The Privilege of Plotlessness
Lynn Steger Strong on Reading About Rich People While the World Burns
I had a difficult summer. Amidst this difficulty was the ever-uncertain state of being an adjunct at a Prestigious University when I, myself, have no prestige at all. The result is that I seldom know if I have employment until a couple of months, sometimes less, before the semester starts. This means I often propose classes with readings I have not always read fully in advance. When this summer I got the ever elusive there’s a gap in our schedule again email, I proposed a class on plotlessness.
For months at that point I’d been thinking that everything felt pointless. I was finding myself more and more frustrated by much of literature’s continued devotion to such pedestrian concepts as cause and effect. Nothing means and nothing matters, I thought nearly every time I tried to read a book this summer. Nearly every time I sat down to work. I was trying to finish writing a book that I’d started before the world stopped meaning, but I kept failing; I kept sending it desperately to friends or my agent for validation; I kept feeling less and less sure that I knew how to make it good. I felt less and less sure I knew what good was worth.
My family was, as ever, in search of financial stability and good health insurance. I’d spent the spring before the e-mail came half-heartedly applying to full-time jobs I was half-convinced I wouldn’t actually take. I read The Essay about Climate Change in New York Magazine on the same day I went to a corporate training for a job I’d gotten but hadn’t quite admitted to myself that I was taking. I listened to a 23-year-old stand at a podium in four-inch heels and explain, to a room full of mostly other 23-year-olds, the value and accumulating interest of our future health savings accounts and 401ks.
We are all about to burn or melt or drown regardless, I wanted to scream to all of them. They wore the same pants and shirts from Uniqlo that I had also ordered, as this was also my first real grown up job, though I’d been in the real grown up world for over a decade already. Who is going to give a fuck, I wanted to yell at them, itchy in my unnatural fibers, suddenly hyper aware of the lines around my eyes, about your 401ks?
I did not yell this, though, because, as the oldest person in the room, I was one of the few who did not have my parents’ health insurance to rely upon. During the lunch break, I went to the CVS close to the training and spent 15 dollars on one of those flat cylinders of powder to try to make my eye lines go away.
In addition to frantically checking twitter this summer, I carried the same Henry Green novel around with me each day. I didn’t finish it until the fall, the week before I taught it, but with Party Going, finishing never felt much like the point. I ambled through the sentences in odd moments: while trying to make sense of a sentence of my own at one of the coffee shops I frequent because of its lack of internet, or on the subway, pushing my children in the stroller they’re too big for so that they might take a nap and not speak and I could think. Green’s book has no plot and is often close to incomprehensible. There are men and women who want to sleep with one another. There is booze, a falling fog. Nothing happens—someone takes a bath, someone might be dying, there is a lot of lying and half-telling and flirting—you never quite know who you’re with or where you’re going. Yet it’s beautiful somehow, if not also often infuriatingly unclear.
This book was the germ of my plotless class—this and Renata Adler, whom I’d also not read fully, but had always meant to—who was one of those writers every smart person I knew told me to read, but I never had. I’d started Speedboat a few times. I’d found it sort of strange and dissonant and had put it down, embarrassed and apologetic, every time. I put it on my list though, along with Thomas Bernhard, along with Clarice Lispector and Evan S. Connel.
I decided to order the books chronologically for my class’s syllabus. Many of them, I noticed, knocked up against or were in conversation with moments of turmoil in the wider world. We were reading a handful of books in translation, a couple of Hungarians, Rachel Cusk. The first two, by Henry Green and Jean Rhys, both came out in 1939.
A friend, trying to help me finish the novel that I no longer felt capable of finishing, had suggested I watch the Jean Renoir film The Rules of the Game. This also came out in 1939 and was compared to Party Going when it did. Both book and film were rejected at first as frivolous and pointless, plotless and about rich people at a time when the world was falling down.
In the Renoir film, though, there is one major moment of violence. One of the main characters—though there are so many characters as to make the concept feel too sure of itself to work here—is shot at the end of the movie. This is why my friend suggested I watch the film; I was writing a book about a party of people that ends in a death, except the death isn’t the point; or it’s part of the point, but the book is equally if not more interested in everything that happens to the other characters in the meantime. Sometimes the death just felt like a thing that I was doing to give the book a plot.
“This feels more true to me somehow now than so much of what I’ve read or watched or thought before. Rich people misbehave, and then someone gets shot.”
By the fourth week of the semester, I realized there was a common “problem” with the plotless books I’d chosen. They were, almost all of them, written by people of a certain type of privilege; they were largely insular and often claustrophobic; they had little to no interest in the world outside themselves. But the Green and the Renoir have, since their release almost 80 years ago, become widely celebrated. They are acknowledged now as prescient, gorgeous works of art. They show, I would argue, a good deal about the politics of 1939; about the unaware state of being for a certain kind of wealthy well-connected person; an unwillingness to look out.
The death that occurs in Rules of the Game, is the result of an absurd trajectory of accidents and misreads, but it’s no less real as a result. One character, André wearing another character, Octave’s, coat is shot because a third character, Shcumacher, thinks, mistakenly, that Octave is about to run off with his wife.
This feels more true to me somehow now than so much of what I’ve read or watched or thought before. Rich people misbehave, and then someone gets shot.
I kept emailing my agent this summer and telling her I needed this book to be finished. Maybe, she said sometime in September, you’re just tapped out. I left her office and went home and cried and tried not to look at my husband. We had spent hours of childcare on my writing; I had quit and lost jobs because of it. I was writing about and reading books that lacked consequence, but for me, the consequences of throwing this book out were unfathomable.
Still, I stopped writing the book and ordered more clothes online for my new job: collars and skirts and mock turtle-necks that we couldn’t afford. I got up at 4:30 each morning to run miles and miles: more plotlessness. There were rats on the streets in those early mornings, not afraid and in the open, people sitting stoned or drunk on benches making out. Sometimes later in the day I would forget I’d run them. Then my back or knee or calves would remind me of it sometime in the late afternoon while I was at work. At the end of each run the female voice on my phone said, Congratulations you have reached your goal, and this was often the closest that I came to joy all day.
I just want to FINISH, I said to my friends when they asked about the novel. They stopped asking or I stopped answering. I got more and more afraid that the job I actually went to was the only thing I did. But on the nights I taught my plotless class I pretended I was still a writer. I performed the writer. What is Art? I said emphatically. What is being accomplished? What is being said?
None of the books were particularly pleasurable to read. They were beautiful and strange and confusing. I feel hit by a truck, a student said one week.
Why? I asked my students, finally, are all these books about rich people?
Because only rich people write novels, one said. Because only rich people can live in the world without cause and effect. This felt true in some ways. I wanted to quit my job to write a book that I still believed in, to stand on tables and scream—but if I did that we wouldn’t pay our rent. I wanted to FINISH this damn book—but if I finished before it was perfect, the market might not want it. I didn’t have the time to finish—but my family couldn’t sustain itself if we had to throw away those years I’d spent.
In one of the last weeks of class we finally read a book by a not-rich person. In an interview I read to prep for the class on his book, Imré Kertèsz said that when he was 24 and started writing, he could not afford a pen. Kertèsz was a survivor of Auschwitz. He was the opposite of rich, but the world, his world and his self, were so broken they defied narrative. Kaddish For an Unborn Child is a book about negation; not in the sense of inaction, but in action being done to him to such an extreme that he no longer believes in his own power to enact effects.
Kertèsz says, about writing, in his novel, “for I am always working, being driven to this not just by the need to make a living, but because if I were not working I would be existing, and if I were existing I don’t know what that would drive me to, and it is better not to know, although my bones, my guts have their hunches to be sure, since the reason I work incessantly is that as long as I keep working, I am, whereas if I didn’t work, who knows whether I would be or not; so I take it seriously because a deadly serious association is sustained between my sustenance and my work, that is perfectly obvious.”
One of the other questions we kept coming back to in the plotless class was whether these books felt more lifelike. How does rising action, climax, denouement, work to represent what it is daily to be a human? How does the prioritizing of any single event or tension, match up to what it is to try to get through the every day? Books, right now, to me, have shifted with regard to their value. What is it to work if I’m not making money for my family; what is it to read when so much feels so disengaged?
I don’t have answers for any of this. I don’t know if I’ll finish. I don’t know what plot is or is not worth. When I get up now at 4:30, I run for half the time and write the other half before the children wake up, before I get dressed to go to work. I’m not done, but I’m also not stopping. I’m trying to fit life inside the novel. I’m trying to fit writing inside life.