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a wrinkle in time

10 february 2011

A Wrinkle in Time, the most canonical of all Newbery Medal winners, also represents – at least to my dim, provisional sense of the history of American juvenile literature – a watershed in how authors wrote for children. I've been reading my exceedingly desultory way through Newbery Medalists from the 1920s to the present in recent months. Before 1960, they've all been "conventionally" told fictions: if your idea of "conventional" is the "told," linear, rhetorical Victorian novel with plenty of orientational exposition. But A Wrinkle in Time jumps into its story in media res, doesn't explain much of its universe, and delivers vivid, immediate "shown" action to its readers. It's a modernist narrative, at least in terms of its formal craft. And I suspect that the subsequent direction of highbrow children's fiction owes much to Madeleine L'Engle's confidence that young readers could appreciate modernist narration.

Not postmodernist, mind you. And the distinction is not at all one of chronology. Postmodernism is a defining mode of many early modern fictions (Don Quixote, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Tristram Shandy); it isn't by any means an invention of the 20th century. Modernism is a 20th-century invention, or at least perfection of some late 19th-century trends. Modernist fiction depends on immediate showing via image, raw language, "stream of consciousness," but its material is usually laid out in linear fashion: Clarissa Dalloway and Leopold Bloom both live out strictly-clocked days of their lives, in Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses. The best-known feature of A Wrinkle in Time is its science-fiction warping of space-time, the famous "tesseract" that allows its characters to leap from planet to planet and get home five minutes before they set out. But the actual sequence of episodes in the novel is entirely linear. No matter how wrinkly the universe, in A Wrinkle in Time first one thing happens, then another, and then the next, and each chapter builds in complexity and tension upon the previous ones.

But we experience this tension in direct physical and psychological language. When protagonist Meg Murry "tessers" to another planet, we aren't told what she looks like to an observer, still less treated to some pre-modern narrator telling us "Now you must know, children, when a little girl tessers, she has an awfully wonderful adventure." Instead

she felt a pressure she had never imagined, as though she were being completely flattened out by an enormous steam roller. This was far worse than the nothingness had been; while she was nothing there was no need to breathe, but now her lungs were squeezed together so that although she was dying for want of air there was no way for her lungs to expand and contract, to take in the air that she must have to stay alive. (90)
Meg doesn't know what's happening. Each of her first few space-time travels is a little different (and in fact, in the one just quoted, something's gone wrong, but she has no idea what). She just has to live through the experience for the first time.

You see the analogy to childhood itself. Without the adult narrator hovering over the story knowingly, without the omniscient exposition telling us things will be all right, the mystery and anxiety of encountering new things becomes part of the story, just as it's a constant part of the child reader's life.

And children obviously love it. They loved A Wrinkle in Time in the 1960s, and they still do; of all the winners of the Newbery Medal, it would continue to have the healthiest readership if all its little gold stickers suddenly fell off. It's become an archetypal high fantasy. Its kinships, looking backward, extend to Alice in Wonderland (invoked several times by Meg herself), Oz, Peter Pan, C.S. Lewis, and Norman Juster's Phantom Tollbooth (1961), which also begins with zipping through a wrinkle in the world, and shows its high-verbal affinity in several of L'Engle's character names, like the Happy Medium and the Happiest Sadist. The influence of A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels shows everywhere in children's literature of the last 50 years, including notably The Giver, but also series like Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and any fantasy where children are drafted into a great conflict between good and evil, which is to say a bunch of them.

And the creators of Star Trek were certainly Madeleine L'Engle fans. Travel through rifts in space-time is an earlier SF idea, but beaming up, a more original Star Trek idea, is basically tessering over shorter distances. And Meg's climactic conflict with IT, the chillingly inhuman ultimate brain of the planet Camazotz, prefigures any number of Star Trek scenarios where our heroes meet implacable logic with raw emotions: think of Captain Kirk shorting out the evil computer with illogic, or Captain Picard struggling against the Collective as Locutus of Borg.

For all its high quality and evident importance, I have to say this in passing: high fantasy is not my favorite genre of children's literature, and therefore A Wrinkle in Time is far from my favorite children's book. I like whimsy and wordplay (The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my favorites); I like speculative fictions and slowly-developed new worlds to explore. But the drama of titanic struggles for good and evil in a contested Universe leaves me a bit flat. My fault, not the book's! If you are a grown-up fantasy fan, or a kid looking for a more interesting world to save than that of Hogwarts, A Wrinkle in Time is for you.

L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. 1962. New York: Holtzbrinck, 2007.