The Great American Novel

I’m going to do something that may rightly be considered a little dangerous today and talk in general terms about the American Novel. Not only is this foolish because the American Novel is rather a large topic, but also because I can in no way claim expertise in this area. How many Great American Novelists have I read? Well, let me see: Twain, Fitzgerald, McCullers, Russo, Lurie, Smiley, and now Kaye Gibbons. In the spirit of read seven, get one free, I can add Anne Tyler to that list, whose novels I have read before. But it was reading the Kaye Gibbons that seemed to crystallize the impressions I’d been receiving from the others, alongside the interesting debate on plot that Dorothy began and that Bikeprof continued in a wonderful post yesterday.

The thing is, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the plotting in the American books I’ve read has been different to that which you find in Anglo-European novels. My understanding of plot comes from a particular source: a very good (American) critic by the name of Peter Brooks, who wrote a very good book called Reading for the Plot. Now if anyone out there is critically-minded, Brooks’s works are a real treat: big ideas that enliven any kind of reading and all written in an admirably clear and accessible style. Brooks suggests that what we understand by plot is the initial moment in a narrative when a fundamental enigma or problem is posed to the reader, and we recognize that the remainder of the story will be put to elucidating the enigma or solving the problem. It’s easiest to see this happening in a detective story, where the first corpse sets the machinery of narrative in motion. Hence, I imagine, humanity’s fascination with stories, for they seek to provide solutions to all kind of problems, and to return order and meaning to situations that have become confused and chaotic. Now, it’s not that the fiction I’ve been reading has neglected this dimension entirely, it hasn’t. But I’ve been struck by how very episodic the novels have been (probably with the exception of the Lurie). That’s to say that, rather than have every event in the novel put to the service of solving the central enigma, most events turn out to be sufficient unto themselves. These books move along, not towards a highly particular end point, but through a series of set pieces, or vignettes, that develop character, add detail, provide a cumulative kind of knowledge. The test of an episodic narrative is: could you skip a bit and it wouldn’t matter? If you did that in a detective novel, you’d be all at sea come the denouement, because you’d have missed the moment when the vicar swapped the cups of tea and thus avoided drinking poison. But you could lose a chapter of Huck Finn’s adventures, or one of the Straight Man’s academic committee meetings, and you’d have lost the pleasure of an anecdote well told, but you’d be able to pick up and read on without compromising your understanding.

To make another dangerously general statement, it’s because the novels I’ve been reading have mostly been focused on the development of character. It’s even harder to try to formulate what I want to say about character than it was about plot, but it seems that the character of the main protagonist becomes the plot, offers itself as the enigma or the problem to be resolved. What the narrative tries to do is not to alter or change that character (with perhaps Lurie again as the exception) but to develop it by incremental steps to a kind of zenith or fulcrum of itself. To make the character as much themselves as they can possibly be, which is perhaps why so many seem to end with the death of the main protagonist, as if they just could not become themselves any further.

Kate Gibbons’s novel, Charms for the Easy Life, seemed to me to be a perfect encapsulation of this episodic, character-as-plot kind of novel. The story concerns three generations of women who all live together: Charlie Kate, the great matriarchal grandmother, self-taught healer and general life guru, her daughter, Sophia, romantic and flighty but strong and determined in her own way, and the granddaughter, Margaret, bookish, retiring, in love with the eccentricities of her family. It’s really Charlie Kate’s story, told through Margaret’s adoring eyes, and Gibbons manages to create a really outstanding fictional character in the preternaturally wise grandmother. The story begins at the start of the century, when medicine was a poorly-understood skill, doctors were expensive charlatans and the line between old wives’ tales and good common sense was hard to draw. Charlie Kate sets up in unofficial practice, heading downtown to where the drunks and addicts hang out if she’s short of people turning up at the door. Her reputation grows and grows until, by the main part of the action during the Second World War, she is deferred to as an authority by the nursing hospitals set up to deal with the influx of wounded soldiers. On her many flights of mercy she takes her daughter and granddaughter with her, and in this way both become skilled in healing, even if they cannot hope to attain the innate wisdom of Charlie Kate. This was a much more medical book than I would normally read, but Gibbons’s lyrical prose permitted even squeamish old me to get through most of the kitchen operations. Except when they dealt with the old hermit’s infested boil, when I became most grateful to the skippable episodic structure. But although there’s plenty of action, there isn’t much of what I’d call plot – only the vague wondering whether Sophia and Margaret will marry happily. Instead the novel hovers lovingly over the eccentricities of Charlie Kate:

‘She wasn’t abnormal. That word described the old man who roamed about downtown, grabbing people by the sleeve, telling them the time, temperature, and current world news that had no connection to reality. Or the little girl we had just read about in the paper who wasn’t sure of her age or name but could do fantastically long sums in her head. They were abnormal. My grandmother was certainly nothing like these two, but she wasn’t normal in the sense of being like other people who worked in banks or stores, women with permanent waves and moisturized skin. But all the same, in the strangest sort of way, I considered her normal for herself. It was normal for her to eat two cloves of raw garlic every morning, wear her late mother’s seventy-five-year-old shoes, preserve the laces in linseed oil, and sit up all night laughing uproariously over Tristam Shandy.’

I always think it’s funny that it has to be the eccentric types who see life most clearly. Charlie Kate’s left of center perspective allows her to look at life full on, seeing people’s lives for what they really are. In one episode she fleeces her ex-husband of a large roll of cash, which she donates in its entirety to the Confederate Ladies’ Home, ‘where three of my mother’s spinster teachers from Miss Nash’s School were spending their last years penniless, playing an endless game of bridge in a dank parlor, wearing cameo chokers and little spots of rouge in the middle of their cheeks. She wrote very specific instructions for the disbursement of the money. It was to be used to buy a seven-tube radio, a new Victrola, magazine subscriptions galore, leather-bound editions of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hardy and Dickens. She also included writers of the South, but not Thomas Wolfe, whose style addled her to distraction even though she took his part in the debate over Look Homeward, Angel. Whatever was left was to be used for group trips to Charleston and Savannah. It appeared as though she meant to liven the place up. I wish I knew whether she succeeded. I like to think she did.’

This is a wonderful, funny, poignant story of family love, but it seemed to me that it was also a fable of impossible strength. In Charlie Kate, Gibbons has created an omnipotent goddess of wisdom, someone who knows what to do, every time, and is never wrong. There’s a fantasy of perfect parenthood buried underneath there, and yet there’s also a suggestion that such strength might be experienced as suffocating dominance in the more fraught relationship she has to daughter Sophia. It has to be the granddaughter, Margaret, who narrates the eulogy, who, at one remove, can appreciate her grandmother for everything she is. But you know, call me cynical, but I would have loved to see Charlie Kate tested or challenged. I’d have liked her just once to be wrong, or to meet her match, or to stumble upon a case that really puzzled her. I don’t doubt that she would have stepped up to the mark, and it might have provided me with the enigma or problem that puts some driving force behind a narrative and for which I almost felt hunger by the end of this particular novel. What I might call plot is like seasoning in cooking – you only need a very little, but I miss it if it’s not there.

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13 thoughts on “The Great American Novel

  1. Character-as-plot is an interesting way to put the dilemma of the “plotless” novel. Never thought of it that way before but I think you are onto something. I don’t require a lot of plot either, but I do like there to be a bit of seasoning as you say. Otherwise I have a hard time figuring out what the whole point is and feel a little cheated, no matter how interesting the character.

  2. This isn’t one of Gibbons’s novels that I’ve read, but, having read others, I’d say you’ve hit the nail on the head with her being an episodic writer, as well as the other authors you mention. And maybe what you describe is why I think of myself as being someone for whom “great characterization” is so important. A great plot is a great plot, and I can enjoy it, but I grew up on all these great American novelists giving me great (and complicated) characters, and I find I have the opposite reaction to yours. My “seasoning” seems to be insight into the characters. If the characters don’t have much substance, no matter how good the book, I feel as though a little basil probably would have turned this great dish into a perfect one. Thus, I can read a fantastic detective novel and love it, but what I’ll miss will be the “friends” I wanted to get to know better, if they aren’t there. This is why I love Ross Macdonald so much. His hard-boiled genre sprinkles in characters I really feel I know –believable, psychologically-damaged people — in a way other authors of the genre don’t seem to be able to do so well.

  3. That’s very interesting, Emily, and I can quite see how you could grow accustomed to the beautifully drawn characters of these novels to the point where they become the essence of the reading experience. Ross Macdonald….oh dear, amazon here I come…

  4. I’ll be curious as you read more American stuff (assuming that’s still the plan, that is) to see if you think the theory holds true. I’d love to test it against things I’ve read, but that would require … work, which I’m not planning on doing this Labor Day 🙂 I do think many, many early novels from Britain are episodic in the way you describe — they’re picaresque. I wonder if American novelists have picked up that tradition and applied it to character. I do think you’ve offered some very useful terms with which to think about differences in novelistic structure.

  5. Litlove, you always do such a wonderful job discussing books! I like how you talk about them generally where they fall in place in the whole scheme of things, but also specifically (sorry not communicating myself very well). I see what you mean about it could have used a little seasoning to spice it up a bit. I still liked it (actually have read it a couple of times)–I think it was the fact that Margaret read Thomas Mann (am I remembering the right author) in German. To me the characters were interesting and likable.

  6. This is a great, thought-provoking post. I had not thought of the possibility that American plotting is different from European plotting, but your notion of the episodic nature of these “great American novels” is very interesting, and I will have to ponder it further. I have to go back to Stephen King for a moment here: He seems to be a terribly plot-driven sort of writer, but in the author’s note for the uncut version of his long, long novel The Stand, he says that plot alone is very boring. He uses the analogy of a stripped-down Cadillac–it will still get you where you want to go, but it does not have any style. You need the chrome, the fancy upholstery, the CD/satellite radio/MP3 player, the power windows, and everything else. We might say that Gibbon’s book is missing the engine, or is at least underpowered. It’s nice to sit in the car, but it’s not going anywhere. I’m rambling (again!!), so I’ll shut up.

  7. A wonderful post, Litlove. One that has me thinking about this question of character vs plot with regards to the last novel I read. I’ll have to think about this some before posting. Charms for the Easy Life was a selection for my reading group a few years ago, but the woman responsible for the selection changed her mind after reading a few chapters because she thought it was ‘gross’ (I’m guessing due to the medical aspects) and because it wasn’t ‘about anything’. Not surprisingly, she would only pick very plot-driven works. My copy has been gathering dust since then; maybe one of these days I’ll dust it off and read it.

  8. Pingback: Georges Bataille’s ‘inner experience’ « Jahsonic

  9. I am a newcomer to your blog, Litlove, and I am rapidly becoming addicted to your insightful writing. I have read since I began to decode the markings on a cereal package when I was three years old, and I have read omnivorously for the past 60 years. I am not learnèd in the nuances of literature but “I knows what I likes.” Your essay illuminates for me some of the hidden reasons why I instinctively like or dislike an author’s work. Maybe because I am male I like a plot which has a beginning, a middle and an end. That is the way we males do things. We start something, get on with it and then finish it.

    Too many “modern” books lose my interest very soon after I begin them because they are about feelings, or character or relationships. They are not about things, events and resolutions.

    Your explanation of the “episodic” nature of some literature revealed to me why I like Science Fiction (Azimov, Clarke, EE (Doc) Smith, Heinlein, McCaffrey etc.), adventure fiction (McLean, Innes, Wilbur Smith, etc.) even Gothic Horror (Poe, Steven King, Lovecraft). I have always enjoyed Kipling and Stevenson but have considered Dickens to be a fraud within English Literature as he is much more of a political tract writer with no ability to develop character. More to the point is the fact that I find most “Prize-winning” authors to be extremely hard going. Perhaps this is because so much of the “Prize-winning” writing is of the episodic and anecdotal, rather than plot-driven, style.

    Having rambled on like this, I nearly forgot the original reason I sat down to make a comment on the episodic nature of some novels. I have just acquired a copy of a book, novel, whatever, which I fell in love with some forty-plus years ago. Giovanni Guareschi wrote “The Little World of Don Camillo” at the beginning of the 1950’s. I have always wondered why it was called a novel when it seemed to me to be much more a collection of short stories or anecdotes. Now I realise the stylistic debt it owes to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Thank you for clarifying my thinking. (Having said all that, I both read and write poetry, which is all about feelings. So I’m a contradiction!)

    Now I must carry on reading Ellis Peters “The Hermit of Eyton Forest” and follow again the adventures of Brother Cadfael.

  10. Archie – you are very welcome indeed. I am a BIG fan of Ellis Peters, and I am pretty sure that the Don Camillo book you mention is a favourite of my father’s. He urged me to read it a while back and I think perhaps I should. I do think that the degree of plot a reader likes is a personal thing. I agree with Danielle that the characters in the Gibbons novel are wonderfully drawn, but I can’t resist being ‘hooked’ into a book – it’s a special kind of pleasure. It’s very interesting, Cam, that your reading group leader had such a strong reaction to it (and do dust that copy off – it’s well worth reading), and Bikeprof, I love your analogy. My husband’s a real ‘plot’ man and will start to moan about ‘padding’ if any narrative starts to digress. I’m not as strict as that – I’m happy to have a CD player and the odd cup holder here and there! And of course it will be interesting to see if this theory holds, as it is in its infancy. Dorothy, I’ve got such a long list of American authors I’m longing to try – Irving, Betty Smith, Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Auster, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, just to name a few. And I’m intending to read more Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. How will I ever get through it all? Never mind!

  11. My comments are pretty disjointed (sorry):

    I would’ve said (have actually often said) the exact opposite — that American novels are plot-driven, European less so, but I don’t have the data to back up the claim. (Of your list of 8, I’ve read one book by 2 of those authors [incl. Good Faith by Smiley, which didn’t impress me, tho’ I’m told it’s one of her weakest].)

    My general cultural impression is that it’s Americans who want to impose a traditional narrative on situations, who are more bent on “solving” a situation than appreciating the experience of it. This is particularly obvious with films — Americans hate the ambiguous ending, or movies where “nothing happens.” I’ve made that generalization to books in the past as well, although it occurs to me that perhaps I didn’t draw a warranted distinction between mass-market bestsellers and “literary” fiction.

    (I expect the Euro lit I’ve been exposed to in translation is more “literary.” I wonder what the mass-market books are like. Perhaps the likes of Saramago and Houllebecq top their charts for months at a time?)

    Maybe it’s not plot per se, but pacing and style?

    Two biggies I’ve read recently that I’ve described as episodic are Don Quixote and War and Peace, though arguably neither of them are exactly novels at all, and it would be hardly be fair to call on them to represent all European literature.

    I’m curious whether readers think of British novels as European? I’m not sure where they fit in this divide.

    Also it’s my impression that Europeans are more open to experimental novels.

    It’s been said, by the way, of Paul Auster (I LOVE Auster), undoubtedly a great American novelist, that he could never write the Great American Novel, because he writes in a European tradition — psychological, with slow, meandering, go-nowhere, self-referential (almost Borgesian), “it’s not the end, it’s the journey” plots.

  12. This is a wonderful post, and after reading Ellen Foster I agree completely. The book held my interest and even saddened me, but I kept wondering when it would ‘start,’ so to speak. In fact, as much as I enjoyed the story of Ellen Foster, the book didn’t particularly make me want to read any more of Gibbon’s work. And I’m currently reading Empire Falls, and I can again see this discussion in light of Russo, although this novel I’m enjoying much more and it’s helping me understand some things about dialogue and building scenes. I tend to enjoy more plot-driven work, I think, and often find myself escaping into mysteries and horror novels as opposed to this sort of character-as-story set up. I think you are absolutely right about a kind of lack of plot in many traditional American novels, although i dont’ think you’d find this to be the case in genre lit, like Dennis Lehane, T. Jefferson Parker, Carl Hiassan, Stephen King, etc. In light of all this, I am extremely anxious to hear your take on A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is actually a book that caused a boy to break up with me in college – he told me he couldn’t stand that I was reading instead of talking to him, and I’d have to change that ‘habit’ to stay together. Needless to say, I walked out immediately. At any rate, wonderful discussion, and I’ll certainly be looking at the novels I read in light of it.
    Courtney

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