Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1232
As a portrait of an artist, Stop-Time bears comparison with others within that subgenre. It is not, however, simply a quest for artistic form; Conroy’s autobiography relates the search for acceptable forms of human relationship. As The New Republic noted of his later short fiction, the book concerns “how to live in the world as an adult male” and the difficulty of establishing endurable relations with father figures, youthful comrades, and women. It recounts the growth of sexual self-consciousness with candor and humor, recapturing the bafflement, timidity, and desperate aggression of an adolescent boy. Although Conroy emphasizes the idyllic friendship between him and another elementary school boy in Florida, the book succeeds most in its depiction of the terrible isolation of adolescence. As part of a dysfunctional family on the fringes of American life, Frank is most often voyeuristic in all relationships, not only those explicitly sexual.
The story also provides insight into the world of bohemian life and utopian experimentation during the years following World War II. After leaving the anarchy of a “progressive school,” young Frank is pulled from place to place by his Danish mother and her lover (later her husband), a displaced New Orleans Frenchman. For much of his childhood, the family moves back and forth between the wreck of a Socialist utopia in the sandy wastes of an abandoned South Florida housing tract and the streets of New York City, where his stepfather is engaged in a number of fruitless get-rich-quick schemes. Whether socialistic or financially opportunistic, all schemes are equally suspect, and Frank perceives them as the indulgence of the lazy and weak-minded. Any dogma, even his stepfather’s preoccupation with “pure food,” is a symptom of formlessness and lies dangerously close to the ultimate formlessness of insanity.
Conroy is clearly less interested in describing a certain period in American life than in revealing the manifold indications of the sheer madness which looms everywhere. The threat of psychic breakdown informs the entire book, from his father’s insanity to that of his sister, the twisted cruelty of their boarder, the instability of his stepfather, the derangement of a wealthy woman with whom he has an affair, the mental fragility of a beautiful girl in a Danish language school, and the harrowing scenes inside the institution for the retarded at which his parents were night wardens. Attempting to escape the loneliness of his parents’ cabin by staying the night with them in the mental institution, Frank is overwhelmed by the urgency of the inmates’ cries. He feels himself standing “balanced on the pinpoint of my own sanity, a small, cracked tile in the floor.” Throughout the story, as in the events of the frame, the narrator shifts uneasily at the edge.
The autobiography totters between sanity and madness, control and chaos, self-consciousness and self-annihilation. Its fragmentary bits are held together by a highly selective and technically astute arrangement of repeated motifs. Conroy explores the exceedingly narrow division between a sense of one’s self and the loss of self, and posits the capacity for design and control as the lifesaving mediating force between the two extremes. In one of the book’s central chapters, “White Days, Red Nights,” Conroy describes the winter he endured for the most part alone in a makeshift cabin while his parents worked at the Connecticut state home for the retarded. The nightmare hallucinations of his nights, he explains, at least “came from inside my own head. I was making it all, and although it was terrifying, it was not, as were the days, cosmically threatening.” The days, however, “were emptiness, a vast spacious emptiness in which the fact of being alive became almost meaningless. . . . I wasn’t conscious of what was happening, I lived it. I became invisible. I lost myself.”
Other silences are as intoxicating as they are frightening. He remembers awakening without memory in a white, sunlit room, and this moment he calls “the exact, spatial center of my life, the one still point.” Of equal attraction is the “waking sleep” of total absorption in music. Silence takes even more forms: Some allow the most vivid sense of both the immensity of the surrounding universe and the particularity of one’s own reality. Of his unsupervised days in the open spaces of the sandy Florida pine woods, he recalls how he and his companion sat alone in the complete silence around them: “We shouted in joy and fear, sending our voices ahead to animate the bleakness, supremely conscious of ourselves as pinpoints of life in a world of dead things. . . .” Alone under the stars, the two boys find themselves “nervous, filled with passion” at the infinitude of sky. Later, listening to the shrieks and moans of the mental patients at the Connecticut institution, Conroy says:It was if all the saints, martyrs, and mystics of human history were gathered into a single building, each one crying out at the moment of revelation, each one truly there at his extreme of joy or pain, crying out with the purity of total selflessness.
In such sequences Frank feels the terror of the impersonal and the overwhelming need to express the self. Afraid of the abyss of the universe, on the one hand, and the disorder of the purely personal, on the other, he begins a quest for the structured form, the static and self-sustaining configuration which will give meaning to a haphazard world of experience.
As part of the quest, Frank begins to read, since in reading the chaos of experience becomes ordered and capable of examination. He develops mastery of a difficult yo-yo stunt pointedly called “The Universe,” and of his prowess says that he was “finally free, in one small area at least, of the paralyzing sloppiness of life in general.” Eventually he sees art’s capacity for organizing experience in his friend’s sketch of a door lock, a drawing which within its own stasis captures motion and change. In a final scene, the procedure of college board examinations allows Frank to perform with great skill during the segmented, organized parcel of time represented by the stopwatch of the examiner. Similarly, the design and finality of his own book provides the essential structure for his past life. As Stop-Time ends with the narrator walking away from his demolished car, laughing, Conroy suggests that while self-annihilation remains a powerful, magnetic attraction for its author, the book—whose composition necessarily follows the crash chronologically—can harness that dark force into the tense strength of its own creative design.
While the events and persons depicted in Stop-Time appear to have existed, most names are changed and chronology altered. Childhood and adolescence are brought alive without any self-conscious apparatus of recall; except for the frame and one reference to the present (given in montage, without transition), Conroy makes no mention of any present outside the time of the narrative. Like what Irish author George Moore termed his own autobiography, “a novel about real people,” Stop-Time reads with the immediacy of such autobiographical fiction as D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) or Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). Yet Conroy did not publish the book as a novel. A nonfictional text claims to represent in some sense the world outside itself; for Conroy the affirmation of an integrated self may depend upon the design his own autobiography imposes upon his lived experience.