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.