Novelists, of course, can afford to spend a greater proportion of their pages in backstory since they are under less pressure to make each word matter. Furthermore, the grander scale of the novel, the necessary architecture of plot and subplot, often require a more detailed attention to the events of the past. But even Chabon’s short fiction is soaked with backstory.
His wonderful story “Mrs. Box,” from Werewolves in Their Youth (Random House, 1999), about a bankrupt optometrist named Eddie Zwang, is as good an example as any. In an effort to both outrun and salvage his past, Eddie takes a detour down memory lane, paying a surprise visit to his ex-wife’s senile grandmother, Oriole. Chabon paints a terrifically detailed picture of Oriole’s sour-smelling apartment, in which every trinket, photograph, and piece of furniture tells us volumes about her very long life. Halfway through the story, Oriole’s necklace, an anniversary gift from her dead husband, begins to take on a literal weight. But Chabon doesn’t just let these objects speak for themselves; he uses them as a departure for his character’s own associations:
“I sleep with it on, you know,” she said, “though at times it lies quite heavy on my windpipe.”
“Seventy-two years,” said Eddie, enviously, too softly for Oriole to hear. He and Dolores had been married thirty-one months before parting. There had been an extramarital kiss, entrepreneurial disaster, a miscarried baby, sexual malaise, and then very soon they had been forced to confront the failure of an expedition for which they had set out remarkably ill-equipped, like a couple of trans-Arctic travelers who through lack of preparation find themselves stranded and are forced to eat their dogs. Eddie had known for a long time—since his wedding day—that it was not a strong marriage, but now, for the first time, it occurred to him that this was because he and Dolores were not strong people; they had not been able to bear the weight of married love upon their windpipes.
The backstory continues for another full page, in which we learn more about Eddie and Dolores’s disastrous end. Is this summary explaining? Maybe. But I can’t help but think that, if this backstory were amputated, the story would feel incomplete, unrealized. I might feel pleasantly involved in decoding the mystery of this family through the clues around me, but in the end, I’d feel locked out of the room, disregarded. In the margin, I’d write Why?
A more cautious writer might shy away from such an obvious use of symbol-as-memory-jogger. This is the third kind of “recognition” in Aristotle’s Poetics, the one that “depends on memory when the sight of some object awakens a feeling.” In Chabon’s hands, the technique is subtly effective, and realistic: We do associate objects with memories, after all. And this summarized backstory doesn’t interrupt the narrative; it enriches it. If the past is on a character’s mind—and in this story, the insufferable weight of Eddie’s past is the whole point—why shouldn’t we have access to those memories? Why play a guessing game?
Chabon’s short story “Along the Frontage Road” gives us one more powerful example of backstory. The background we get here, about a page into a father and son’s visit to a pumpkin farm, is carefully controlled, the restraint matching the numb state of the narrator:
But we had both wanted to get out of the house, where ordinary sounds—a fork against a plate, the creak of a stair tread—felt like portents, and you could not escape the smell of the flowers, heaped everywhere, as if some venerable mobster had died. In fact the deceased was a girl of seventeen weeks, a theoretical daughter startled in the darkness and warmth of her mother’s body, or so I imagine it, by a jet of cool air and a fatal glint of light. It was my wife who had suggested that Nicky and I might as well go and pick out the pumpkin for that year.
I can’t help but think of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Ele-phants,” also about the distressing effects of an abortion. That story offers us nothing but surface clues; it is a guessing game of sorts. Part of the pleasure of reading it is figuring out what kind of “procedure” the couple is talking about. Here, the pleasure isn’t in figuring out what—Chabon’s narrator has graciously filled us in with a swift summary—but in understanding how: how the family got to this point, and how they will manage to move on. This example also teaches us that backstory doesn’t have to reach back to childhood; it can simply reach back to last week. It can even reach back to this morning, when the eggs were burned at breakfast. Good backstory comes in countless forms, but it always establishes the emotional stakes on which the present action hinges. Chabon’s command of backstory reminds us that characters very often live in their memories, and by allowing us a peek into their memory vaults, he invites us to bear witness to the wistful, bittersweet connection between past and present, which happens to be, as much as anything, what his work—and so much of literature—is about.
The world would be a bland place without backstory, and yet the story doesn’t stop there. There are a thousand and one ways to use backstory in fiction—just as many ways as there are to manipulate time. Indeed, the term backstory assumes a profluent, primarily linear story with a clear “first narrative”—another concept Genette examines in his classic Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Cornell University Press, 1983)—and a traditional relationship between that narrative and the important events in the past. Thankfully, literature offers as many exceptions to that rule as the rule itself. Some stories don’t flow forward at all; some flow backward. For example, Lorrie Moore’s wonderful “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes),” from Self-Help (Knopf, 1985), operates on what Genette calls “retrograde movement.” Some stories operate on “Switchback Time,” a term proposed by Joan Silber in The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes (Graywolf Press, 2009). She holds up Alice Munro as a master of this mode, in which the narrative time periods are so interdependent that no single one is dominant; instead, two or more related periods of time “switch” back and forth, like a winding mountain road. Edward P. Jones’s intricately woven and obsessively backward-glancing stories, many of which span three generations in thirty pages, belong in this category as well. Yes, a story can capture time, moment by moment, but it can also compress it or extend it; it can flash back or zoom forward; it can walk; it can skip; it can circle the block until it finds a parking space; it can haunt; it can expect; it can forget.
To assume that all narratives must flow forward, then—and that backstory is a sandbag to narrative velocity—is to limit a story’s potential for interpreting the experience of time passing. And writers have been taking important advantage of anachrony—a disruption of a purely chronological narrative—since the Iliad. “We will not be so foolish as to claim that anachrony is either a rarity or a modern invention,” writes Genette. “On the contrary, it is one of the traditional resources of literary narration.”
Benjamin Percy concludes that you can do anything if you do it well. Here we can wholeheartedly agree. But backstory is not a technique so advanced you need a black belt to attempt it. You just need curiosity, control, and an appreciation for time travel—that Gatsbyesque desire to repeat the past. In real life, we may not be able to go back in time, but in fiction? Why, of course we can.
Eleanor Henderson is the author of the novel Ten Thousand Saints (Ecco), which was named one of the Top Ten Books of 2011 by the New York Times and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction. She is an assistant professor at Ithaca College.