Chronicling Life’s White Machine

July 31, 2017 | 10 7 min read

“I came to realize that far more important to me than any plot or conventional sense was the sheer directionality I felt while reading prose, the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine.”
Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station

In the creative writing classes I teach, my students—most of them brand new at writing fiction—often go crazy writing plot. Their understanding of fiction, derived from a Stephenie Meyer/J.K. Rowling/Suzanne Collins-heavy reading background (not to mention 18 years of TV and movies), is that in fiction, stuff needs to happen.  These early stories are breakneck affairs, full of marriages and divorces and car chases and gunplay and fistfights and murders and suicides and murder-suicides—sometimes spinning several into the same piece.  They are B-movie scripts written as prose, mostly expository.

Slow down, I advise, boringly.  They listen, or pretend to listen, as I explain that literary fiction, the kind I am ostensibly being paid to instruct them how to write, is more character than plot.  This is axiomatic: in literature, character is primary, always.  Yes, things must happen, but they can be small things, incremental turns of the thousand gears that make up a narrative’s clockwork interior mechanism.  And they should be things, ultimately, that derive from character.  My students nod and proceed to write stories with gunfighting vampires—but introspective gunfighting vampires—and get an A-minus, probably.

Lately, however, I’ve read a spate of critically lauded books published in the last few years that make me feel like one of my students.  Where, I wonder, pausing halfway through, is the action?  To be sure, there is still plenty of fiction being written with conventional plot, plenty of bestsellers with blood-soaked covers, but it has begun to seem to me that many of today’s best writers are writing fiction in which almost quite literally nothing happens.

coverThe prefatory Ben Lerner quote comes from his 2009 novel, the roman-a-clefish Leaving the Atocha Station.  In it, Adam Gordon, a 20-something in Madrid on a Fulbright fellowship, wanders around the city smoking pot, thinking about poetry, writing very little of it himself, and freaking out when he isn’t sleeping.  In other words, he is a 20-something poet abroad.  What event there is, including the titular Madrid bombing, happens to him or near him, not because of him.  Early on, for instance, he passively gloms onto a group of strangers in a bar, is befriended by a gregarious Madrileño and his sister, vomits from an excess of Mojitos, is driven home but can’t remember the address, is driven to a party, smokes too much pot while listening to a guitar player, pretends to cry while telling the sister his mother has died, and is comforted by her.

I suppose there’s a bit of action there, in terms of his weaselly dissembling, but that’s about as far as it goes.  The page turns, and we are on to the next day of espressos in the shower and lonely flaneuring around the Prado and Plaza del Sol and Gran Via.  The point is repeatedly made that Adam cannot really speak Spanish, a narrative choice that, on its face, thematizes the problems Adam has with poetry and representation, but on a practical (read:  plot) level also means that he cannot really do anything.  His agency is limited by narrative design, clearing maximal novelistic space for his thought process, a process that includes lengthy ruminations on his lack of agency.

coverTeju Cole’s Open City takes this mode a step further, almost entirely dispensing with conventional plot in favor of the narrator Julius’s peregrinations through New York.  These “aimless wanderings” as he describes them in Chapter One, also describe the book’s narrative strategy, one in which the real-time event of Julius moving through the city is simply a pretext for him to think about the city, his life, the world, politics, as he says, “noticing himself noticing.”

Flaneuring is, of course, nothing new in literary novels, nor, more generally is the phenomenon of the most important action occurring in thought.  What, for example, is Madame Bovary besides the portrait of a woman noticing herself notice her real feelings about her life and her marriage?  What seems different is the degree to which these books, and many similar others published in the last few years, feel little pressure to make anything happen or put their characters in any sort of plot-driven crucible.

It would be negligent to discuss books lacking event without mentioning that 800-pound gorilla of strategic tedium, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.  The Min Kamp series is an ode to inaction, a paean to plotlessness.  The first section of Book I, approximately 200 pages, is committed to Karl Ove’s recollection of an adolescent New Year’s eve, during which he and a friend finagle a twelver of beer, hide it in the woods, and attend a classmate’s boring party.  That’s it.  Interwoven are lots of digressions about life, death, philosophy, and fatherhood—many of them interesting—but also interwoven are lots of other digressions into his daily existence, many of punishing mundanity (how many times, for example, are we treated to a scene of Knausgaard entering a gas station and buying a Coke?).  Even the weightier second half of the book, given over to an account of the week between his father’s death and funeral, focuses mainly on all the stuff narrative is supposed to leave out: waiting on a flight, cleaning a bathroom, cleaning a kitchen, putting on a pair of pants—all flatly rendered in a po-faced Nordic mock-heroism.

The static quality imparted in these books is not accidental, is, in fact, purposeful and, in certain senses, the point.  You do not, in either reality or in Knausgaard, get the epiphany without the apophany.  As a human body is mostly water, a human life is mostly waiting, mostly killing time between the main events.  But fiction, as we have understood it for centuries, could be defined in character as “main events.”  Traditionally, fiction seeks to strip out the tangential and irrelevant, the moments between moments, to create an accelerated version of reality in which relatively important things lead to other relatively important things—it isn’t that important things don’t happen in real life, it’s that it takes far too long to get from one to the next, and along the way any narrative outlines become lost in banality, what Lerner, cadging from John Ashbery, describes as “life’s white machine.”

coverWhy then, are some of the smartest and most celebrated writers in modern literature (I count among these, as well, Rachel Cusk, whose incomplete trilogy—Outline, Transit—is a study in passivity and seeming tangentiality; to some extent Elena Ferrante, whose Naples quartet accrues its violence and romance in endless reiterative, sedimentary layers; also, Sheila Heti, and an entire generation of creative non-fiction writers, a separate but closely related phenomenon)—telling stories that are largely banal, largely life’s white machine?

One reason (as is, regrettably, so often the answer to this kind of rhetorical):  the Internet.  In moving our consumption of news and media from top-down to an a la carte model, the Internet has changed the way we are accustomed to receiving and disseminating information.  Information of all variety spreads now across a series of nodes on a relatively flat plane of authority, and this change, though most frequently and obviously framed in terms of journalism, has also inevitably impacted the way we read and write novels.  Put one way, William Shakespeare—or for that matter, Leo Tolstoy or Marilynne Robinson—is to Edward R. Murrow as Teju Cole is to your Twitter feed.

This is a facile comparison, but it has some truth, I think.  In an era of vertical information—roughly prehistory until 2005—novelists predictably wrote vertically.  In the 19th century, a still-religious era with consolidated organs of journalism and publishing, authors wrote with epochal authority, a confidence in the universality of their observations and judgments:  it is a truth universally acknowledged, all happy families are alike, etc.

Even through the upheavals of the 20th century, there remained an essential confidence in the role of the author as someone bringing the news.  Postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and Don DeLillo may have doubted the institutions of their country, may have created new landscapes of American paranoia, but they had little paranoia or doubt with regard to their essential role as shapers and interpreters of a shared reality.

As has been noted with tiresome frequency in the wake of the election, we now occupy individuated worlds of curated art, opinion, reality.  There may still be objective truth, but it isn’t clear that we can reach consensus on what it is, and we accept as consensus fewer and fewer people as authorities.  Of course, the word “authority” derives from the word “author,” and the act of writing itself is inherently an act of authority, of assuming the right to create and order words and thereby create sense.  But there are degrees of order and sense in narrative, and writers like Lerner, Cole, Cusk, Knausgaard, and many others, it seems to me, are responding to this mood of uncertainty—if I may be grand, this weakening of cultural epistemic authority—by mitigating the authority they exert in their narratives; in general, by moving from the objective to the subjective.

This manifests in certain ways—for one thing, in a preponderance of first person narrative.  Third-person assumes the right to speak for, to inhabit, other characters than oneself, and to manipulate these characters, imbuing the text with a unitary consciousness; first-person, no matter the degree of artifice, implies a bounded consciousness, the disconnection between people.  And disconnected first-person narratives—from blog posts to reality show confessional to the infantile tweets of our deranged president—are essentially the narratives of our time.  It is not hard to mentally recast these writers as social media types:  Knausgaard, the maximalist oversharer; Lerner, the pomo ironic; Cusk, the reticent philosopher; Heti, the more traditional diarist.  (As an aside, it may to some extent subliminally flatter the reading public to imagine that a compilation of their status updates and thoughts on their life could—with a little editorial organization—comprise a publishable novel.)

coverAnd this mitigated fictional authority also manifests in a tendency toward plotlessness and mundanity.  The act of making up a story is an act of control, an exertion of order over entropy.  The more carefully narrative is created, the more meticulously event is arranged for effect, the greater the implied presence of authorial control in the traditional sense.  William Makepeace Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, for example, engages in a decades-long arrangement of characters’ lives, moving Becky Sharp and company around a diorama, into which he occasionally enters to comment:  This is what happened to everyone, and why.  In contrast, reproducing life “as it happens” in this type of quasi-memoiristic fiction, implies a position of authorial neutrality, with no presumption of ordering event for narrative effect or explanatory power:  This is what happened to me, and who can say why?

It may also be the case that we are, to an extent, culturally fatigued by plot.  Five minutes of cable news provides sufficient event, enough dramatic twists and lurid intrigue, to sate anyone’s appetite for the fictional stand-in.  Any adult with a job and smartphone is inundated with an unprecedented amount of media and advertising.  Our attention is competed for nearly incessantly, with previous limits of mental privacy seemingly encroached on further every day—you cannot take a flight, ride in a cab, or gas up your car without a chyron scrolling beneath your weary eyes.

Eventless fiction can, through this lens, be seen as a form of cultural protest, a refusal to vie for a reader’s scanty attention via the bright, shiny artifacts of plot.  In terms of aesthetic experience, it is also a respite—I suspect many readers find themselves pleasantly lulled by the snowdrifts of Knausgaard’s youth, the quiet calm of the novel’s glacial inaction.  During these “interesting times” (as the old saw would have it), an intelligent response may be to write less interesting fiction.

is a writer and teacher living in Carrboro, NC.  The paperback edition of his first novel, The Grand Tour, is now available on Anchor Books.  His podcast, Fan's Notes, is a bi-weekly discussion about books and basketball.  He can be found online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

10 comments:

  1. I find that Cusk does the no plot thing the best. I funished book one of struggle, but I cannot do that sort of thing again; I find it difficult to be attached to a story or feel much without a plot.

  2. Appreciate the analysis here but I think you may be complicating things. Could it be that Lerner, Cole, and Knaussgaard are simply dull writers without much to say? (I haven’t read Cusk, but “writer as main character” sets off alarm bells; Ferrante seems to be included here by accident, surely you don’t place her books in the same “wandering around doing nothing” genre as Lerner??)

    “It may also be the case that we are, to an extent, culturally fatigued by plot.”

    Who is “we”? You seem to imply that Lerner et al are writing in response to some market thirst for this type of book. I don’t know the exact sales numbers but I’m guessing one plotty James Patterson book outsells Lerner, Cole, Knaussy combined. Even within literary fiction I don’t think indy bookstores are selling out of those writers.

    “Eventless fiction can, through this lens, be seen as a form of cultural protest”

    You’re trying to hard here. Nobody says “the world is crazy so I’m going to pick up a novel about a dude thinking. Take that Trump!”

    “…an intelligent response may be to write less interesting fiction.”

    Um, no. Please god, no. Do the opposite. Write more interesting fiction.

    Anyhow – thanks for the thoughtful piece.

  3. So am I wrong for having felt this way while reading much of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man?

  4. “The act of making up a story is an act of control, an exertion of order over entropy. The more carefully narrative is created, the more meticulously event is arranged for effect, the greater the implied presence of authorial control in the traditional sense.”
    This line comes closer than anything I’ve read in the last couple years–and I’ve been looking–for something to explain why I’m finding fiction so difficult to write these last couple years. (For now, in fact, I’ve sort of given up and am writing only non-fiction.) The world I know has crumbled and disappeared, and the notion of control, authorial and otherwise, is fraught in a new way for me. The plotless novel comes as a relief–I don’t have the patience for the artificialities of traditional work, what Cusk calls ‘moving Jane and John in and out of the room’–in favor of the mind at work. I feel an urgency to understand the world in a different way than I have before. Thanks for this very thoughtful piece.

  5. Hi toad,

    I included Ferrante because so much of the event in her novels seems reiterative, in the service of creating the sense of “and another thing,” perhaps to comment on the agency of her characters. To be sure, she is a very different writer from the others.

    To your other points, I find these novels, and this approach to novel writing, both vexing and intriguing. I think these writers have a great deal to say, but I also wonder about the formal strategy of disavowing plot, hence this essay.

    And no, of course there is no great mass clamoring for plotless memoiristic fiction. But there seems to be a taste for it among “serious” readers, if the recent preponderance of this type of book is any sign.

    Thanks for reading!

  6. What a pity that ALL of your students are so poorly read – Meyer, Collins, Rowling – and yet they’ve taken on a creative writing course. I do hope there is at least one shy geek in there who will surprise you.

  7. Toad!

    “Appreciate the analysis here but I think you may be complicating things. Could it be that Lerner, Cole, and Knaussgaard are simply dull writers without much to say?”

    Ahhh… satisfying. Well, to be fair, I haven’t read much (that is to say, any) Lerner.

    Something we’re missing in this discussion, though, I think, is The Marketing. Plot-light, character-light, flavorless texts of Encyclopedic length seem to work better when packaged with craggily-handsome Nordic Author pin-ups; try to imagine “My Struggle” flying off the shelves with a Jimmy Fallon lookalike in the jacket photo. Otherwise, the hook can be “youth” (under 40) if the book is short enough and presses the right Millennials buttons… etc. That’s how these particular books may find their way to the target demos with little else but ease-of-reading, and the comforting über-familiarity-of-tone, to recommend them in a milieu saturated with near-identical “voices”.

    Re: Cusk: she’s something else entirely. Her oeuvre should be called NAKED SCORE-SETTLING. I finished Transit last week and although I was disappointed by the lazy ending (and a stomach-punchingly anti-feminist “climax” involving violins and fireworks at the mere touch of some dick’s hand), and the occasional mis-calibration of tone… Cusk invites you to watch as she flays her enemies (anyone who’s ever crossed her, apparently) alive at her leisure. Much more lively than Cole’s pipe-puffing Sebald pastiches.

    Re: “The plotless novel comes as a relief–I don’t have the patience for the artificialities of traditional work, what Cusk calls ‘moving Jane and John in and out of the room’–”

    But Jane and John quite naturally move themselves in and out of the room IRL; the Writer can’t deal? The artful expedient (compression) means dispensing with Real Time description of same… not (necessarily) dispensing with Plot. You know; Baby and Bathwater stuff. The skill of moving them in and out of the room, without being tedious, is just another tool in the Writer’s kit.

    Come on, Writers: let’s not all start getting as lazy and convenience-addicted as your typical i-phone App-addict!

    Re: Portrait of the Artist ( @Janet Goodell AT 10:54 AM ON JULY 31, 2017) find us one passage in all of Knausgaard, Cole, Lerner combined to equal this for depth and music and life (and you’ll see this was not a randomly chosen passage):

    “He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself:

    “–A day of dappled seaborne clouds.

    The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?”

  8. Emily,

    Thank you for comment, it means a lot that you found the essay helpful.

    HA,

    God no, I’ve had plenty of wonderful, well read students over the years, who I think will produce great work.

    Steven,

    I discuss this on my podcast, but the Min Kimp books are certainly at least in part a marketing phenomenon. Literary merit notwithstanding, they are the greatest author photo of all time.

  9. Isn’t this a very old discussion? I was told in school that genre novels tend to focus on plot, literary novels on the use of language. This makes the latter more interesting to a certain kind of intellectual curiosity (curiosity about time, consciousness, etc.). While the former are what Graham Greene called “entertainments.” There is plenty of overlap (say, in Dickens, Shakespeare), where plot and language are equally important. Thus the whole ongoing (and rather pointless) battle between genre readers and literary readers that continues to this day,

    Anyway, it’s a discussion academics or critics have been having for decades. In addition, although Knausgaard and Lerner do exist out there, there is obviously no shortage of plot heavy novels. They sell millions of copies every year. So, why not stop the madness, take a moment to sit down with Proust? It’s unlike any other experience out there. I’ve always been a reader, but it wasn’t until I got on board at the Guermantes Way that I understood that there is on this planet literally nothing else like the novel. It is a primarily sui generis art form, a point Ed Said makes by pointing out that the word “novel” happens to also mean “unique.” Every novel must be its own reckoning, its own mother, must create something unlike anything else. And thank God for that, really. Thank God people keep trying.

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