How, why, and to what effect do contemporary British fictions depict times other than the present?

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How, why, and to what effect do contemporary British fictions depict times other than the present?

        When portraying times other than the present, writers are freed in some ways from restrictions that come with depicting their own time period. By representing the past, or indeed the future, the author is able to explore narrative styles, genres and thematic content that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. The past and the future both offer genre options as well as stylistic and thematic content that would have otherwise been inaccessible to the authors. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn both use portrayals of alternative time periods for different effects. Why O’Flynn gives us the narrative of a little girl from 1984 and why Mitchell chooses to, amongst others, write about a charismatic composer in 1931 is what will be explored in the course of this essay.

        Both novels use non-linear narrative structures, with Cloud Atlas in particular displaying a complex framework. The depiction of the past in What Was Lost is used as a framing device for the main plot. The novel begins with the story of Kate Meaney in 1984 and concludes with the narrative from the past reappearing after the characters from the present have deduced what has happened to her. When compared to Cloud Atlas however, What Was Lost is a relatively simple way of structuring a narrative. The best analogy for describing the narrative of Cloud Atlas is a Russian doll. Each story (there are six), interlocks with another tale from a later age with the main character of the new story coming across the previous narrative and offering their thoughts on it. Mitchell takes the ‘story-within-a-story’ idea and expands upon it six-fold. By having six different time periods available to him due to this structuring, Mitchell is able to weave thematic content throughout the novel as he binds the narratives together.

        Before looking at the themes that are prevalent in both the present and the alternative time periods, it is worth commenting on the ability of the novels to explore different genres due to the style of the narrative. What Was Lost begins as a novel from the perspective of a child; the narrative shift that takes places allows O’Flynn to expand upon this and employ many different perspectives. The adventures of a child and her toy monkey, on the surface at least, contrast greatly with the musings of Kurt and Lisa and the satires of the consumerism culture that follows. The shift in time, and in character, means that O’Flynn is able to alter the tone of the novel. The naive, upbeat adventures of Kate with ‘Mickey the monkey’ are replaced by the grim reality of Kurt and Lisa’s lives within Green Oaks. Observations such as ‘they had fallen into some kind of relationship about a year ago and now neither seemed to have the energy or the impetus to leave’, with regards to Lisa and her boyfriend, contrast greatly to the imaginative interpretations Kate draws from the world and this has the effect of portraying the consumerist world of the latter day narrative as destructive to all originality.

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 Cloud Atlas has even more genres present in the text due to the numerous characters which take up the narrative mantle. Mitchell’s novel is a blend of many different styles of writing as each character’s story is conveyed using a different method. A journal, epistolary letters and a futuristic interview are a selection of some of the means that Mitchell utilises. The inclusion of many different time periods due to the configuration of the novel means that Mitchell is able to explore many different genres as a result.

As each story in Cloud Atlas exists within another, Mitchell often has characters ...

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