Thursday, May 4, 2017

Beginning, middle, end

Plot is all-important; beginning, middle, and end is the most natural and satisfying sequence of events.
Lee Smith, Dimestore

Pamela Paul makes much the same point in My Life with Bob. Reflecting on her "comfort books," classics by the likes of Dickens, Eliot and Austen, she writes, "These books have recognizable beginnings, middles, and ends." Yet writers of today, at least those who strive to become the Dickens, Eliots and Austens of their own generation, so often don't put recognizable beginnings, middles and ends in their stories. They eschew linear storytelling on a regular basis, opting instead for a shuffling of past, present and future, sort of like Kurt Vonnegut having Billy Pilgrim get "unstuck in time," but with less rationale.

I'm not just talking about flashbacks here. Even writers of genre fiction do this, starting their story, then going back to fill in details about what happened earlier. You probably do this yourself when telling a story to friends. For a tale to be appreciated, you sometimes have to fill in earlier details. But modern writers with literary ambitions go beyond this. Their stories jump around in time, annoying and confusing their readers while, apparently, delighting literary critics and the committees that bestow literary prizes.

Sometimes this time shuffle works better than other times. Time goes backwards in The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. The story begins in 1947, then goes back to 1944 and finally to 1941. The climax of her story is what happens in 1941, and this explains what happens later. So her end, middle, beginning sequence works, however unsettling it may be for readers.

Jerome Charyn's recent novel Jerzy has different narrators who know novelist Jerzy Kosinski at different times of his life. Here the sequence is more middle, end, beginning, but the narrators are only telling the part of the story they know, and as with Waters, it is the beginning of the story that explains the rest.

I gave favorable reviews to both Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, two novels that move back and forth in time. I found this back and forth annoying, but it didn't seem to interfere with understanding and appreciating what was taking place.

Less successful is The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell, a novel that jumps from year to year and from character to character so often that I, for one, had difficulty following what was actually going on and understanding how the pieces of the story fit together.

Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Jane Austen, among many others of their time, wrote great, lasting stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Maybe writers of today should strive to do the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment