‘Greenwich Time’ by Ann Beattie

Beattie, Ann 1978

Greenwich Time by Ann Beattie, 1979

The magic trick:

Switching to the present tense and passive voice when the action shifts to Greenwich

Tom is lost in the past as he grapples with an uncertain future. Greenwich, Conn., home of his ex-wife and son, represents that no-man’s land in a physical sense. And so Beattie does something very cool with the narrative voice in the story.

The portions early in the story set in New York City are written in the past tense, as are the passages that detail Tom’s memories of his marriage and former life. These sections of the story carry with them a tremendous sense of authority. The sentences are written as fact.

When Tom arrives in Greenwich, however, Beattie switches voices entirely. She presents the action in a present tense, creating a much more tenuous feel than the previous sections. All authority is gone. In its stead, we get a feeling that we’re not quite sure where this is going. Beattie also employs the passive voice for many of these sentences. It meshes perfectly with Tom’s place in this world. It’s as if he isn’t even an active participant. Things happen to him; he isn’t in control. He has no idea what is coming next. The only authority he has is in thinking about his past. The shift in writing styles mirrors his agony. And that’s quite a trick on Beattie’s part.

The selection:

Tom reads the newspaper from the market. It comes out once a week. There are articles about deer leaping across the road, lady artists who do batik who will give demonstrations at the library. He hears Ben running up the stairs, chased by Inez.

Water is turned on. He hears Ben laughing above the water. It makes him happy that Ben is so well adjusted…

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