The difference between fiction that affects its readers momentarily and fiction whose influence they feel ever after lies frequently in the writer's handling of a single element: time.
We read fiction to pass time. Once inside the borders of a printed story, we adjust to the flow of the book's local time. We ride the train home from work; a character's entire life unwinds in the hour between our settling into a seat and collecting coat and briefcase for arrival. A character wakes in another book's bright morning, and we exhaust the limits of our own two-week vacation before he has stepped into the hours of his afternoon.
One of reading's most intense and distinctive pleasures is this experience of flowing simultaneously with the currents of two separate streams: inner time and outer.
One of writing's paramount achievements is to cause those separate streams, artistic time and actual time, suddenly to converge. Joy Williams engineers such a confluence in ''The Skater'' (Esquire, August).
''Annie and Tom and Molly are looking at boarding schools. Molly is the applicant, 14 years old. Annie and Tom are the mom and dad.'' Not an auspicious beginning, but Williams knows what she is about in her choice of the ''Dick and Jane''-style narration; she uses its hackneyed monotone to lull before a final shock. ''It is winter and there is snow on the ground. They have flown from California and rented a car. Their plan is to see seven New England boarding schools in five days.''
Molly is 14; one year earlier, her sister Martha died by choking on a piece of bread. Now, Annie, Tom, and Molly travel from school to school to motel to school, joking, comparing notes, and drifting into anxious meditations. Tom drives in his dreams each night, his car locked in an inescapable, deadly skid. Annie sees threats to Molly and Tom in the picture of a moose, the dimensions of a radio. Molly sits in the back seat of the rental car. She ''can't see her parents' faces. She can't remember the way they looked when she was a baby. She can't remember what she and Martha last fought about.'' The commonplace can so quickly be snatched away to become the forever lost.
At one school, a guide shows Molly a new hockey rink. The rink was built as a memorial to a former student who died at age 17. Molly studies the commemorative portrait in which the boy skates toward her across a patch of eternal ice. Beyond her vision, is Martha skating the same glittering surface?
Molly, Annie, and Tom arrive at the last lodging before the final school to find an inn empty of any guests but them. The owner serves them dinner, then offers them his frozen lake and skates. Molly and Annie are not interested. Tom goes outside on an errand. The night is black; on an impulse, he ventures out upon the ice. ''He wants to be out there. He wants to be out there with Annie.''
''From the window, Molly sees her father on the ice. After a moment she sees her mother moving toward him, not skating, but slipping forward, making her way. She sees their awkward shapes embrace. Molly sees them, already remembering.''
That ''already remembering'' dissolves the barrier separating future, past, and present, even as it shocks the reader with the awareness that Molly's consciousness is our own. Thanks to Williams's masterful manipulation of time, we stand with Molly at a window on present life, seeing and already remembering.