7 Books About Multiple Timelines and Blurred Realities

What if you could lead more than one life?

Photo by Robby McCullough on Unsplash

Years ago, I had a conversation with another writer, Allison Wyss, about the utter unfairness of being trapped in a single timeline, a single life. I had no interest in life extension, but life expansion—all the things at once, “Garden of Forking Paths” style—was becoming an obsession. And she responded that she thinks story was primarily a mechanism for this type of life expansion: I may be seated on a bus to Philly, but I can simultaneously be standing in Kublai Khan’s garden while he converses with Marco Polo even though they share no spoken language. I can be loved and warm and in a home of my own making while also experiencing a chicken’s understanding of the infinite in its moment of death. Story makes a life broader by pressing outward at the edges of any given moment.

Quantum Girl Theory by Erin Kate Ryan

For my novel Quantum Girl Theory, I toyed with this idea by creating multiple timelines, multiple lifelines, for a 18-year-old girl who disappeared in 1946. I found delicious potential in the idea that the lives we don’t live could still insert themselves into our experience, expanding the meaning and edges of each life, every life, through incorporation of what might have been.

The following novels explore this idea of multi-layered reality, of the expanded moment, in radically different ways. Many of these books are award-winners, so I’m under no delusions that I’m introducing you to anyone new—but I find it pleasing to place these novels side by side, to see how they may be in conversation with each other or with the common idea of one (linear) life not being enough.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

In Canada, a writer named Ruth finds the water-logged diary of a Japanese girl named Nao; Ruth finds herself responding with intense urgency to events that, by virtue of having been written down years earlier, had already resolved themselves. Separated by continents and years, it should be impossible for Ruth to change the already sailed course of Nao’s life—and yet Ozeki gives us a story where every moment we live has the capacity to expand outward, both backward and forward in time.

Madeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

In the middle of a chaotic pastoral home, to her mother’s growing consternation, Madeleine lies sleeping, and dreaming. Both Madeleine’s dream world and the world of her French village are fully realized, drawing on the entrenched realm of fairy tale to deepen the movements and interplay between the two. As the novel progresses, the boundary between dream and reality becomes increasingly porous, multiplying the reader’s experience of time by enriching every gesture, every moment, with its dream-double. 

Long Division by Kiese Laymon

In everything Kiese Laymon writes, I think, he’s doing careful work with time and language. He makes repetition into a tool for language and idea formation; he forges revision into a mechanism for liberation. In this novel, characters are doubled, troubles and traumas are doubled, and the ability to visit (and change) the past makes every prior event present and future, as well. In Long Division, no moment has ever passed—it is always ripe for revisiting, revising, expanding, rewriting into a fuller, freer existence. 

Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed

Narrated by the just-born child of the protagonist in the elongated moment of his first breath, this novel complicates and shatters the concept of a discrete point in time. Over and over, each gesture, sentiment, reaction becomes a hyperlink to prior experience, to trauma and heartbreak and desire and embedded instinct. This is what novels can do for us: capture humans’ deeply layered experience of the present moment, particularly for those whose lives and identities compel them to live multiple versions of themselves simultaneously. 

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

You have a script, and at each turn you must play your character, interact with the other characters, and maintain your relationships with the actors playing the other characters (who are also your neighbors, and maybe your dad), all while adding to the forward momentum of the TV show you’re in, while also trying to become a breakout star without looking too much like you are trying to become a breakout star, and participating (or trying to fight) the tired cultural story the TV show is playing out over and over. Interior Chinatown employs the novel form and the script format to make space for the breadth and contradiction and import of a scene, a minute, a life—and the dizzying, spirographic effect of both roles willingly accepted and those imposed from outside.

Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe

The multivalent storylines in Delayed Rays unfurl from an Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and Anna May Wong taken at a party in 1928 Berlin. Each woman’s path spirals outward and returns back to the making of the photograph, retrofitting the moment of the camera’s flash with 40, 60, 75 years of future events, desires, and loss. 

Bunny by Mona Awad

Samantha’s mother had frequent complaints about her relationship to the truth, we are told, so when Samantha unfurls an increasingly bizarre and compulsively readable story (shape-shifting! incantations! blood sacrifice!), we’re left to sit with a sort of blurred fact/fiction, madness/reality state, and a multi-dimensional idea of mundane life overlaid by, or embellished with, the more interesting story it might be.

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