The Space-Time Continuum of Sent For You Yesterday
by Annie Kleeman
The Point and Environs, Pittsburgh, ca. 1950
Pennsylvania State Archives
We tend to think of time as linear—a sequential ordering of discrete episodes, years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds along a kind of yardstick, a static track that we follow as our lives progress. We are born, our bodies grow; we experience happiness, heartache, and everything in between, and when we die, the rest of the world continues along the yardstick without us, in much the same way. We cannot lengthen, shorten, or erase any increment inscribed upon it. The units of time are rigid, and identical for every one of us. Likewise, we cannot move backwards and forwards along the yardstick as we wish—time is our master, and moves only forward. Past and present are divided by the measurements on the yardstick, and never the twain shall meet. As science fiction novelist Ray Cummings said, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” Memories are the only way for us to access the past.
Linear, fixed time was an accepted certainty until Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein postulated that time was neither discrete nor absolute. In his book Relativity, he showed that theoretically, two observers could observe the intervals between events in different ways, depending on each observer’s relative speed and proximity to a large mass. A wristwatch traveling at super-speeds would record time differently than a wristwatch at rest, and two wristwatches positioned simultaneously near and far from an object of great mass would likewise register very different times—the watch closer to the large object recording a “slower” passage of time than that of the watch further away. Neither wristwatch could be considered to be incorrect; the way in which time passes is relative. Our ‘yardstick’ is an elastic one—a particular unit of time can be longer or shorter depending on our situation or speed. Time, then, does not function absolutely, marching on steadily regardless of our location in space. Rather, it forms part of the fabric of a four-dimensional continuum, three dimensions of which describe our position in space, and the fourth of which describes our position in time. All four dimensions are therefore, theoretically, variable.
Philosophically (although not practically, as recent research has shown), it is interesting to think of time as a coordinate which can be altered just as easily as the coordinates that describe one’s location in space. When we move anywhere—across the room, up the stairs, out the front door—we have altered our position in space. What if it were possible to also alter our coordinates in time? All possible values of time exist within the aforementioned continuum, suggesting a kind of simultaneity not possible in more traditional theories of time. Other times exist in our continuum; they exist as surely as the kitchen, the front yard, and the Atlantic Ocean.
In many ways, novelists are the great disciples of relativity. Although the conceit of the novel is that it is sequential—pages, paragraphs, sentences and words cannot literally be experienced simultaneously—the content and form of a novel can imitate the elastic nature of time. If time is, in fact, arbitrary, then the novelist’s goal is to impose a structure of time that makes sense based on the particular story to be told, a structure whose implications allow the fiction to articulate more fully the circumstances of the characters contained within. Occasionally, a novel’s subject matter requires a pronounced departure from more traditional, chronological narrative.
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The structure ofJohn Edgar Wideman’s 1983 novel Sent For You Yesterday provides a particularly potent artistic interpretation of Einstein’s theorized continuum. The novel takes place in Homewood, a predominantly black neighborhood of Pittsburgh that functions as a kind of fixed “stage” for the characters, who live and die within its confines. Carl French, Lucy Tate, and Brother Tate are three childhood friends all born in Homewood around 1921. The baseline “present” of the novel (the point from which it’s being told), if we can determine such a thing, is 1970, when Carl and Lucy sit in a neighborhood bar called the Velvet Slipper telling the stories of their lives to Carl’s nephew Doot, who is also the narrator. Wideman moves in and out of the intervening years fluidly and with little warning.
The first half of the book is mostly concerned with the past. Albert Wilkes is a boarder at the Tates’ house until 1927, when he kills a white policeman and is forced to flee the neighborhood. The bulk of the first section describes, in present tense, the day in 1934 when Wilkes returns to Homewood and is shot by the authorities while playing piano at the Tates’. The first hint that the novel is actually narrated from a future point in time is given on page 102, almost halfway through. Wideman has been describing a day not long after Wilkes was killed, using the present tense. Carl and Lucy are about thirteen; Carl has arrived at Lucy’s house, and is now following her upstairs. Lucy is telling Carl that old Mrs. Tate probably wasn’t aware that Albert Wilkes had returned or that he had been shot. Abruptly, her dialogue ends, and white space follows:
And poor old Mrs. Tate, God rest her soul, rocking all the while. Couldn’t tell what she might be hearing or seeing or thinking. Probably didn’t even know Albert Wilkes was back, let alone hear what he was playing or know he was going to die and she’d be in jail before he finished.
Lucy’s butt is half on, half off the bar stool. One long leg dangles to the floor, the other is drawn up to her chest and she circles it with both arms, stretching it, testing her sleek, dancer’s muscles… Carl thinks back to the time he first knew he loved her. (102-103)
The narrative is no longer taking place in the Tates’ house, and certainly not in 1934. The scene in the bar materializes. Lucy and Carl are there, but now they’re in the Velvet Slipper, and they seem older. The white space warns of a sudden transition, but that is the only courtesy the reader is shown. The new surroundings are not contextualized beyond the mention of the barstool. What year is it? Where are the characters? Who is observing Lucy on the barstool? When Wideman wants to illustrate an event from the past or the future, he provides no accompanying sensation of traveling backwards or forwards in time that may exist in a more traditional novel—“Thirty years later, in the Velvet Slipper,” for example. In fact, the language provides no sensation of traveling at all. The future is just there. Lucy’s butt is half on the barstool—Wideman continues to use the present tense, just as he did in the 1934 section. Using a different tense for the 1970 section—Lucy’s butt was halfon the barstool, for example—would generate a distinction between the two times. But Wideman resists any temptation to create distance. It’s as if 1970 was there in the narrative all along, just waiting for its turn to speak.
Lucy then goes on to describe the way Albert Wilkes spoiled music for her, and Carl asks the bartender to put some music on the jukebox:
Rest of us ain’t spoiled. Put a quarter in the box, Cat.
Yeah, Cat. Drop some change in that thing. Play something got that old-time swing to it.
Shot poor Albert Wilkes to pieces that day. And I saved me one.
She had opened the skinny top drawer of the dresser in the far corner of the bedroom. She unfolded a handkerchief, emptied it carefully into her hand as she crossed the room again toward the door where Carl stood…One backward bounce landed her buttocks-first atop the high four-poster bed. The swayback springs squeak as she squirms to a comfortable position on the green chenille spread. (103)
The narrative has returned to 1934 again, back to the second floor of the Tates’ house. Only now, it appears that the story taking place in 1934 is filtered through Carl’s remembrances in the Velvet Slipper, in 1970: “she had” suggests that the passage forms a thread of Carl’s inner monologue. But not for long: Wideman shifts again to the present tense with “the swayback springs squeak as she squirms.” Narratively, there has been a subtle re-entrance into a stream of story taking place in the present of 1934. The distance between history and future in this novel is negligible, at best. It is the music of Wideman’s language—“swayback springs squeak as she squirms to a comfortable position on the green chenille spread” is as magical a phrase, sound-wise, that one is liable to find in modern fiction—that lulls the reader into believing that orderly time is unimportant. One is not so concerned with the movement of time as with the beauty of the language moving on the page.
Wideman allows his characters to reach up vertically and take hold of the layer of time or perspective that they want; they are able to alter the coordinates of time in their own continuum. As the narrator, Doot travels wherever he wishes. He does not simply “retell” the stories his uncle has told him; he actively watches events that occurred before he was born. At the outset of the novel, he observes his uncle as a young boy. “I can see my grandmother shooing Carl out the door,” Wideman writes, “the only door in the row house on Cassina Way. I can hear it slam and echo in the emptiness of the cobblestone alley…” (20). He is also imbued with the power to enter other points of view; after his ghostly appearance outside the row house, he assumes his grandmother’s point of view; he becomes her. For several subsequent pages, we experience a narrative told from Freeda French’s point of view, with thoughts only she would have.
Doot is a vessel through which other people may speak. And those people possess a similar power; they too can transform into whomever they wish. As Carl tells Doot the story of Brother Tate’s son, Junebug, and the circumstances of his death, Lucy Tate sits and listens. But soon, Lucy, caught up in her own memories of Brother Tate and Junebug, is no longer listening. Wideman decides to then enter her point of view instead. Carl tells the story of Junebug, but only peripherally, because the narrator has become Lucy. She has her own version of the story; she tells that version instead. She recalls visiting Junebug’s mother, Samantha, in the psychiatric hospital. Then, she demurs: “To tell Junebug’s story you had to be Samantha and it’s wintertime and you shiver at the thought of being naked” (126). Midway through the sentence, the narrative shifts into Samantha’s point of view.
Let’s examine the layers here. Doot, the ‘ultimate’ narrator of the novel, assumes Lucy’s point of view. Lucy then assumes Samantha’s point of view. And, within Samantha’s point of view, we transform momentarily into Junebug, as he is burnt alive: “I see it all. Every detail of the day…A dream but everything seems so clear, so real I feel like it’s happening all over again. But it’s happening to him. To Junebug” (141).
If the structure of traditional fiction is a Russian doll with two “shells”—the author who then assumes the role of the traditional narrator, whether that narrator be first, second, or third person—Wideman’s fiction in this section of the novel operates under five shells: Wideman, assuming the role of Doot, assuming the role of Lucy, assuming the role of Samantha, assuming the role of Junebug..
This sort of multiple-shell structure occurs repeatedly throughout the novel, if nowhere else with such complexity. What meaning does such technical virtuosity generate for the reader? It suggests primarily that point of view is, in a way, meaningless; that who is telling the story is not as important as what is described in the story and how it is told—the rhythm and power of the story. Although as readers we are thrust into many different points of view, we eventually accept those sudden transformations and become primarily interested in the story’s particulars and its music. That the story is recounted for us is what makes it significant, but it could be told by many different people. This kind of fiction elevates “story” to the level of myth. Myths have no one author; they are repeated ad infinitum across generations. We get the sense that the tales of Homewood exist in the ether—that any person may access them at any time, no matter their relation to the story. These myths are part of the fabric of the neighborhood.
Along with a fluidity of time and perspective, there exists in the novel, as in all myths, a malleability of ultimate truth. As narrator, Doot not only assumes the point of view of other characters, he also changes the circumstances of the past. While imagining his whereabouts as a newborn baby, he says, “In 1941 it’s quite possible I heard Brother play the piano, if there was a day nice enough for my Uncle Carl to steal me from my mother and bundle me up and carry me over to the Tates’” (93). Fair enough; readers of fiction are used to accepting this kind of speculation, and blurring of fact and imagination. But Wideman takes it a step further. “On such and such a day,” Doot says,
in one of the stories I’m sure someone will tell me, I did hear Brother play. On such and such a day while the sun was shining and the wind died down and them trenches dug in the street so’s you could get around I remember Carl getting you ready and your mama saying No, saying it’s too bad outside, saying it while Carl is wrapping you in sweaters and a snowsuit so you looked like a bowling ball and Cold could have run over you with a truck and you wouldna felt a thing… One day I’ll be in the Tates’ living room listening. I’ll hear Brother. I’ll hear Albert Wilkes. (93) (emphasis added)
Doot assumes, first of all, that a story exists in which he saw Brother Tate play the piano, even though he has never actually heard such a tale. He feels confident enough to create a history that he has never confirmed. Secondly, where the emphasis has been added, he becomes the teller of the story he’s never heard (and after the emphasis, becomes Doot again). Not only does Doot have the power to change the past, he has the power to tell another’s story, with details—“the sun was shining” and “Carl is wrapping you in sweaters and a snowsuit”— that could only come from an actual observer. Additionally, it’s a point of view that has no identity. It’s simply “someone”: a relative, a neighbor, an unnamed person who just happened to bear witness. Unlike the Samantha-Junebug passage, the storyteller is anonymous, suggesting a kind of collective voice. Once again, Doot is accessing a story, a past, that seems interwoven in the fabric of Homewood, while at the same time adding to it. We are witnessing the creation of myth.
Wideman is breaking a lot of so-called rules about both time and fiction here. Manipulation & fabrication of past events. Rapid, ambiguous shifts in point-of-view. Usually when realist fiction reimagines historical events, this speculation is in some way “contained” and labeled as such. The writer does not assume that we will believe these reimaginings as the truth, but asks us to accept them for the sake of art. Wideman does as much in the first quoted passage from page 93. But in the rest of the passage, he does not seem to require the same distinction. It’s almost as if, by mixing the actual and the imagined, he is saying that the division doesn’t matter. A memory can be real or imagined, but no distinction is necessary. Memory is malleable, and what our mind generates is as important as what it truthfully remembers. And the unidentified point of view suggests that even that distinction is meaningless. Throughout the book, Wideman makes these shifts without any kind of transition. The neighborhood of Homewood speaks with one voice; distinctions between individuals are meaningless. A collective voice speaks the stories of the past.
This collective voice allows us to view historical events as features woven into the fabric of Homewood, as if the past were merely a feature of the scenery. If characters can access the history of their neighborhood at their leisure, whether they were witness to the history or not, then for all intents and purposes, all times, past and present, exist simultaneously. They are dimensions of the air and the landscape.
Albert Wilkes, in particular, haunts Homewood. When he returns to the neighborhood in 1934, he stops by his old residence (and is subsequently caught and killed by the authorities):
Wilkes shivered in the dark vestibule. Peered through the Tates’ colored front-door glass to locate the light he’d seen from the street. His hand dropped automatically to the brass knob and turned and pushed. The heavy door squealed then shuddered when it hit the high spot still not shaved after seven years. (59)
A few days later, entering the Tates’ house, Carl French “skip[s] across the porch, through the vestibule, and land[s] in the footprints of Albert Wilkes” (98).
Wideman then launches into a passage of dialogue between Carl and Lucy Tate, choosing not to contextualize the mention of the footprints. Carl is not “walking where Wilkes had been just days before.” And the mention of the footprints does not even form a simile; walking through the vestibule is not like walking in Wilkes’ footprints. Such a simile would create a more narratively traditional distance between the experiences of Carl and Wilkes. But Wideman doesn’t want to create any feeling of distance between the events of the past and the events of the present. Carl is quite literally standing in a dead man’s footprints, and those footprints have become a part of the house. This place is riddled with the impressions of the dead; the past and the present exist simultaneously.
It is not only the impressions of the dead but the dead themselves that live on in Homewood. As Wideman reveals very early on, Brother Tate dies in 1962. But he lives on, and not only because those who knew him continue to tell the stories of his life. In the bar in 1970, as Carl gets drunk with Doot, he feels Brother’s presence: “He knows his albino pardner is behind him. Doesn’t know why he knows but would bet his life Brother hovers just behind his right shoulder” (107). As we have learned, this narrative is prone to unannounced time travel, and this may passage may represent such a transition. The reader knows that Brother Tate is dead—is this another flashback? Will the story soon enter another stream of narrative, one that takes place in the past, when Brother is alive? It becomes clear, however, that the actual position in chronological time doesn’t really matter. Whether or not this is 1950 or 1970, before or after Brother has died, he is a physical presence throughout. In the geography of Homewood, all times exist at once.
The effect of all these unconventional choices can be dizzying, but it’s a remarkably satisfying dizziness. Freed from the constraints of classical time, what has become important? It certainly isn’t the truth. The chronology and geography of the novel line up with certain easily verifiable details of Wideman’s own life—he was born in 1941, in Homewood, Pennsylvania. His mother’s last name was French. Carl could certainly be his uncle, Lucy and Brother could be “real” people. And Doot is only the narrator’s nickname—Wideman never gives his real name. In an age where memoir is prized and truth is the ultimate test of quality, it may be tempting to wonder why Wideman “didn’t just write a memoir.” Halfway through the book, in a one-sentence paragraph, he comes as close to revealing the beating heart of the book as he is willing to get, writing: “The stories of Cassina Way sit like that. Timeless, intimidating, fragile” (117). The word ‘stories’ is important here. It suggests a telling and a retelling; when we hear stories, we think of Cinderella, the Brothers Grimm, Adam and Eve —myths that form the fabric of our culture. And these stories are timeless (not subject to the constraints of chronological time), intimidating (unassailable by virtue of their mythical status), and fragile (subject to metamorphosis; in memories, the truth can become obscured). Homewood is not just a place. It is a continuum containing four dimensions—the three coordinates that reveal one’s position in space, and the fourth, indicative of time. All four coordinates can be changed at will; we may travel from 1970 to 1941 just as easily as we may walk across the street.
Towards the conclusion of the novel, Lucy, Carl and Doot are at Lucy’s house, scene of so many stories, after their afternoon in the Velvet Slipper. Doot asks where all the old records are; Lucy and Carl both try to remember.
Hey, Carl. Where’s all those records your daddy used to have?
Can’t hear you…these chops is talking.
Go ask him, Doot. Bet he knows.
Lucy rocks, humming to herself the old tunes. How long. How long. And if I could holler like a mountain jack. Go to the mountain top and call my Baby back. One of the brittle black discs sails toward her. She is amazed by its flight, how it glides without a wobble, like it’s on an invisible turntable while it hangs graceful and weightless in thin air… Rodney Jones is crouched beside the phonograph. Price tags still dangle from the record player’s knobs. (205)
Lucy thinks about the old tunes, the music of her life; what remains as the novel closes is the indelible mark of music. Only rhythm governs the stories of Homewood, because time cannot. As if by magic, Lucy conjures a piece of the past—a dopehead friend throwing records through the air, risen from the dead, alive in the Tates’ house forever.
One virtue of art is that it can smooth the sometimes-merciless reality of our physical world, fragile and impermanent as it may be. In a letter to the family of a deceased friend, Einstein expressed his condolences in an unconventional way. He wrote that although the death was sad, it was of no real importance, “…for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”