by GINA WARREN
|Readers sometimes overlook time in novels; they may be unaware of time’s significance within a story. The passage of time may slip silently past conscious perception, overshadowed by plot and character development. But in nonlinear novels—novels with scenes that jump forward and backward in time—time becomes a pivotal point of focus and importance. With simultaneous access to the past, present, and future of characters’ lives, readers’ attention can be directed to associated events, resonant and repeated smells, particular remembered sensations, and thematic similarities. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is a compelling and powerful example of a nonlinear novel. The story does not begin at one point in time and then continue forward until the chronological end, but instead spirals and leaps between different time periods, returning over and over again to events in the past and tying them to future consequences to reveal meaning in the characters’ lives. Through nonlinearity, Roy weaves non-chronological-but-related moments into one cohesive structure. Her narrative mixes actual events in real time, overlapping with memories and flash-forwards to create a cyclical feeling of return. Because of this nonlinear, multilayered storytelling technique, Roy imbues her novel with deep meaning and resonance.
The God of Small Things tracks three generations a family’s history and spans three continents, but it predominantly focuses on Ammu, Rahel, and Estha, and is mainly set in Ayemenem, India. In 1969, Ammu, mother to twins Estha and Rahel, has a forbidden relationship with Velutha, an untouchable Paravan, which results in multiple deaths and the family´s disintegration. At this time in the family’s life, Sophie Mol, daughter to Ammu’s brother, Chacko, has come to visit India. The novel opens twenty-three years later, when Rahel travels home to see her brother.
Right away, Roy says there are multiple stories and multiple ways to remember, and that through this scattered division the narrative amasses meaning. She tells readers that they will encounter “little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning…to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it.” Roy is already foreshadowing the novel’s spiraling progression. Nonlinear time in The God of Small Things illustrates a kaleidoscopic view of reality, with particular emphasis on the cyclical nature of stories, thus mirroring the way significance is accumulated throughout time for individuals. Meaning is amassed through time’s circularity, not its linearity. With each resurfacing of an image, new associations are drawn; with each rotation of the kaleidoscope, the beads and gems inside shift into a new pattern, familiar and changed.
If The God of Small Things were chronological, there would be only one story throughout it: only one progression. There would be nothing to reconstruct or re-remember, and Roy’s winding, interrelated presentation of images and memories would not work. Nonlinearity gives Roy a tool to saturate images by returning to them again and again, establishing a feeling of constructed order for characters and giving history a spiraling, kaleidoscopic structure. There is no single progression, no one truth. Even though characters repeatedly return to ideas and images they don’t necessarily gain a matured view of what has occurred; instead, they are left with memories that build and augment each other without quelling the painful emotions that accompany them.
Roy gives a cyclical sense of the narrative when she references the future with retrospection and alludes to withheld information. In a partially exposed scene, Estha first encounters the Lemondrink Man:
Roy introduces Estha’s molestation through Rahel’s memory, before Estha’s version is explored. Later, the reader learns the full importance of this reference to Madras, where Estha lived after Ammu and Velutha’s love affair and the deaths of Sophie Mol and Velutha. Through fragmented and repetitive memories such as these, Roy encapsulates a common human experience of reliving the past in bits and pieces while leaving the reader to gather the shards and make sense of them as the narrative progresses.
Nonlinearity grants Roy the capacity to switch between different time periods and relate particular sensations, like smells, in a way that reinforces and foreshadows the events they signify. Sometimes these signature smells are found years apart, but the nonlinear structure allows Roy to place them side-by-side to compound their meaning. One smell is that of Velutha’s blood; after discovering he was intimate with Ammu, the police beat Velutha to death while Rahel and Estha watch. “They [Rahel and Estha] smelled its smell and never forgot it…. Like old roses on a breeze.” This “old roses” smell appears at three different times before the readers actually see Velutha bleed. As the police beat Velutha to death, the sensation is repeated, with ever-greater intensity, thanks to the repetitive references that have come before the scene. “Lesson Number One: Blood barely shows on a Black Man…. And Lesson Number Two: it smells though, Sicksweet. Like old roses on a breeze.” Repetitive imagery of the “sicksweet” smell of Velutha’s blood builds tension before the actual scene, which increases the horror when Roy details the beating in real time.
Roy also utilizes her nonlinear narrative to generate understanding and to develop characters. Understanding unfolds and opens slowly, as if the reader is learning about an old friend, telling stories that are not chronological, but instead fit together through associations. To have readers come to understand Chacko, a character who is, at first, quite unsympathetic, Roy uses several anecdotal scenes from his past. In one scene Chacko stays home during a break from college. Through Chacko’s eyes, Roy reveals that his father was severely abusive of his mother.
This helps contextualize Chacko’s response to Ammu’s teasing; their father also teased Chacko for his beliefs. Through Chacko’s contempt for his father we can understand his anger at Ammu for, in a way, treating him like his father had. Roy helps readers genuinely sympathize with Chacko, who often appears bitter and emotionally detached, by giving his present the context of his past. Readers understand Chacko far better through the juxtaposition of these images than if his character was developed through chronological terms; the scenes of protecting his mother and being teased by his sister occur twenty years apart, but Roy employs nonlinearity and keeps the memories side by side, to ensure the reader grasps their significance in regards to Chacko’s character.
Because Roy provides colorful nonlinear associations and a broad range of characterizing features, Chacko becomes more multifaceted. He can be viewed for who he is in the narrative’s present day—a man who quotes books no one knows, relishes his own esoteric abilities, embarrasses his seven year old niece and nephew in public, and ignores Rahel after her mother’s death. However, Roy simultaneously illustrates him with brushstrokes of who he was—a self-proclaimed Marxist, an ideological and bold college student, and a son who saved his mother from his abusive father. This contrast deepens the reader’s appreciation and understanding of Chacko, making his character more dynamic and realistic. No one person is static and totally embedded in the present moment; through nonlinearity, Roy draws upon the interconnectedness of her characters’ fates and the consequences of their actions in a way that linear chronology might not highlight or specifically honor.
Roy’s characters reconstruct history and amass associations of small things. She shows that human experience is anything but linear, and that significant moments in time are not static. To what extent are humans, like Chacko, defined in dynamic terms? Are individuals bound to the past just as Velutha’s sicksweet blood and the Lemondrink Man pierce the present? Without simple forward progression, history cannot be stored safely in the past, and thus never leaves us. In The God of Small Things, time becomes a force that constructs and deconstructs meaning, and, in effect, Roy reminds us of its power and potency in our own lives.
Gina Warren is a graduate student living in Marin County, California. She completed her undergraduate coursework in philosophy and creative writing, and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction. Gina enjoys writing, rock climbing, and dark beer.