Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Plot and plotless

Two excellent essays were recently posted on The Millions, arguing somewhat opposite points. Michael Rowe's piece on Philip K. Dick exhorts us to stop getting hung up on Dick's "occasionally terrible" prose style. For whatever reason, Dick was never concerned about style, Rowe explains:

Dick isn’t out to crystallize a particular sentiment. He does not aim to be quotable—to be, in a word, reducible. Instead, his novels feel like labor, as though they are tabulating the results of some desperate experiment. So, it isn’t the prose style, but the plot assembly that gases up the moving parts of Dick’s fiction.

Meanwhile, another essay by Mark OConnell celebrates "plotless novels" like Oblomov, the hilarious-sounding Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre, and Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker. In Baker's novel,

[p]retty much literally nothing happens; the closest we get to action is when the narrator exhales forcefully in the direction of a paper mobile hanging from the ceiling of the baby’s room, and the paper flutters around for a while. And here’s the thing: there’s not a dull moment in the book. Baker’s brilliance as a writer lies in his ability to make the (apparently) utterly trivial utterly compelling.
So: plot or style? PKD or XdM? It's an old question, of course, and ultimately a matter of personal taste.

Re: PKD. I suspect this is why I have always really enjoyed having the plots of Dick's books told to me; yet I have never made it through a single Dick novel. (One exception was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and that possibly was only due to post-Blade-Runner-viewing momentum.) I should mention, before going any further, that Dick is occasionally quite a brilliant stylist. Especially at the beginnings of his novels, before he's racing toward his deadline, or realizing he has to make a novel out of what was in fact only a short story, or whatever happens to cause the book to collapse like a circus-tent disaster, he zaps off some of the most hilarious, spot-on condemnations of consumer culture I've ever read. Also, I haven't read many of the books people consider to be his best, so I should probably reserve judgment overall. Anyway, Rowe's essay makes me want to give old PKD another shot, and maybe, to be fair, start with the Modern Library anthology edited by Jonathan Lethem.

Still, those collapses are so disappointing--in Clans of the Alphane Moon, for example, when this brilliant premise about a bunch of mental patients governing themselves on a distant moon turns into long passages about a guy loathing his ex-wife. I guess I'm saying that confronted with a whole bookfull of Dick's prose, I'd probably gravitate instead toward a plotless novel, and cop to whatever upper-middle-class anxiety Rowe says that reveals. Style is important to me. However--and this is still something I'm trying to learn as a writer--self-conscious style is wretched. Style for the sake of showing off one's writing ability never works, and is even more off-putting than Dick's desperate scrabbling.

So how would you write a story in which nothing happens, without overwriting to make up for the lack of plot? This seems like a terrific challenge to take up. Especially for those of us whose new short story has just driven itself into a corner.

No comments: