The best way to cheat death is nonchronologically. Let’s, for instance, remember The Witcher. When it came out in January, you watched it; according to Netflix, everybody did. Recall that, near the end of the first episode, Queen Calanthe—coolest character—died. She’d been stabbed, not quite fatally, and rather than let her enemies finish the job, she pitched herself, with greater finality, out the window of her high-up castle bedchamber. Yet at the start of episode 3, there she stood in the banquet hall of selfsame castle, virile and battle-flushed and very much un-kersplattered.
At that point, convinced you missed something important and/or realizing you no longer cared, you stopped watching The Witcher; according to Twitter, everybody did. So you won’t mind the (nonshocking) spoiler: What you were witnessing was, in fact, resurrection by time jump. This was—her unchanged face notwithstanding—a much younger Queen Calanthe, the show unfolding in not one but three separate timelines. Death, at the mercy of temporal trifurcation, could never entirely stick. Rigidifying on the cobblestones here, swinging her sword all swaggeringly there.
Of course, dead’s still dead, in the end. No amount of clever editing changes that. Just ask Beth from the latest adaptation of Little Women, the other nonlinear lesson of the present moment. Writer-director Greta Gerwig re-tells the classic tale in a pas de deux of timelines, past and present, but they’re ruled by the latter, so that when Beth perishes of scarlet fever in the present, she’s never (really) seen again. As a storytelling tool, then, breaking chronology—the academic words for which are hideous, taped-together things, unpronounceable negations of the norm: achronology, anachrony, asynchronicity, nonlinearity—does not seem to be, exclusively, about fancifying narrative footwork.
So what’s it really for, this deformation of reality? Prestige, possibly. At least since Aristotle, the true-to-life ordering of events has “suffered from a bad name as an inferior method of arrangement, if artistic or viable at all,” writes the Israeli critic Meir Sternberg. If boring old existence happens one event after another, in other words, surely art must do the opposite. Ambiguate! Poeticize! Make thematic connections! Balderdash, Sternberg says. There’s nothing dull or unsophisticated about chronology as an idea, just its occasional uses. (To wit: tweenage diary entries.) Then again, he would say that. Sternberg’s a biblical scholar, for whom "antichronology," invalidating as it does the merit of the Great Book literally from (in) the beginning, must constitute a kind of sacrilege.
Still, he’s right. Plenty of worthwhile works are told sequentially. One of the clearest-eyed is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which presses ever onward, from Milkman’s prehistory to his birth, childhood, adulthood, and a climactic confrontation. Simple. Or is it? Morrison, so scrupulous in her intentions, chose the structure for a reason. She’d just lost her father, and she knew she wanted to write about men. Trouble was, she never had. Her previous books, The Bluest Eye and Sula, centered on women. “The challenge of Song of Solomon was to manage what was for me a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one,” she wrote in the book’s foreword. That’s when she had her revelation: “In such an overtly, stereotypically male narrative, I thought that straightforward chronology would be more suitable than the kind of play with sequence and time I had employed in my previous novels. A journey, then.”
Morrison points the way. What she was recognizing was, in effect, an inherent maleness to chronology. Stories about journeying men have always, in the Homeric main, been straightforward. Solomon would be the same. “All very saga-like,” Morrison said. “Old-school heroic.” A proposition, then: Playing with time is a woman’s game.
It’s pretty much untestable, in a scientific sense. Sure, one could try to marshal some quasi-legit study that suggests women are, on average, some fraction of a percentage point better than men at multitasking or parallel processing, therefore proving a greater comfort with tracking multiple timelines. Or one might turn to the work of Peter Hancock, who studies sex differences in time perception, and find that men do slightly better than women at keeping time—perhaps because, as Hancock notes, men likely invented the modern metrics of timekeeping in the first place. (What would female-constructed time feel like? The latest iteration of Doctor Who?) Of course, the neuropsychology of temporal processing is so complicated, so ridiculously beyond our capabilities to model, it renders these insights provocative but notably unpersuasive. What we have, what’s left to look at, is history and art.
In the run-up to this year’s Oscars, a male member of the Academy explained his votes to The Hollywood Reporter. One movie he “really hated” was Little Women. “The timeline was ridiculous,” he said. “I was really confused sometimes.” Later, he specified: “I shouldn’t need a scorecard to keep track of a movie’s timeline.” Ignoring the profound challenge of using a scorecard to track timelines, let’s count this as supporting evidence. The male brain, encountering art that is not straightforward, is strained.
(A second, related datapoint implicates the editor-in-chief of this very publication—so it shall be done in the protective discretion of this parenthetical. If the events in a rough draft of any story filed to WIRED magazine are told out of chronological order, his first-order request to the author is, forever and for always, to chronologize the narrative. Our editor also runs marathons very successfully. There may be no sport more chronological than that.)
#NotAllMen, obviously. The best-known antichronologist of contemporary cinema is the very male Christopher Nolan. Most of his output—Memento, Prestige, Inception, Dunkirk, the upcoming Tenet—plays with time. In fact, when Lauren Schmidt was in the early phases of plotting out her television adaptation of The Witcher, she watched Dunkirk, in which the World War II evacuation of that harbor is told from three spatiotemporal perspectives (land, sea, air), and had an epiphany. Breaking up The Witcher into separate timelines would let her fill in the backstories of her two central female characters, Yennefer and Ciri, before they met the titular Witcher, Geralt. “I, no kidding, had one of those moments where I hopped out of the shower and said to my husband, ‘Could I do that in this show?’” Schmidt recounted to Collider. “He was like, ‘It’s gonna be difficult.’” He would say that. Gerwig too, it turns out, was inspired by Dunkirk. In adapting Little Women, “I actually did look at [the timelines] like a graph, like Nolan had made during Dunkirk,” she told John August in his screenwriting podcast, Scriptnotes. “I really loved that intersection of time and the play with it.”
Nolan’s existence and influence doesn’t invalidate our proposition, necessarily. He likes to destabilize audiences, enrich the picture, build mysteries—but always within the fluctuations of the present moment. Thematically, the intentions of Gerwig and Schmidt extend well beyond it. “They’re really intriguing characters,” Schmidt said of Yennefer and Ciri. “So I wanted to build them up and fully form them, give them their own independent desires and their own independent journeys.” For her, breaking chronology wasn’t just an artistic ingenuity but a political necessity. To tell women’s stories, she had to. Go back. Start over.
In searching out the unwritten histories and imaginations of black people in America, bell hooks once said, “one must willingly journey to places long uninhabited, searching the debris of history for traces of the unforgettable.” She may balk at a comparison to Little Women—Little White Women, some critics have called it—but that's not unrelated to what Gerwig is doing, digging out what she calls “the found materials" so that she can then "explode it and deconstruct it and put it back together again.” To make space for her Little Women, Gerwig looks back and forth, forth and back, restoring dignity to the minor moments that make a life.
Brontë, Woolf, Varda: Women artists have always excelled at cracking open old structures—the manmade logos of chronos. It was a woman, Madeleine L'Engle, who spotted the wrinkles in time. Today, you can read modern masters like Kathryn Davis, Lydia Yuknavitch, Emily St. John Mandel, Jennifer Egan, and N. K. Jemisin, each of whom remakes time in her own image. There are men, too. Of course there are. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous might be the most time-unstuck book in recent memory. He’s a gay man whose family fled the war in Vietnam. The only book he cites by name in On Earth is Morrison’s Sula—which may be chronological by chapter but by paragraph jumps all over the place, never content to stay in the present. There, one begins to sense the final truth of the matter. Chronology may not be about gender after all. Not fundamentally. History is the story of great men, told in order. To collapse that throughline, to shatter its brittle straightness and put it back together your way, is the right of any artist, any person, who has ever felt forgotten by it.