Here is Jon Carroll's column today.
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
The theme: Novelist Lucy Ellmann reviewing "The Thin Place" by Kathryn Davis in the New York Times Book Review: "To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on plot. ... What little drama there is seems contrived; most of the time nothing happens except insights and insect bites."
The development: To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on plot. This is not a novel in which things happen. In life, things do not happen, and in this novel, things do not happen. They do not happen. There is no buried treasure, no secret adultery, no pirate ships firing broadsides, no sudden reversals of fortune, no elderly men attacked in basement apartments, no children encountering a dangerous fish, no guillotines, no secrets, no smiting with the jawbone of an ass, no poisoned apples, no signs, no wonders, no thing that happens behind the carnival tent after the bearded lady has gone to bed, no thin spots in the ice upon which the people we care about are skating.
We do not care about people. To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on characters. There is no one to root for. There is no one to be afraid for. There is no one at all. There is not a man who has a scar that he got in a nameless war, there is not a young orphan come to the city to seek his fortune, there is not a woman of a certain age who finds love under the Umbrian sun. There are no murderers, thieves, tyrants, vamps, private eyes, saucer people from Planet X, compulsive masturbators, preachers, coal miners or cowboys. Joan of Arc is not involved.
To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on words. There are no similes, metaphors, figures of speech, turns of phrase, anecdotes, sibilance, dissonance, aphorisms, jokes, lyrics, words that rhyme, words that don't rhyme but in a good way. There are words in this novel, but they do not matter, and that is as it should be. What are words but a way to describe character, to construct plot? If words were all there was to novel writing, all the novels would have been written a long time ago.
We have done away with plot. We have done away with characters. We have done away with words. At last, we can see the novel fresh. We can see the idea of the novel. We can throw away our preconceptions, our post-conceptions, our intra-conceptions. We can throw away the concept of conception. We can avoid the idea of the novel entirely, and move directly to the criticism. To its credit, there is no plot in criticism. There are no characters. There is only judgment. We can have the essence of complaint without the thing being complained about. We can move right to the opinion.
To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on pages. No trees were harmed to make this novel, and that's a good thing. There are no bindings, no endpapers, no glue, no folios, no page numbers, no dedication, no epigraph, no copyright information, no announcement that any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental, no introduction, no preface, no afterword, no glossary, no notes on the typography. All of those things are part of the discredited idea of pages.
To its credit, this novel was never written. The author had better things to do. The author had a life to live, a life with plot and characters and situations and settings and introductions. The true art is in the living of life.
The job of the critic is to find a way to critique each lived life, and to print it in a setting that has pages but no plot, words but no characters. The job of the critic is to write dossiers on all the people in the world, and to say what their lives are about and how they lived them. We have done away at last with artifice. We have done away with art. We have life, and we have people who think about life.
The recapitulation: To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on plot. To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on anyone. This novel has no pages, but it has a good credit rating and something set aside in its 401(k). Is there something bad we can say about this novel? Of course: It has insect bites. Why would a novel have insect bites? Throw a little malaria in, and you might have a plot.
To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on malaria.
In which we strip the very idea of ideas naked, and we look inside to the pleasing nothingness, and we, much to our credit, are much happier than we were when there was something.