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Authors: William H. Gass

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Later I would be taught to wonder—about the present but not about Pauline—whether anything of which we were normally unaware might have taken place between one tick and its following tock (molecular doings, quantum leaps), because if you ran past a picket fence at the right speed, you would seem to see the green field beyond, as if the fence weren’t there. Walk more slowly, and you might receive nothing but board. Going about at lifespeed, mankind might be missing … well, who knew what?

Or maybe, relative to me, the world was moving as the frames of
the movie moved, or the pages of those riffle books I fanned to animate Mutt and Jeff in unseemly ways, so that reality was a series of stills, like a solid row of alphabet blocks. There would have to be motion, of course, to produce the illusion, but we would be wrong about where the motion was. Or maybe the present was a continuous whoosh, or an uninterrupted whissh, and had no parts, so that all our divisions of time into eras, decades, milliseconds, advertising spots, falsified its flow.

Suppose I were about to move my queen’s knight and, while my hand hovered above the head that, in this case, makes up the whole horse, the frame froze and, freed from that dramatic scene, my opponent and I rushed away during the intermission for a set of tennis played at fast-forward, only to return to the table in less time than it takes to tell: I to lift my knight from its square, my foe to wonder why and where—what then? Take this thought a little further. While one passage of time is dit-dotting along, perhaps others are passing at right angles between the dits like hair through a comb? How could one guess how huge the hiccup in Being was: perhaps, instead of a quick set of tennis, there was a long fall of empire, like that of Rome? In philosophy class, I was taught to ask such questions, and I was cautioned not to smile when I did so, but to appear genuinely concerned and intense. Now I put my VCR on pause and think no more about it. But what if God put me on pause while He spooned up a dish of Heavenly Hash? and slowly, over eons, slowly … slowly dribbled across it a sweet excess of chocolate sauce?

When we put a dial on the sun and cut that dial like a pie, we created a mechanical time in which we decided to pass our days, believing in it more faithfully than in Santa Claus, because storetime came in a convenient package—it could be paused, shortened, backed, speeded up, or flopped, enriched, extended, ended—whereas real time simply went
and wouldn’t alter its tune, accelerate, or stop.

The present has many perils. The least of them are philosophical. The heart never stops yesterday, but this instant—on the steps
to the bus. Your favorite glass is slipping from your soapy grasp. She says “not now” now.

William James wondered how long the present lasted. It had to have a length, because if you cut every immediate moment into the part of it already over and the part of it yet to come—narrowing your slice from knife to thread—you’d have an edge so fine it had no size. The present would have no presence. Contrary to the clock’s analysis, our sensations sustain themselves. James called it “the specious present”—this period we do not appear to pass through but experience as a whole. To taste an entire swallow of wine, to possess all its qualities at once, does not require its characteristics to exist simultaneously. The before and after we perceive in the specious present nevertheless seem equally vivid and there for us, the nows form a row like bricks in a building. None of them are yet a then. In other words, for a brief and variable period, we experience time as we do space.

The present has more lanes than an Olympic pool. My lane is not your lane. In mine, a shirt button is breaking from a weakened thread. In yours, perhaps a sense of wonder at the size of the solar system is enveloping your consciousness like a cloud of steam. The clock’s now, nevertheless, swims on evenly, counting and canceling the same number of laps from both our lives, or so we suppose—but are we right? I have sometimes felt that the minutes of others were longer than mine. I have had moments I felt would never end.

Unlike the present, the present
is the condition of a verb. “Is” will remain in the present tense through all eternity, while a day is warm no longer than that day. So the perils of the present tense (and there are plenty) are neither an orchestrated series of difficult movie moments, like those that beset Pauline in film time, nor the normal passage of experience from oops to ouch that often constitutes life time if we’re unlucky. Writing of any kind involves the creation on the page of connections in language that denote, describe, and relate events (verbal occurrences that we can call “word time”) and within which the only lapse that can count as a
crime is a lapse of grammar. Yet the perils of the present tense are real; rescues are infrequent (unlike the case of plucky Pauline, who is always saved from the saw just ahead of its nick); and those efforts to assist that are reluctantly attempted are generally botched. The present tense is a parched and barren country. In the past, writers rarely went there.

The perils of the present tense are pronounced, but as speakers we might now and then avoid them. “What are you doing in there, Helen?” is a question natural enough. “I am mopping the floor around the fridge.” (She mops.) “What is Lady Jane saying to Jack Strongthong now?” Helen asks in a moment, carrying on her progressive present. “Come and see the TV for yourself.” “I can’t stop mopping. This leak is enormous … as if the whole fridge were weeping,” she says, putting on the subjunctive with the ease of robe and slippers. (She mops.) (Her husband wonders whether his wife actually said what she said, slipping so sexily into the subjunctive, since what she said seems as strange to him as the thought that his thought alliterates.) (The present tense frequently adorns margins in the form of stage directions: She mops.) “Well, hon, Baby Janey ain’t sayin’ nuthin’,” husband answers, shifting into yokelese. “She is slappin’ Cousin Jack’s slap-scarred face.”

Occasionally, without mortal risk, we use the speaking present to sharpen the sense of immediacy in some story we are telling—a story we think is full of giggles, one of them being the tense it’s told in. “Let me tell you what happened to me in Altoona last month. I’m standing in front of the local five-and-dime, see, sharpening my musical saw, when this guy comes up to me and says, ‘How would you like to make a sawbuck?’ ‘My name’s not Buck, stranger,’ I say with a toothless grin, ‘but I can try to make one—how’s this?
You can lead a mind to matter, but you cant make it think
.’ ” The present tense is terrific for vaudeville and other turns of phrase. It also lends itself to satirical intentions, usually without much interest.

Why do I warn you, stranger, of the perils of the present tense?
Because there is a lot of it going around. What was once a rather rare disease has become an epidemic. In conjunction with the first person, in collusion with the declarative mode, in company with stammery elisions and verbal reticence—each often illnesses in their own right—it has become that major social and artistic malaise called minimalism, itself a misnomer. This is not the minimalism of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, or of Anton Webern and Kazimir Malevich, in which a few obsessively selected means are squeezed into a mighty More—that more, as Mies van der Rohe said, which is the large result of less. This is rather the less that less yields. This is modesty taken down a peg. Here we have the simple without the pretensions of simplicity, plainness without the pressures of an Amish or a Shaker ethic.

Minimalism does not really represent an -ism, but a sizable number of -ists. If there is an urban prose, this prose is suburban. If there is an academic prose, this prose is collegiate. If there is a yuppie prose, this would be it, except that it says “nope” more often than it says “yup” Out of Hemingway, out of O’Hara, out of detective fiction and brand-name realism, it is as terse as a telegram. It is as hard-boiled, but not an egg.

One of the virtues of the present is that the present passes. (I should correct myself: the present is the only thing that is always around; what is present in the present passes.) One of the perils of the present tense is exactly the evanescence of its referent. (To be precise: this is true only if the referent is a particular thing or action in the world; if the referent is “mopping,” “leaking,” “sweating,” these Ideas of Action may be as eternal as the Eternal Itself.) One of the perils of writing about any event is, of course, that it will be gone before its verb is well in place and its nouns have had a chance to settle down around it. So if I say: “There is an outbreak of measles at Slimbo’s Summer Camp,” you, the reader, will smile at this old news, having brought your kid home to get well and rest up several epidemics ago—that would be before chicken pox, before mumps.

How does it happen that I have been alerted to this outbreak of
the present tense when, perhaps, you haven’t? Not long ago I was asked to select some stories by new writers for an anthology, and my initial survey of the field, taking me geologically about fifteen years deep, uncovered the condition. Further researches at writing schools, the principal source of the contamination, underlined the seriousness of the situation and the extent of its ramifications. (I wrote “underlined” just now—quite wrong; it dates me. “Highlighted” is the right term. A bilious yellow marking pen is run over words as if to cancel them. The face of the text can still be made out, like the figure of someone drowned beneath the phlegm. But for you who are reading this, the practice may have passed beyond your ken—a happy thought.)

There were writing programs in a few universities before World War II, but it was only after that conflict that they began to multiply and flourish. So they’ve been with us, roughly, a bit beyond a generation, as it is often measured. We are now experiencing the cumulative effects of their operations. You may have noticed the plague of school-styled poets with which our pages have been afflicted, and taken some account of the no-account magazines that exist in order to publish them. In addition, thousands of short-story readers and writers have been released like fingerlings into the thin mainstream of serious prose.

The most distant layer of my excavations turned up pretty much what one might expect: a scattering of subjects, persons, tenses, places. I ran into more males than females, and there were the usual number of initiation stories, family muddles, bittersweet affairs. As I advanced toward the present, however, the number of women writers increased, as did the number of fictions in the first person, and tales in the present tense.

Well, young people are young people, aren’t they, I said to myself, so it is only natural that they write about themselves and their immediate problems. Adolescents consume more of their psyches than soda pop, and more local feelings than fast food. On the other hand, these young people are in school, I thought, where they are presumably learning something. Is no indulgence denied them?
What are their mentors doing? Standing in very loco and permissive parentis, it would turn out.

Meanwhile, as I read into the outskirts of the present, the present tense was taking over. By now (that now I neared, not your now, of course), of the 195 fictions I had examined, 81 were in the first person and 52, in whatever person, were in the present tense. I was aware that my sample might be misleading in a number of ways, although it was a good deal more substantial than many telephone surveys reporting on public opinion; but the trend it observed—an increase in women, first persons, and present tenses—went, as my investigations continued, through the roof.

The present tense has singulars and plurals, of course, and persons: I, we, you, they, he, she … I mop, she mops … you mop, he mops. Back before there was a present tense for writing purposes, if you wanted to risk it anyhow, you consulted the classic case: Katherine Anne Porter’s “Flowering Judas,” which is in the third-person present. Why would Miss Porter want to put this story of a betrayal, this story of a fat Mexican revolutionary and the woman he wants, into the present tense? Certainly not because everyone else was doing it.

Braggioni sits heaped upon the edge of a straight-backed chair much too small for him, and sings to Laura in a furry, mournful voice. Laura has begun to find reasons for avoiding her own house until the latest possible moment, for Braggioni is there almost every night. No matter how late she is, he will be sitting there with a surly, waiting expression, pulling at his kinky yellow hair, thumbing the strings of his guitar, snarling a tune under his breath. Lupe the Indian maid meets Laura at the door, and says with a flicker of a glance toward the upper room, “He waits.”

William James worried about the size of the specious present, but the present invoked by the present tense, as well as the present referred to by the noun “present,” are very elastic. “At the moment, I am mopping the kitchen floor.” “Right now, our refrigerator
is on the fritz.” “We presently live in Santa Monica.” “I am a buyer for Best Buy.” “
is a big hit.” “I am a Catholic and don’t believe in divorce, so the only way I’ll be rid of him is if he dies.” “
The Perils of Pauline
is out of fashion.” “The jig is up.” For how long is this jig up? For Ever. Its overness is never over. Naturally, students of the present tense will learn how to orchestrate these differences, moving from one present to another with dazzling effect. Sure.

In Porter’s piece the resources of the habitual present are masterfully exploited. Most events in life come round more than once like Gertrude Stein’s “… is a rose …” does, moving from now to then and back again. Every night Braggioni comes, sits, pulls at his hair, thumbs strings, and snarls a tune. Every night Lupe meets Laura at the door, glances heavenward, says, “He waits.” When Porter slips into the past or advances to the future, she does so in order to emphasize the obsessive menace of the present, as repetitive as a firing squad. If something in the story is to occur uniquely, she reverts to the plain past to report it.

A brown, shock-haired youth came and stood in her patio one night and sang like a lost soul for two hours, but Laura could think of nothing to do about it.

BOOK: Finding a Form
6.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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