Alan Lightman‘s brief novel, published in 1993, begins with a prologue in which a distant clock tower calls out six times and then stops. A young man slumps at his desk. In his hands are twenty crumpled pages, his theory of time which he will mail today to the German journal of physics. The rest of the novel is a series of vignettes unfolding in incandescent prose, playing with time. In some of the dreams time is circular, in others it is frozen, in yet others people cling to it, thereby stalling their lives. The final poignant scenario takes place just before the distant clock tower strikes eight, reminding us of exactly how much time has really passed.
… this flock of nightingales is time. Time flutters and fidgets and hops with these birds. Trap one of these nightingales beneath a bell jar and time stops. The moment is frozen for all people and trees and soil caught within.
In truth, these birds are rarely caught. The children, who alone have the speed to catch birds, have no desire to stop time. For the children, time moves too slowly already. They rush from moment to moment, anxious for birthdays and new years, barely able to wait for the rest of their lives.
Lightman is a physicist by training and the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and the developing world, specifically through housing, education, and leadership training. In this book, he is really after the nature of the mind. Each short vignette is written from an omniscient and rather distant point of view, yet each is able to tap the inner needs and longings, dreams and failures of the people inhabiting its dream world, as well as the young Einstein himself. Time is infinitely variable, the novel tells us. The whole thing is an impressionistic meditation on what makes people tick, and a reminder of how very small we are in the greater scheme of things.