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Time out of Joint Pt. 3: Schizophrenia and Fragmentation in A.L. Kennedy’s Day

A version of this essay was originally submitted in partial fulfilment of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester in 2009.

Please note that if you quote or cite this work that it is  © Karl Hodge 2012. The correct form of referencing is:

Karl Hodge. (2012). Time out of Joint Pt 3: Schizophrenia and Fragmentation in AL Kennedy’s Day.  Available: http://www.brokenenglish.co.uk/schizophreniaday/ . Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.

In the first section – The End of Time – we mentioned that, for Fredric Jameson, schizophrenia is the second of the postmodern condition’s ‘basic features’.  The clinical term “schizophrenia” is generally misunderstood and misused. It’s most often confused with multiple personality disorder, a condition with a quite different pathology.   Indeed, Jameson admits that his own use of the term may not be ‘clinically accurate’.

In debt to the psychoanalytical approach of Jacques Lacan, Jameson describes schizophrenia as the experience of living in a world at the end of history, without referents or negotiated signification:

 

‘Schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up in coherent sequence…’[1]

 

This, in turn, leads to Jameson’s proposition that the similarly disconnected postmodern subject is incapable of experiencing temporal continuity, of recalling an authentic history or extrapolating into a hypothetical future:

 

‘For Lacan, the experience of temporality, human time, past, present, memory, the persistence of personal identity over months and years – this existential or experiential feeling of time itself – is also an effect of language. (…)  But since the schizophrenic does not know language articulation in that way, he or she does not have our experience of temporal continuity either…’[2]

 

And, as the postmodern condition is identified as an era in which the chain of signification has broken down, our experience is similar to that of the schizophrenic; of existence in a perpetual and fragmented ‘now’. While easy to dismiss as hyperbole, a thought experiment without traction beyond epistemology, the evidence is in the cultural artefacts we create within the context of this condition.

The texts under scrutiny here are superior examples but A.L. Kennedy’s Day embodies the condition through character – a character who exists in a perpetual “now”.

 

Day takes place in two main time periods.  There is the ‘present’ of an ersatz prison camp; a film set on which the main protagonist Alfred Day is an extra.  Secondly, there is a ‘past’ that preoccupies Day; his experience as a rear gunner in World War II. These are the key axes we move between.  A third time period, Day’s childhood and adolescence, is less frequently visited.

When the text begins, we are confusingly placed in the immediate ‘present’ of the novel, without explanation or preamble.  There are some temporal clues in the style of language used in the novel’s opening.  For example – the phrase ‘browned off’ is used; a character is growing a moustache.  These fragments might suggest that the text is not set contemporaneously – but we have to wait until the second page, the eleventh paragraph, before we can confidently establish any time period:

 

‘Today it had the smell of blue, warm Air-Force blue: the stink of drizzle rising up from wool and everywhere the smell of living blue: polish and hair oil and that sodding awful pinky-orange soap and Woodbines and Sweet Caporal and those other cheap ones, the ones they gave away after ops: Thames cigarettes, to flatten out the nerves.’[3]

 

And from those clues we know that we are in war time; a time of austerity and uniform, distinctive smells and styles and ‘ops’ and the need to ‘flatten out nerves’. Except, we’re not. We’re in a simulation of World War II; a fake prison camp. We don’t discover this until several pages later and, even then, in dribs and drabs throughout the first chapter, a hint rationed here and there:

 

‘…long after the end of the war’.

‘…it didn’t belong in 1949’.

‘…it wouldn’t be long before filming was over and they’d send you home’.

 

We gradually realise that the sections explicitly about war are reminiscence; that there are two main time periods, not one.

Contrast this approach with the opening of the six separate sections of Cloud Atlas. Each one swiftly establishing period either through stylistic pastiche, ‘mise en scène’ (the objects, environment and antagonists described) or simply by telling you (Letters from Zedelgehm opens with both date and year).[4]

Conversely, in Day, Kennedy establishes a general historical milieu but gives us little to differentiate between the two main time periods, painting them in the same hues and moving back and forth between them abruptly – even though one is “real” and one a simulation. As we learn more about the narrative, we come to recognise characters in each part of the plot and through them are anchored.  Prior to that, there are few cues and it is virtually impossible to unravel the temporal flow of the first chapter until we’ve read through to the second.

What is Kennedy’s intention in deliberately obscuring the setting and, later, in conflating the disparate time periods she depicts?   It’s the post-traumatic experience of shell shock; of detachment from reality. The real indistinguishable from the fake.  But it is also an explicit acknowledgement that what we are experiencing is a postmodern fiction – a narrative made after the end of grand narratives.

This disconnection from referent is made explicit from the outset.  Alfred Day describes himself as a ‘nobody’, a person without identity or solidity.  The text depicts him slipping in and out of character, trying on traits and lapsing.  For example, he practices speaking like an officer – assembles a vocabulary he can articulate without betraying his Staffordshire roots:

 

‘He was keeping things short, sticking to the phrases he was safe with, the ones he’d cut away from Staffordshire, that could sound fully RAF.

He still practised in his head’. [5]

 

Day’s personality is as fragmented as the novel’s depiction of time.

It’s significant that he is not the sole entry in the canon of post-war, shell-shocked protagonists set loose in time.  There is, of course, Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5 – a character literally floating free in chronology.  The difference is that while Vonnegut’s Pilgrim travels through time, in Day the reader is the temponaut.[6] Everything is simulation – and these intertextual references make that explicit.

This gives us an opportunity to introduce the idea that there are not one, but (at least) two experienced chronologies at work here.  Firstly, there’s the chronological experience of character and protagonist; the world of the story. In postmodern texts, this world is altered, stretched, shattered or fragmented.  We might assume this is an affectation of high modernity, but in this case it is a demonstration of postmodern narrative malleability – the elasticity of a transparently constructed world.

And then there’s a second reading. The chronological experience of the reader’s reading; a reader familiar with Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 who can recognise the shorthand at work here.

This amenity of texts to desiccation and reconstitution is a feature of postmodernity. We will consider this further in the next section.

 


[1] Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in Postmodern Culture, ed Hal Foster, (Pluto Press, 1995), p. 119

[2] Ibid.

[3] A.L. Kennedy, Day, (Vintage, 2007) p. 2

[4] Cloud Atlas too operates in a perpetual “now” – but it uses different mechanisms to suggest this.

[5] Ibid., p. 8

[6] Day also shares traits with Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, whose story is similarly fragmented by madness; cut into pieces that we must stitch together to construct a chronology.

 <part 2 | part 4 >

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  1. […]  <part 3 | part 5 > This was written by Karl Hodge. Posted on Sunday, August 19, 2012, at 3:54 pm. Filed under Essays. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments here with the RSS feed. Post a comment or leave a trackback. […]

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