isolation has shifted something essential in him. He’s become obsessed with the loss of his wife, Ouida, the soulmate he never intended to spend a day without but now must live without after her death from cancer. Lee tries to pull Tom back to the family, his loyal daughter, Glenna, begs Tom to come for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He does, but Tom has substituted his past for his future; for him, time recedes rather than arrives. Tom and Lee are in two different currents, though in the same passing river of time.
This aging theme troubles me personally now that I’m in my late sixties. I have amazing adult children all educated and successful. But as I watch them drift into the preoccupation with their own lives, I sense my own separation, my own emotional nakedness as I face the challenge of having yet again to renew my life, the cycle that moved me from Mississippi to New Jersey, from English teaching to business. Now the verve of writing books becomes my new domain for establishing the relevancy of me.
Literature affords us the opportunity to search out fictional others confronting similar life moments, hopes dashed or dreams realized, the treachery of friendship or love found at last. We can explore regions of human experience with a journey of pure fictional fantasy and use those lives as filters through which we sort understanding. This pondering of human emotion and mind, the querying of personal relationships funds the travelogue of literary fiction touring the undiscovered land behind Thoreau’s words, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I imagine he was talking about us all, the child off to school, the teenager learning to love, the middle ager accepting the clock now reversing its spin, and the old person mounting one more fearless charge against creeping doubt. The role of the artist is to light those hallways with words and paint, with music and any material that can be made into a window to the soul.
We all stand in a river of time. Facing one direction, we see the flow of life lengthening ahead; facing the opposite direction, we see it shortening. Books extend the vista of awareness by leading us to the borderline between real life and fictional imagination (a theme critical to my next novel, “Prism of Friends.) Books and art capture our shared humanity allowing us to study ourselves in the image of others. But it is human life that we share, and we each want a moment of notice, we need to feel hints of specialness because to each of us that is what we experience as our abstract selves engage a concrete world. A word, a touch of notice, an encouragement, these are moments of loving art in ordinary life; these are the instances too easily overlooked but about which I yearn to write.