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A BAD CHARACTER and Tense and Pronouns

Posted on Thu, Jun 21 2018 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

Image text: Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss


Deepti Kapoor's A Bad Character is about a young woman in Delhi and rebellion. It's a lyrical novel that embraces fragmentation and eschews linearity.

It also does some fascinating things with time, tense, and pronouns.

So I'm in this café in Khan Market, twenty years old and I'm beautiful, though I only know it now looking back at the photos I have of myself, where it's obvious, painfully so because it's gone, this beauty, never to return, where the skin is so young and unmarked by life, still with the last traces of puppy fat, but how deep is the hunger in the eyes, the joy right there inside her at the moment she's being shaped and devoured. 

The shift from "I" to "she" is obviously about the way the older self sees the younger—as other. This makes perfect sense, especially as the rest of the novel shows the ways this person changes over time and in response to the events depicted. (Novels are fond of showing this change, huh?)

However, I'm entranced by the way the pronoun change helps us understand a shift in time and perspective, the way it almost works like tense, and the way it is necessary for it to do so, given the present tense of the bigger moment.

First, when I think about point of view (POV), I tend to think a lot about pronouns—they're sort of shorthand for the POV. If the main character is "she," it's third person. If the main character is "I," it's first person. (Duh.) Other POVs are less common, but they're still identified by pronouns (we, you, they).

The other very important aspect of POV is how the speaker stands in relation to time. Does the story use present tense to create the sense that events are unfolding in the moment? Is it a present tense that lends immediacy but is understood to actually describe the past? Is it a simple past that pretends to be speaking from a time very soon after the events occur? Or is it a retrospective voice that tells of a time long past, and can bring a different perspective to the events than one of the characters in the moment? That's a break down of the tenses most commonly employed.

What we have here is different. It's a retrospective present tense. It starts out as a present tense that is used for immediacy. Even though we see the word "now," it's not trying to fool anybody that the events are happening in the actual present.Rather, "now" marks a particular moment in the past, relative to a different moment in the past. That sounds confusing because the obstacle with such a choice—the present tense as past with immediacy—is moving around within it. If all past events are related in the present, how do we understand the relative depths of the past?

It's for this reason that the present tense usually lends itself to a straight chronological telling, in which we learn the order of events—and thus how far in the past they are—through sequence. If I say, "I tie my shoes, I open the door, and I walk outside," you know that the first thing to happen, and the thing furthest in the past, is tying those shoes.

Instead of a strictly sequential chronology, this book uses another common technique to convey relative depth to the past: space breaks and fragmentation. Each break lets us know we're moving to a different time period, even if we don't immediately know when that time period is. Then, each segment can be tagged with a time marker, so that even though it's stated in the present tense, we know when it occurs in the past.

The technique of space breaks and time markers works best when each segment contains a single time period. "Twenty years old" is the time marker of the quoted passage—there's no date, but we know there is a specific time that the narrator is twenty years old, so we know we are in that time. But it's not enough because the passage is actually wrangling two distinct moments—the time remembered, and the time when the remembering is happening. "Twenty years old" doesn't tell us the age of the voice looking back. And that's why this passage needs something more.

Again, if this were past tense, it could use regular past and past perfect. I remembered that I had been beautiful. A different author using present tense might temporarily drop the immediacy. I remember that I was/used to be beautiful.

The quoted passage uses a more interesting method to reveal layers of time within a small space—not through wrangling tenses—but through shifting pronouns! Kapoor's pronoun switch allows her to use the present tense for both time periods: I remember that she is beautiful, in which "she" is a past version of "I." When the "I" shifts to "she," we understand that the "I" still exists and is remembering. Thus, in addition to the immediacy of the present tense, we feel the layering of time.

And so the "she" of the past lives just as vividly as the "I" who remembers the past. It's a lovely way of ghosting memories through a novel.

Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss. Check out the Loft's Summer 2018 class offerings for her upcoming classes: Fiction Narrative: Finding the Right Voice and Tell, Don't Show.