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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Book cover

Along with most writers, I imagine, I cringe whenever I read, in a review, a plot summary of my novel. How reduced, how pathetic everything suddenly seems! How bizarre of the critic to assume that this frail construct of trivial events could have inspired me to write a book! What about the consciousness of this character, or that detail on Page 97? What about the (at least to me) astonishing fact that I've found the words to express something that seemed (at least to me) so hard to get right on the page? Why should plot seem so essential to any discussion of fiction?

The relative irrelevance, or at least the minor importance, of plot was brought home to me recently by J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Slow Man. I've admired Coetzee's work, but from a chilly remove. I've certainly never called a friend to say, "Stop whatever you're doing! You've got to read Disgrace!" Still, several friends have recommended ElizabethCostello, and then there is that Nobel Prize, the two Bookers, and the other awards. So, though his work often struck me as a bit leaden and self-serious—I'm one of those shallow readers who prefer the flashy bits in, say, Proust or Kafka or Beckett—I've always put Coetzee in that category of writers about whom I think, "Obviously, there's something here that I must be missing."

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But my mixed feelings about Coetzee's earlier work hardly prepared me for, or explained, the strong emotions—feelings that ranged from impatience to a dull rage to a sort of despairing boredom—that overcame me as I began the new book. At the novel's inception, its protagonist, a photographer named Paul Rayment, is hit by a car while riding his bicycle, an accident that leads to the amputation of his leg. As soon as (paging ahead a bit) I realized that the rest of the novel would chart the halting progress of his recovery, aided by a Croatian nurse with shapely calves and by an elderly novelist, a certain Elizabeth Costello, who pops in to lecture him on the meaning of life, I began to realize why my response was not only so negative but so intense.

Book cover

The problem was that every word I was reading was not only reminding me of, but making me desperately wish that I was reading, another book that, as it happens, begins with a man struck by an automobile while riding his bicycle, and that also follows his slow, painful attempts to recover some damaged, recognizable version of his former self. That is Denton Welch's extraordinary A Voice Through a Cloud, his last novel, published unfinished and posthumously in 1950. Though he received critical acclaim and popular success during his brief lifetime, Welch, who was crippled in a bicycle accident (the novel is a disguised memoir), was always something of a cult writer: eccentric, homosexual, fey—no one's obvious Nobel Prize candidate. And A Voice Through a Cloud, in and out of print since its initial appearance, has become something of a cult classic.

Aside from their surface similarities of plot (and my point here is just how superficial these correspondences are), the books could hardly be more unlike. Rayment's misfortune propels him into a creepy and vampiric (though the author appears not to think so) involvement with the comely refugee nurse and her family and to a series of lugubriously metaphysical conversations with Elizabeth Costello, "dialogue" such as this:

"You know, there are those whom I call the chthonic, the ones who stand with their feet planted in their native earth and then there are the butterflies, creatures of light and air, temporary residents, alighting here, alighting there. You claim to be a butterfly, you want to be a butterfly, but then one day you have a fall, a calamitous fall, you come crashing down to earth, and when you pick yourself up you find you can no longer fly like an ethereal being."

By contrast, Welch's hero, Maurice, becomes involved with the patients and nurses on his ward and in the nursing home to which he is moved. More important, suffering and damage make him acutely aware of how many other people in the world are also suffering and damaged. Here, in a characteristic passage taken from the latter part of the book, Maurice wanders into a church and sees a small boy wearing a padded helmet made of velvet, pulling the church-bell rope. The boy, he learns, is also an accident victim, struck on the head when the bell came crashing to the ground.

I saw the boy in the dust-smelling new church calmly ringing the bell; then I heard the great weight of bronze smashing through the floors, and saw the boy again, now lying in his own blood on the white stone. No one came to him. He was quite alone, with his life bleeding away. I pictured the face of the person who found him later.

It was amazing to me that this boy could be back now, ringing this same bell. Did it never terrify him? Did he never feel the weight of it swinging far above him—the bell that had had his blood on it? I thought that when its clapper tongue clanged in the hollowness, swelling the tower with its vibrating drone, he must feel terror at its violence. But his face on that afternoon when I first saw him had been smoother than any sea-ground pebble.

Actually, everything you need to know about the difference between the two books can be extracted from the ways they describe the same critical event—the accident itself. Here is Coetzee:

The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful, like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle. Relax! he tells himself as he flies through the air (flies through the air with the greatest of ease!), and indeed he can feel his limbs go obediently slack. Like a cat he tells himself: roll, then spring to your feet, ready for what comes next. The unusual word limber or limbre is on the horizon too.

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