Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Moving In or Moving On: Basic Plot Premises

I've heard that most novels are variations on two themes: someone new comes to town, or someone leaves town. Broadening that concept to include birth and death, gain and loss, and all kinds of arrivals and departures, I can see where these might be the most basic of plot patterns. So I thought it would be fun to test this premise by looking at a handful of novels I am familiar with.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith opens in 1912. We meet sensitive, imaginative Francie Nolan at age 11 and stay with her till age 16. She never leaves her Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighborhood. But her father does. He dies. Chapter by chapter, Francie comes of age, melding the disparate parts of herself towards wholeness. She is partly practical like her mother, partly romantic like her Dad. Perhaps the journey to adulthood also falls under the umbrella of someone leaving and someone new arriving. For Francie is no longer the little girl we first met sitting on a fire escape dreaming over her library books. She is stronger and wiser. And so are we.

Fictional stories of newly arrived immigrants to the USA have a natural arc of action. How will these characters make out in their newly adopted land? Will the fates be kind or cruel to them? In A Free Life, Chinese newcomer Nan Wu pursues the American dream by buying a home and opening a restaurant. But is he happy? No, he'd rather be a poet, and this gives the novel a melancholy tone. In The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, the story moves from recently arrived Bengalis, the Gangulis, to their child. The gap between those two generations is enormous. This makes for some further sense of "arrival". How can such an American child (and later, adult) have arrived in their lives?

I'm thinking of the dark and powerful post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. A man and his son are heading across a devastated land in search of the sea. They have "left town", and so have all signs of civilization. Anything goes in such a setting, and it usually goes wrong. There is so much lost, how can there be hope? There is, there is --mainly because of the fierce instinct of love still alive between father and son, not that their love makes anything much prettier. No one who reads The Road can forget it.

A perfect example of someone new coming to town takes place in The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. Readers meet a Montana widower with three sons, circa 1910. They need a housekeeper, and manage to find one through a newspaper ad. When Rose Llewellyn arrives from Minneapolis, she has her brother in tow. Something doesn't seem quite right about the pair of them, and so the story unfolds. The expected arrival of Halley's comet also gives the story some punch.

In Keeping the House by Ellen Baker, Dolly Magnuson is a new arrival to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin. It is 1950. She executes a variety of carefully-planned meals for her husband and cleans their bungalow. Not really having enough to do while her husband is at work (and when he is home, finding his company a bit of a bore), her curiosity gets the best of her and she breaks into a a deserted mansion that once housed the prosperous Mikelson family. Rather compulsively, she begins to clean and fix up the old place. Then a member of the Mikelson family appears, and the plot thickens. The operative words for this book: spunky and fun.

One of the most unusual books I ever read was The Inhabited World by David Long. The protagonist is named Evan Molloy. He is what I'd have to call a ghost. He committed suicide and now haunts the house where it happened. He is trying to make sense of not only his own story, but that of the house's present tenants. This book is not as depressing as it sounds! There is even some measure of joy and peace on these pages. And it fits my parameters of arrivals and departures, all wrapped up in one character: first he leaves, then he comes back.

Conclusion: that going and coming, and losing and gaining in myriad forms are indeed basic plot premises. Novels about what men and women have lost and gained usually involve significant character development. Under this rubric, there is always some new premise, some new variation for a novel. Case in point: the rich variety of novels portraying lives touched by the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. But that's another post entirely, perhaps yet to come.

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