Which way you Going? : Some Examples of Temporal Inversion and Narrative Structure

Posted: February 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

Inverse Chronological Narrative is a story structure where the chronology is elaborated in reverse. In a strong reverse temporal narrative the last scene will be placed first while the temporally prior will be realized last.  Weaker versions may have temporally erratic narrative structures which are only bound by the limit of the first and last narrative sequences and will oscillate between these two poles.

Virgil‘s Aeneid, from the first century BC, may be the first to use this method in a weaker sense, where some conclusions are elaborated before the causal agents are revealed in the narrative. The enclosed and continually receding narrative of  One Thousand and One Nights, may have a number of variations of the inverse temporal story structure but most notably in the extensive novel is a form of flashback occurring  in one section of the tale after the discovery of a dead body which then details the actions leading to the murder of the individual.  And it is Martin Amis‘s book “Time’s Arrow” (1991) which is often thought to be the most pure of the temporal reversal tales.  The novel follows the exploits of a man who can bring the dead to life, it turns out that this tale is a transgressive inversion of the temporal arrow and the narrative reveals in its stead a horrible activity which underlies the action of raising the dead.  Catch-22 by Joseph Heller has its major protagonist,  Yossarian,  carrying through a philosophical position, and its existential consequences,  in relation to power and authority based on a ”truth of the world” which is only revealed in the last sections of the novel.

Movies have also found this inversion structure tempting and films which can be included in the temporal reversal narrative structure:   Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal (1978), which was made into a film in 1983. In 1927, Jean Epstein‘s La glace à trois faces (The Three Sided Mirror) (note: this link is a pdf) was released.  Epstein’s early and exquisite cinematic endeavor is composed of an entire narrative structure which is played out through the mechanisms of erratic temporal flow between past, present and future and includes one strong chronological reversal section.

Jean Epstein:    The Three-Sided Mirror // La glace à trois faces (entire length)

Other filmic attempts at this narrative form  include, Atom Egoyan ‘s,  The Sweet Hereafter (1997) which follows a decade of events in inverse temporal order from the mid-70’s to the 60’s; Peppermint Candy (2000) by  Lee Chang-dong;   and  the Jean-Luc Godard short film Dans le noir temps (2000).

Jean-Luc Godard,  Dans le Noir Temps (entire video)

The disturbing 2002 film by Gaspar Noé titled Irréversible (2002) employs a strong temporal inversion structure which even entails having the ending credits play out first; and, 5×2, directed by François Ozon, which details the disintegration of a relationship in reverse order.

Here is a Video Game trailer (not the game, but a video short) which uses the technique of temporal narrative inversion to wondrous, moving, and amazing effect.

Dead Island: Official Announcement Trailer ,

(and yes the short is advertising a “First person Zombie RGP”. But worth the watch).

  1. maaretta says:

    Narration is a common feature in literature these days. Personally, I find the most interesting types of narration to be the bizarre ones: narration beyond the grave and narration done by unreliable narrates.
    The classic film “Sunset Boulevard” had a brilliant twist of narration by having a dead man tell the story of how he ended up dead in a pool. This was unusual for the time it came out, 1950, and to this day remains one of it’s kind. “American Beauty” (1999) made an attempt to do the same narration style, but wasn’t done as cleverly.
    As for unreliable, one of my favorite “possibly lying to the audience as for itself”- narrators is Frank from Ian Bank’s novel “The Wasp Factory”. Frank talks about killing three children from age 6-12. It is very possible that Frank truly committed these crimes, but he’s eerie, frank but surrealistic way of telling the stories, plus his claim of being just a mere child while doing these things, makes the reader wonder if Frank is just delusional or truly a killer. It’s hard to tell.
    Odysseus from Homer’s epic poem is a very unreliable narrator since he is a grand liar. While he tells his tales to his wife and friends he explains how he always lied about who he was and about his life to others. This rises the question of how his family can believe the tales he tells them.
    Unreliable narration is a form of narration that should be used more often. This complicates and blurs the lines between fact from fiction and gives the narrator a more complex psyche for the reader to follow. The same for dead narrators!

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