On the present tense

AMERICAN ELSEWHERE marks a lot of changes for me as a writer. It’s contemporary, it’s strongly science fiction, it has more characters than any of my other novels, and it’s much longer than the others, too.

However, the biggest change is probably that the book utilizes the omniscient present tense. This might not sound huge to some of you – but it really is.

Just as a taste, it has passages like:

Mr. Trimley is old and alone, but he has his diversions. Specifically, his model trains, which occupy nearly every waking moment of his life and most of the eighteen-hundred square feet of his adobe home. His trains are his hobby, he tells himself, just a hobby, yet sometimes he wonders if it is all right for a hobby to grow so extensive that he throws out his bed, stove, tables, chairs, all in the cause of allowing more room for his many trains.

No, he thinks. That’s silly. He is an old man, and old men are allowed their eccentricities.

He has somewhere in the range of nine-hundred and fifty model trains, all running on electrical tracks from four feet long to four hundred feet long… and perhaps longer. Mr. Trimley knows that it is a good thing to be a man, just a simple old man living in his simple house, but he does not feel it is wrong to help things a little, all in the name of his trains, of course. After all, if he can alter things to make his trains more impressive, then he should, correct?

Yes. Of course. And Mr. Trimley can alter quite a bit.

Some of his trains, when they enter a little plastic tunnel or trundle under a miniature wooden bridge, take a very, very long time to come out on the other side. The most extreme example is the Northern Line, who only comes back to his house every three days or so, usually at around 9 in the morning. And when it returns, the Northern Line is frequently bedecked with snow, and reeking of sulfur.

Mr. Trimley has laid a lot of track for his trains. It’s just that some of the tracks go places outside of his home, or to places invisible to the naked eye. But that’s just a detail, really – after all, this is just his quaint hobby, isn’t it?

So this format marks a pretty big break from my usual stuff.

However: for some people, the present tense is like nails on a blackboard. It’s borderline unreadable, in fact. The mere subject of the present tense is somewhat akin to abortion: wildly polarizing, with staunch supporters and fierce critics.

So why did I choose to write this book in the present tense?

MY PAST WITH THE PRESENT TENSE

The first book I ever read in the present tense, I think, was THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, by Michael Chabon. And it was difficult, at first: I recall flipping to the end of the book to see if it actually stayed in the present tense for the whole story.

But eventually, it really, really started to work. It somehow made the prose effervescent, sparkling, vibrant; the book seemed to vibrate and thrum with energy. This was, however, way before I ever really started writing, and it never occurred to me to try writing that way.

But a huge influence on THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION is – I’m pretty sure – is David Simons’s HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS, a nonfiction book written by Simon after spending four years working with the detectives of the Baltimore homicide department.

This book is phenomenal. It is brilliant. It is alive and stark and ringing. An excerpt can be found here, and I highly recommend you read it.

This book is nonfiction, and could even be considered a work of journalism – I am fairly sure Simon considers it to be. So it, like many journalistic pieces or profiles, is written in the present tense. And it works in a way that the past tense simply couldn’t: there’s an immediacy to it, pulsing with the feeling that this is real, this is happening, this is still happening somewhere.

That was the book the got me started thinking about how this could work in my own stuff. It was about five years ago.

I read some really Big Gun Writers who also used present tense some – David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, and so on. But it wasn’t until I read David Mitchell’s THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET that I realized how the present tense could be used in such a beautiful manner.

This book is a gem, a marvelous gem that uses the present tense to capture characters and express thoughts and feelings in a way that I had never seen before. It was like taking a wonderful drug that made reality feel so much more… well, present. And I wanted to try it.

But I still haven’t answered the real question – what does the present tense do that made it good for this book?

THE BENEFITS OF THE PRESENT TENSE

All art is artifice. It is manipulation, deceit, machinations piles upon machinations. This is what art is.

However, all of these devices, while having great effect upon the audience, also act as an obstacle between the audience and the writer. Think of a stage play: in between the writer and the audience is the director, the actors, the set directors, the customers, and so on not to mention all the physical objects, like the stage and staging itself.

This is not necessarily a bad thing: it’s just how art works.

The past tense actually separates the audience from what’s happening in the work they’re reading by making it so that the story has already happened. While you might not think about it, the past tense actually sets works in the past – there is a division of time between the audience and the work, in the same manner that there is a division in time between me and World War II. If I read about World War II, I am not experiencing World War II, I am merely hearing about it. I will never experience World War II: I will only have someone tell me what it was like.

The present tense, to a certain extent, bypasses this division, or it simulates the feeling of bypassing it: you are witnessing something happening right now. Everything is immediate.

I said before that my son has a PICC line, at the moment – a catheter that is inserted into his vein to feed antibiotics directly to his heart. This is much more powerful than orally taking drugs, because that method means you have to swallow them, digest them, etcetera, for the drug to take effect.

The present tense is kind of like that. It bypasses the fixed, static feeling of an event that has already happened, being told from a fixed narrator’s voice, and instead feeds you an experience that is currently ongoing.

When I first started thinking about AMERICAN ELSEWHERE, I remembered how New Mexico had felt while I was there: it was a total sensory overload. The air felt electric. It was some of the most beautiful country I’d ever seen, and, as Douglas Adams put it, if you don’t go there, then you are stupid, stupid, stupid.

I wanted to capture that feeling. And the more I thought about it, the more the present tense seemed like the best way to do that. It’d funnel all that exuberant, sensory vibrancy right into everyone’s heads.

Or it should. But it wouldn’t work for everyone.

WHY PEOPLE HATE THE PRESENT TENSE

This is tough for me to say. I didn’t like it initially, as I said – but I adapted to it.

But I think the issue might be that the present tense is delivering information in a completely new format. It’s a different form of narrative entirely: to some, it isn’t even a narrative at all, since a narrative is often relating something that’s already happened. So the present tense fails in a lot of ways for people: not only is it unconventional, it doesn’t do anything that most stories do.

(To put it another way, maybe some people hate the present tense for the same reason they hate being drunk or high – it augments and depresses reality in weird new ways.)

At least, this is what I think it to be – I am, naturally, open to comments and thoughts on this.

But the real question is…

IS HAVING AN ISSUE WITH THE PRESENT TENSE A LEGITIMATE CRITIQUE OF THE WORK

Eh. I kind of waffle on this.

On the one hand, art is subjective. Nothing is illegitimate: your feelings are never invalid, because your feelings are your feelings.

But, some critiques are more valid than another: “I found these characters unbelievable and insufferable,” is a more valid critique than “I didn’t like this book because it was depressing,” or, “I didn’t like these characters because they were Japanese,” or, worse, “This book had gay people in it, GROSS.”

One is a comment about the work; another is the reader’s opinion being forced onto the work. (Fantasy readers know these sorts of critiques well: “I won’t read a book with silly magic in it,” is something we’ve all heard before.)

Do issues with the present tense align with these sorts of critiques? Not necessarily. Like I said, it’s receiving information in a completely different format, and saying that, “The way the book delivered information didn’t work for me,” is naturally a really valid opinion to have.

BUT, that’s not a comment on whether not the book was successful in doing what it was trying to do. It just means that what it was trying to do was really incompatible with how you read a book. It’s a judgment on technique choice, rather than content or execution. (It would be a critique of execution if the critic said, “This book is written in the present tense, but it uses this style very badly.”)

It’s a bit like the shakycam issue: movies that use handheld cameras that shake, usually in an attempt to give the scenes a sense of violent urgency. However, it doesn’t always work: for some people, it makes them want to vomit. And it can be used just to cover up a low budget by obscuring much of the actual action.

Another example would be footnotes: some people DESPISE books with footnotes, because they feel they distract from the action of the novel. But another viewpoint would be that they connect the reader more directly to the narrator, because it’s the narrator actually stepping away from the work and talking to you.

In all, I think it’s a bit like a doctor prescribing drugs (you can tell what’s been on my mind recently): some people respond to the drugs, some people don’t. Is it the doctor’s fault? Is it the patient’s? Not really. Some people respond to certain things, and some people don’t.

THE PRESENT TENSE IN THE FUTURE

When I first started writing CITY OF STAIRS, I tried writing in the past tense. But it just didn’t work – it felt stuffy and stale, like I was sitting in a chair reading you the story. And I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to put you in the story, directly.

If I’m telling you a story, then that means that own the story: to continue the metaphor, I’m keeping it in my lap, in my hands, and giving it to you piece by piece. The story is all filtered through the narrator’s voice.

But I want to put you in the story, to immerse you in it, for it to feel as alive and exuberant as it feels for me. So, for CITY OF STAIRS, I opted to use the present tense there, too.

Will I write in the present tense for the future? Probably not. As you might know, I like to mix it up a lot. I really want to write an epistolary novel or a transcript novel in the future; and, of course, the present tense wouldn’t work there.

But nearly everything I write is an experiment of some kind; what matters is whether you’re allergic to what I create, or whether it just blows up right in my face.

5 comments on “On the present tense

  1. […] But not all prose fiction is written in the past tense. Robert Jackson Bennett looks at the benefits and drawback of writing in the present tense: […]

  2. Darren Guest says:

    I personally respond better to past tense narratives initially, but I don’t know if that’s because I started reading that kind of story and therefore started writing that way, or what. Present tense always seemed to create a barrier that kept me at arm’s length. In the same way you describe past tense lacks the immediacy of actually being in the story rather than being told the story, I feel the same way but in reverse. Saying that, I do read both, it just takes me a little longer to buy into the present tense narrative, but once I’m in, I’m in. And I think it’s because of this: The way in which we interpret and process the words is by turning them into pictures, sounds, smells and emotions, etc, and whether the delivery is in past or present, the process is the same. Once I’m into a present tense narrative there’s no difference in the way I turn the words into recognisable sensory stimuli according to my own life experiences, it’s just that I’m more familiar with one over the other. Getting the drug directly into the bloodstream is quicker for sure, but in fiction it’s perceptual and perhaps can’t be measured in the same way.

    Looking forward to Elsewhere either way.

  3. AstroZamboni says:

    Present tense can be hard to “settle into” when reading, but can be rewarding in the end if it’s not used gratuitously. “Jacob De Zoet” is a good example. Of course, a lot of David Mitchell’s work is polarizing in terms of writing styles that are hard to settle into and some people just say “fuck it.” The central story in “Cloud Atlas” is another example, being written in a completely invented pidgin dialect. A lot of people nearly threw down the book in disgust when it got to Sloosha’s crossing.

    Of course that paled in comparison to “Pygmy” by Chuck Palahniuk. The entire book was written in “Engrish.” Ever since slogging through THAT disasterpiece I have a fairly high tolerance for books where idiosyncracies of writing style set other people’s teeth on edge. Reading Pygmy made it possible for me to get through the endless run-on sentence that was “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

  4. […] | And yet: Advice is futile. | The ride of a lifetime: the making of Thelma & Louise. | On the present tense. | I always think of Alan Hollinghurst as beautifully sad and here he reviews, beautifully and […]

  5. RG says:

    Maybe there’s some kind of software that switches present tense to past and vice versa. If not, I will invent it.

    Maybe there was some kind of software that switched present tense to past and vice versa. If not, I’ve already invented it.

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