‘Stop-time’ is one of the most influential books of memoir written in the 20th century. It tells the story of its authors early life and his experience growing up in New York City and later in Florida. This paper will consider the book, in particular it will focus on its early sections in which Conroy employs strict poetic and literary technique in his writing. In doing this it will demonstrate that the novel reflects a key tension in its structure. Although it is an autobiography and a memoir it deliberately generates situations of emotional detachment and of sense of existential meaninglessness. By doing this the novel presents a tension between its form and its content what allows it to stand as a unique work.
The first chapter of the novel beings to demonstrate this as Conroy speaks of his experience of his father in a way that moves between emotional connection and simple matter of fact description. Parts of his life that could be considered to be intensely interesting are dealt with in a matter of fact way and therefore their emotional impact is undercut. Conroy writes; ‘At one point in his [the author’s father] life, he was analysed or took therapy with A. A. Brill, the famous disciple of Freud, with no apparent effect. For ten or fifteen ears he worked as a magazine editor, and built up a good business as a literary agent. He died of cancer in his forties’ (12). The way that the prose works here serves to create the impression the impression that both the boring and the exciting aspects of Conroy’s father’s life had equal importance and measure as he considered them. This effect comes from the fact that Conroy writes in a matter of fact way about things that are both interesting and banal. This generates an emotional tension within the work and takes a trope that is usually associated with existentialist novels and employs it in the service of memoir.
This strategy can be seen as running throughout the novel as Conroy proceeds to describe not only his relationship with his father but also his schooling and the different cities which he inhabits as he grows up. At times this literary motif is employed in order to generate feelings of direct tension and historical importance in even the most banal and seemingly unimportant of events. For example, when Conroy writes of his school days, he shows how it was possible for the boys in their imagination to generate a situation in which they were able to impose their meaning on events that contained little in themselves. He writes; ‘The school day is over. A mood of manic hilarity fills every classroom as we wait the final bell. The aisles are crowded with laughing, shouting boys. The teachers, already on their way home mentally, sit behind their desks with lowered heads an occupy themselves with small unnecessary tasks’ (50). This passage generates a sense in which it is possible to argue that the smallest events of everyday are given a tension and importance. By writing in the present tense then Conroy creates tension and a sense that this tension pervades his work as a whole. Conroy presents a panoramic view of a school day that shows that demonstrates the world as a plentitude to the child’s imagination. By employing the present tense, a literary device that is usually reserved for the kind of fiction that explicitly builds suspense and tension, Conroy is able to generate a sense of immanence in his writing that imbues the simple fact of a school day with excitement and tension. The boy clearly sit there, waiting and carefully expecting the ‘final bell.’ This is a bell that will occur in any one moment in time and the form of Conroy’s prose positions the reader on the edge of this moment in order to generate excitement. Once again, therefore, it is possible to argue that the most effective element of the writing comes as Conroy employs techniques associated with fiction in order to construct a memoir.
At points in the novel, this technique of tension building through taking the reader in to the moment of the story, despite the fact it is a memoir is combined with poetic technique that shows the power of youth overcoming the banality of the world. When writing about the boys’ escape from school, Conroy continues to use the present tense and highly evocative language. He writes; ‘Around the corner the avenue gleams with neon. Most of us have already forgotten the five hours inside the school because for most us school is less than nothing. We spread like a liquid over the neighbourhood and disappear in the subways’ (51). The use of poetic technique here, especially in the final line gives a strongly evocative sense to the scene that Conroy describes. At the same time as effectively relating a real event in his life and in the city of New York, an event that took place almost every day and in several locations, Conroy uses metaphor and poetry in order to give both a documentary and fantastical effect to his writing. Ultimately, it is this mixture of narration and fictional technique, combined with an existentialist world view, that mark the book’s unique aesthetic.
In conclusion, this paper has argued that ‘Stop-time’ conduct itself according to a method whereby fictional and poetic techniques are mixed with the narration of memoir and that its effect derives from this combination. In particular this mixture emerges early in the novel and can be seen to persist throughout it in the use of motifs and descriptions of characters that both manifest emotional content and also suggest emotional detachment. It is this tension between content and detachment that marks the novel’s overall feel and tone and can be seen to be its defining feature as a work of art.