Style vs. plot.

All about fiction.
Sept. 14 2005 6:17 AM

The Plot Doesn't Thicken

Comparing J.M. Coetzee's Slow Man and Denton Welch's A Voice Through a Cloud.

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There's nothing wrong with this, I suppose, except that it's larded with clichés, starting with "bolt of electricity" and continuing on to "flies through the air with the greatest of ease." The fact that writer and character recognize them as such hardly makes the passage more fun to read. I suppose that even the most horrific moments can inspire a string of banalities, but since this is not reportage, shouldn't a writer try harder, if only for the sake of the reader? And I found myself unconvinced by the shocked mind making precious distinctions between limber and limbre. Later, we begin to suspect that this wordplay is an early signal of the games that Coetzee will be playing on the theme of art and reality, fiction and life. But unless those games pay off in the form of art (as they do in, say, Borges or Kafka), they merely seem like strained forays into the world of ideas instead of engaging excursions into that of literature. Again, I might not have minded so much had I had not been able to locate the equivalent moment in Welch, who represents the accident itself merely as a set of ellipses, and resumes the narrative here:

I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness. The voice was asking a question. It seemed to be opening and closing like a concertina. The words were loud, as the swelling notes of an organ, then they melted to the tiniest wiry tinkle of water in a glass.  … Rich clouds of what seemed to be a combination of ink and velvet soot kept belching over me, soaking into me, then melting away. Bright little points glittered all down the front of the liquid man kneeling beside me. I knew at once that he was a policeman, and I thought that, in his official capacity, he was performing some ritual operation on me. There was a confusion in my mind between being brought to life—forceps, navel-cords, midwives—and being put to death—ropes, axes, and black masks; but whatever it was that was happening, I felt that all men came to this at last. I was caught and could never escape the terrible natural law.

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I rest my case. Style is not the surface, as might be assumed, but rather—as the two passages above make clear, I hope—it's plot and event that rest lightly on the surface, while style and language do the hard work of plumbing the depths. I suppose you could say that Coetzee's artistic intention (cerebral metafiction on various large, extractable themes—age, suffering, compassion, art, and so forth) merits a more essayistic style. But again I find myself coming up against the deceptively simple fact that if we are not interested in the language a writer uses, we find it hard to stay interested in the book, regardless of the loftiness and intelligence of its intention.

Perhaps it seems a bit of a stretch, but reading the two books together reminded me of what I think is the most brilliant film about art that's been made in a very long time. It's the documentary The Aristocrats, in which several dozen comedians take turns telling the same lame dirty joke. As they proved, and as Coetzee's and Welch's novels attest, plot is really the least of it. Because as every jazz musician knows, it's not the melody of "How High the Moon" that counts. It's the way you play it.

Francine Prose is the author, most recently, of A Changed Man

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