Fair warning, I’ve been home alone thinking and today’s post has grown somewhat philosophical. I’m going to start with some definitions so as not to confuse anyone or myself:
Timeliness refers to the fact or quality of being done or occurring at a favourable or useful time.
Timelessness suggests something not affected by the passage of time, something independent of time.*
When it comes down to it, I think every writer wants their work to have an element of timelessness so it survives the ages. However, stories also need to incorporate elements of timeliness so that their popularity surges and they’re read widely. Ultimately, I think this is what allows a story to transcend into timelessness. So are these ideas separate, independent, or are they part of the same whole?
I don’t have a solid answer, but I have an example from a book I just (mercifully) finished. The movie came out a few years ago in 2011, the book long before that in 2003, but I’m hoping you’ve at least heard of We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
In a nutshell, this is a story about a woman grappling to figure out how her life came to the point of utter destruction on the day her son kills a group of his classmates. Much of the story is devoted to discussing mass school shootings—I’m 99% certain that all of the examples provided by Shriver in the book are factual. But I’m going from memory, and I was only 12 in 2003.
I had a difficult time getting into this story, and not just because I didn’t like a single character. I felt alienated because mass school shootings are rather passé in my reality. As a student who grew up in the shadow of these horrific events, I was one of the kids the narrator described with a sense of incredulousness. I was trained on how to act during a school lockdown in the event a shooter entered the building, we were told how to spot odd behaviour in fellow students, and we were conditioned to report any weapons brought to school (though I’m not sure why you’d need to be taught to do that).
By the time I graduated, mass school shootings perpetrated by students were not a major concern anymore; we’d come far enough dealing with alienation and bullying that kids weren’t turning to that any longer. Again, I’m going from memory here, please correct me if I’m wrong.
When WNtTaK was published, school shootings were every parent’s worst nightmare. They were so politicized at the time that this was likely a very timely book even in the wake of 9/11. Now, not so much. Now, we have grown men going into public places and shooting them up every other day. While their (perceived) motives are eerily similar to those posited in this book, it’s almost too much having to read fictional accounts while watching the real thing play out on the evening news.
Perhaps this book simply missed the mark for me as a reader, but I had a tough time getting through it. There’s a quote on the cover saying it’s hard to put down; I had a hard time forcing myself to pick it up in order to get it done.
My opinion of the story aside, I think this is a book shifting into timelessness because it’s still rather popular. It’s been made into a well-received movie with a well-known cast. It seems to have had a number of print runs. It’s always available at any bookstore I go to and every used book sale I attend.
While I’d argue it’s too political to stand the test of time, I have a feeling I’m wrong. As long as there are acts of terror (I’m using that as an umbrella term here for any kind of horrific event whether it’s backed by ideology or not) there is an intense human desire to understand them. Books, and movies, help us understand the human condition.
Do you have any thoughts on this?
*Thank you Google for the definitions.