I recently read Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and what I’m loving best about it is the depiction of early Manhattan:
When the grid of Manhattan streets was created, in 1811, a grand project that would forever change the city, filling in the streams, ridding the map of meandering roads, Ninth Avenue cut through the center of Moore’s estate. The scholar was so appalled at the way the future had swooped in to claim the farm he so loved that he donated much of his land to the general Theological Seminary and St. Peter’s Church. He left open sixty lots of orchards, assuming this gift would ensure that Chelsea would never be completely overtaken by mortar and stone. But after Moore’s death the lots were sold, with most of the trees hurriedly chopped down. Only the churchyard and garden remained the same…(56)
As a writer, she has improved a great deal since she wrote Practical Magic where the magic felt cute but extraneous to the plot. In this novel, the magic is so integral to the plot that you wouldn’t really call it magic. But I’m finding the plot slow. Moore, mentioned in this fascinating except, isn’t a character in the book, though some might argue that Manhattan is. Certainly this development of
Manhattan feels as though it will be central to the plot eventually. But even though almost every line is beautifully written, reading the novel feels more like work than pleasure. In my opinion, she is doing more “telling” and reflecting than she needs to. She is relying on flash back rather than letting the present-day action carry in it the traces of the past that shaped it. But I’m not criticizing her. This novel is a triumph.
I simply want to raise a question. We demand that short stories be efficient, that they externalize the conflict wherever possible, but in many novels, this admonition is thrown to the winds. Why? Why shouldn’t novels be as taut as short stories? I’m finding many novels a bit of a grind to push through, but I have always blamed this on my slow reading habits, my physical restlessness, my intellectual laziness.
Yet I find writing in Anzia Yezeirska’s novel The Bread Givers refreshing. A Polish immigrant, she wrote this novel circa 1920, about a Jewish immigrant family. With the novel, she captures the Yiddish cadence and sentence structure. There is very little reflection, very little back-story. It’s all plot and dialogue. It reads quickly and pulls me convincingly into that world. And yet, Yezierska wasn’t considered a great writer until recently, and then by a discerning few.
Plot-driven novels have long been considered sub-literary. “How can you develop character without backstory and flashbacks?” asks my colleague. It’s a rhetorical question for her. “My favorite novelists, like Faulkner, are all reflection,” she adds. Yet, Yezierka succeeds in conveying depth of character all with present-day action. Hemmingway was renowned primary for his externalization of conflict.
I want to be clear that I’m not talking about pot-boilers. The reason these aren’t good isn’t because they are plot driven, it’s because the characterization is shallow and the word choices trite.
My mother says lack of reflection and explanation was something Plato hated about Homer. He criticized the Illiad and the Odyssey for being all action and no explanation or interpretation. I’m too lazy to read Plato and Homer to see if she is remembering correctly, but she should know: she’s a world literature scholar and is a walking encyclopedia.
This type of storytelling – where plot and action is ascendant — belongs to the oral tradition, she says. And perhaps that’s why I love it so much – why I became a storyteller/performer for 15 years. Storytelling showed me that a story can be beautiful in the very shape of its plot, so that it almost doesn’t matter what words are used to convey it. When the tinker turns out to be a prince, we feel the rightness and truthfulness of that idea. When Hansel and Gretel have to ride alone on the back of a duck to get home, we unconsciously know why.
Louise Erdrich’s Tracks does a beautiful job achieving beauty through plot. For this reason Tracks is my favorite novel of hers, yet it may be one of her only novels that didn’t win an award. It is a novel that is told by two competing storytellers who alternate. The writing is beautiful, but the beauty comes from the shape of the story, rather than from verbal gymnastics: ““Men stayed clear of Fleur Pillager after the second drowning. Even though she was good looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself” (11). Though this is, in fact, a flashback, it is all about the “facts” – about what people said about this character. It’s all very direct and visceral.
I’m surprised to find myself on this end of things. I, who have always been accused of being overwrought, I who love words, and who my poet friends accuse of being a poet. And I’m certainly NOT writing a manifesto for what all novelists should be doing in the 21st century. I’m simply doing what Judith Johnson, my writing teacher from SUNY Albany told me all writers need to do, define their genre, carve out a place for themselves in the literary world and name it. I’m going to call it visceral writing.