November 5, 2014

BIBLIO-FILES | Plotless or Genius?

Print More

By NATALIE TSAY

In my last post, I cited the plotless, aimless nature of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as a reason for disliking it. That got me thinking: What has to happen for a book without much going on plot-wise to be good or, more importantly, enjoyable? To answer this question, we’ll look at some of these types of novels and how I feel about them.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

This book’s multi-generational span makes it seem “plotless” in that there’s no central storyline to follow. At times confusing, surreal and very peculiar, One Hundred Years of Solitude follows the Buendia family and the village of Macondo over a time frame of about a hundred years (shocker, right?). I can’t determine whether I loved this book or not, but what made it interesting to read was the narrative’s cyclical feel and its closeness to reality, which is a common feature among non-plot-centric novels. At the same time, it was very unreal, butthe episode-like nature made it seem like real life, so I can see the appeal.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I absolutely adored this book. As it’s a coming-of-age story told over a number of years, there is also no central plot line. Francie Nolan herself wasn’t a compelling reason to keep reading — however, the way in which she and the rest of the characters deal with issues such as poverty and cruelty is subtle and impactful. It’s a rather pedestrian story, but it’s so well written that you don’t really notice the lack of action. It’s one of those seamless novels that make you forget you’re reading. Overall, the story of Francie’s childhood and adolescence, while seemingly unremarkable, is told in an extraordinary way and touches on larger topics without trying too hard to drive them home for the reader.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Love it or hate it, but I really liked it. What makes this novel stand out is the voice of Holden Caulfield; for some, it might be the character, but I was far more impressed by the narrative. Pretty much nothing happens, but his voice is unique and powerful without really trying to be. It distinguishes Catcher in the Rye, and while readers have varying reactions to it, I’d venture to say that Holden’s voice (or Salinger’s style) is what drew in many of the novel’s devoted followers.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

By contrast, I didn’t love this one. On the Road has a good deal in common with Catcher in the Rye: careless, reckless, wandering young men that engage in a number of questionable activities and live like there’s no tomorrow. However, I wasn’t as captivated by Sal Paradise. A major difference is that On the Road is (arguably) about Dean Moriarty and so lacks the major sense of character and/or voice. I found that though I was interested in Moriarty, I didn’t particularly care what happened to either him or Paradise. The writing was great — in fact, I really liked the style — and mostly easy to read, but it wasn’t enough to keep me engaged. Much debauchery, little appeal.

As was obvious from the start, there is no finite thing that helps a plotless novel win over the reader. Is great writing enough? Sometimes. Can a great character compensate for little interest elsewhere? Not always. It all boils down to personal preference because what makes a book “great” is entirely subjective. I wouldn’t consider myself obsessed with plot, but a book definitely has to have another vastly compelling aspect to it (such as voice, character, writing, setting, etc.) for me to truly like it.

Natalie Tsay is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at ntsay@cornellsun.com. Biblio-Files appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.