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."

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.

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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.

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.

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