“All the Time in the World” from E.L. Doctorow’s collection All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories reads more like a guided meditation that a linear narrative. It works like a really good music video works, complete with colorful imagery, lyrical refrains, and compelling twists.
The landscape of the story is a nameless city with buildings that go up fast filled with naked, dancing ladies. The narrator is a runner who tries to avoid the confusion of the masses –
To avoid the bent old ladies and their carts of groceries and their walkers and canes and black women helpers taking up three-quarters of the sidewalk, I run in the street. I mean cars are less of a problem. In typical traffic they are standing still as I run past the horns blowing their dissonant mass protest, and so I wear earmuffs and I am fine.
Yet, the narrator runs, he reveals, because he doesn’t know what else to do. He sees no point in going to the movies, “with their filmed stories that I am supposed to worry over.” He feels out of place, even though there are other runners like him.
The story then shifts to certain meta-fictional, metaphysical questions, such as –
You may ask how I pass the time when I am not running. Alone, is my answer — as alone as when I am running. My only company is the grammarian who lives with me in my brain.
The narrator paints a picture of physical, emotional, and spiritual aloneness – a purposeless existence that is random and unguided. When not talking to the grammarian in his brain, he uses the speed-dial on his cell phone:
You may ask to whom I think I am talking. I say I am talking to you. And who may that be, you say. And then I recognize who it is. It is my mother.
You have all the time in the world, she says.
Until something happens, Mother says.
What can happen?
If we knew, she says, and breaks the connection.
The story then moves to the weather, from running in the rainwater, to the warmth and humidity of the sun. Some trash is blowing in the street and the runner picks up “a handwritten letter on blue vellum, feeling it was meant for me.”
The ink of my letter runs like tears as I read, while rising to my floor, the grief of an abandoned lover. She can’t understand why he has left her, she needs to see him, come back, she says, come to me, for she still loves him, she always will, and it is all so sad, so sad, so sad, and I don’t know who threw the letter away, he after reading it, or she after writing it…
The story circles back and forth…
… to the naked dancing girl
…. to speed-dialing (his father, his therapist)
… to sadness
The call to the therapist is particularly revealing of the narrator’s frustration –
Yes? To whom do you think you are talking?
You got him.
I’m having that feeling again.
That is to be expected.
It’s like I’m living in exile. I’m lonely. I have no one.
That is to be expected.
Why? Why is it to be expected? That’s all you ever say.
No. I say other things. I say you are in a rut. I say change your lifestyle, expand your horizons…
You might say “All the Time in the World” goes no where, but the it uses the time it takes to get there well – in describing the futility of modern attempts to make sense of the world – being stuck in traffic while Buddhist monks in saffron robes dance in circles, running until his heartbeat becomes irregular, then calling his internist who says, “You are just frightened.”
Desperate for meaning, the narrator winds up in a confessional. Even there, he finds no consolation, but jargon instead – “the corporeal illustion”, “the gender identity.”
Doctorow weaves a hint of hope in the last two paragraphs of the story, as he looks at the deep blue sky and welcomes the springtime. He seems to suggest there is some hope in nature that can not be found in civilization, even if only a “reverberant hum, as of some distant engine.”
The story doesn’t take us to any Promised Land, it only suggests that there may be a better place out there, but all the avenues we currently follow only leave us in exile.
Not to worry, though, we have “All the Time in the World”.
(image of E.L. Doctorow from Christopher Korbel in All Kinds Of Writers)