The Appeal of the Plotless

From Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

The other night, I came across the film ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.’ It’s a black and white silent film from 1927. We see shots of the city and its people all from one day, starting from early morning and ending late into the evening. The film shows men and women from all walks of life, each going about his or her day, their paths crossing and diverging as we follow men and women from all social classes. In busy roads, we see horses pulling carts delivering goods and others pulling men and women in coaches. A man runs after and manages to get onto a crowded trolley. Those on bicycles and those very wealthy chauffeured within automobiles are amongst the crowd. Pedestrians weaving their way perilously through the traffic complete the picture. 

Throughout the film, which includes depictions of train stations, neighborhoods, factories, mess halls, expensive restaurants and hotels, theaters, the rich and the poor, engaged in both labor and leisure, there is no narrator or narration. The only words that appear on screen is the announcement of the movement into a new Act. (Akt I, Akt II, Akt III…) We follow no individuals in particular. We have both the birds eye view and that of the fly on the wall. 

There is no arc. There is no story. There is no plot. 

Instead, we see life. The film captures, quite beautifully, Berlin and its people on a day in 1927.

There are limitations to plot. Real life doesn’t follow a narrative arc. We take events and make them fit along storylines, along plots. But these are curated. We hear one side of the story, see one part of the picture. Your life, my life — life in general doesn’t follow a narrative arc. Events happen and people and places and objects exist and then don’t exist. 

I have always enjoyed the plotless. I sometimes find myself enjoying the first few chapters of novels where the character, place, and setting are developed — and then losing interest as the story, and plot, develop. I think I could read a treasury of beginnings. I enjoy the feeling of being dropped into a setting, persona, place, and time and imagining, So this is what it might be like to be you.

There are novels out there for people like me. A favorite is Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The central character, Claudia, is on her deathbed and envisions,

 ‘A history of the world…And in the process, my own.’ Of its nature, ‘I shall omit the narrative. What I shall do is flesh it out; give it life and colour, add the screams and the rhetoric…The question is, shall it or shall it not be linear history? I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out. Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence. Everything happens at once.’

 And so, Moon Tiger is told forwards and backwards in time, and from multiple perspectives. Sometimes we witness an event as Claudia and other times as her daughter, as her sister-in-law. There is no central narrative arc, but we do uncover as the story progresses, Claudia, piece by piece in what is a compelling and engaging telling.

Another novel I admire is The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. It has a unique shape. The frame of the story is a self-standing short novel, called Free Women. But sections of this story are separated by the contents of four notebooks, written by the central character of Free Women, Anna. In one notebook, she is Anna the author. In another, Anna writes about her time with the Communist Party and politics. In another, Anna tells the story of fictional characters whose experiences closely parallel her own. And one is like a diary. Then, there is a final notebook (the golden notebook) which is Anna’s attempt to bring the four other notebooks together. The Golden Notebook is fascinating. The various notebooks overlap and don’t overlap and together create a picture of a very complicated woman and mind. Lessing has written on the format of the book,

 ‘Another idea was that if the book were shaped in the right way it would make its own comment about the conventional novel…To put the short novel Free Women as a summary and condensation of all that mass material, was to say something about the conventional novel, another way of describing the dissatisfaction of a writer when something is finished: “How little I have managed to say of the truth, how little I have caught of all that complexity; how can this small neat thing be true when what I experienced was so rough and apparently formless and unshaped.” But my major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped.’

And here I move away from fiction, where plot, story, and action are expected to non-fiction that appeals to me in its plotlessness. 

The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin is a work thirteen years in the making that was left unfinished when Benjamin died. It was to be a description of and criticism of nineteenth century society in Paris, told through a focus on the new indoor glass-roofed shopping arcades that were beginning to be popular at the time. Benjamin intended it to be a collage-like work. He drew from an incredible volume and breadth of primary sources. Although there is speculation as to how far the unfinished Arcades Project differs structurally from how Benjamin imagined the finished work, the unfinished work has become a significant piece in its own right. The Arcades Project is divided into 36 categories, such as ‘Mirrors’, ‘Prostitution’, ‘Idleness’, and ‘The Flaneur.’ Each section then has material directly quoted from primary sources, contributing towards the category as well as the overall purpose of the work. Of its effect, Thomas Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin write in the forward, ‘These proliferating passages, extracted from their original context like collectibles, were eventually set up to communicate among themselves, often in a rather subterranean manner. The organized masses of historical objects — the particular items of Benjamin’s displays (drafts and excerpts) — together give rise to “a world of secret affinities.”’ In this way, the arrangement and curation of material conspire to allow the reader to draw her own connections and create her own meaning, encouraged and guided by the raw material, but not strictly directed as she would otherwise be through a traditional narration. 

A work similar in its collage-ness is The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. Holbrook Jackson, in his introduction to the 1932 edition, states it best:

‘The Anatomy looks like a crude assembly of quotations and it is indeed a vast mobilization of the notions and expressions of others, yet it is not they but the rifler who is revealed on every page, it is he, not they, who peeps from behind every quotation. The reason is clear. He is an artist in literary mosaic, using the shreds and patches he has torn from the work of others to make a picture emphatically his own. Books are his raw material. Other artists fashion images out of clay, contrive fabrics and forms of stone, symphonies of words, sounds, or pigments. Burton makes a cosmos out of quotations. He raids the writings of the past, which he often finds neglected or in ruins, and reassembles them in a structure of his own, much as the ruins of Rome were pillaged by the builders of the Renaissance and worked into the temples and palaces of a new civilization.’

A more recent attempt to curate and present thematically can be found in Lapham’s Quarterly, which organizes primary sources into a topic for each issue — topics ranging from ‘Migration’ to ‘Music’ to ‘Death.’ 

In the works I’ve mentioned so far, I think I can summarize their appeal to me in that they seem more honest and true to reality in the choices their creators made not to fit their contents into a more traditional narrative arc. With the nonfiction (and here Berlin: Symphony of a Great City seems to fit), raw material is presented, arranged yes in a certain way, and definitely curated — but not explained. The reader or viewer has the joy and liberty of making her own connections and meaning. The reader is allowed to connect the dots in her own way and there are infinite possibilities when the creator has not already defined one path. In not prescribing meaning, the works seem more — honest.

In the same light, the novels, in their abandonment of the traditional narrative arc, also seem more honest. There was more to these stories — and more to life — than can fit within a neat storyline. The authors, in not being constrained by plot and by having to move their characters along in space and time from a point a to a point b, are free to give us something more, something that to me felt truer. And that to me is the appeal of the plotless — authenticity, truth, and I also probably enjoy the streak of independence, the deviation from the norm.

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