The two books under review could have been chosen (as they were not) to illustrate fundamentally divergent approaches to the use of narrative action or event in contemporary fiction. Plot—in the sense of a shaped series of events leading through complication to some kind of resolution or conclusion—is still a scarce commodity in serious literature, though there has recently been some reaction in its favor. The craving for story is probably as intense as ever, but to gratify it one must turn to the writers of “adult” children’s books (Tolkien) or to the purveyors of crime and suspense (a number of whom happen to be good writers). Or else be prepared to abandon seriousness altogether and grab some lively trash from the nearest paperback stand.
Of course the absence of plot does not necessarily entail a dearth of action. Narrative impact can as well be overwhelmed by an excess of events as attenuated by a scarcity. Bizarre or surreal inventions come easily to most writers, and a piling-up of them can convey to a reader the sense of having consumed an elaborate hors d’oeuvre varié in lieu of a three-course Aristotelian meal. A plethora of event seriously weakened, I think, the two novels—Geronimo Rex and Nightwatchmen—by the gifted young Southern writer Barry Hannah.
His new collection, Airships, which has won the Arnold Gingrich Short Fiction Award, reveals that the temptation of l’événement gratuit is not limited to Hannah’s longer fiction. One of the best stories is “Deaf and Dumb,” which tells of an afternoon in the life of a young woman named Minny, whose husband, Daryl, has a hard time making a living as a real-estate agent. The heat is dreadful.
It hit ninety-eight degrees and the parking lot of the A&P was the worst, with heat waves thick over the black pavement. There were four Cadillacs out there with the rabble of other cars. She got in the Chevy Nova, no air-conditioning and failing muffler.
The muted quality of her days and years, her thwarted artistic yearnings, her first love, her happy sexual feeling for her husband—all these are worked into the story briefly and with great delicacy. But then, while the exhausted Minny is taking a nap in the one room where the air-conditioning works, her sons find a king snake in the garage and hit it over the head with a hammer. The youngest boy brings the snake, wrapped around the hammer, into the bedroom, where his mother is lying with her baby daughter curled next to her on the bed. So far so good. But then, knowing that “it was a sin for his mother to be asleep in the daytime, the baby-sitter gone,” he hits her in the mouth with the hammer, and the snake, which had been only stunned, wakes up and writhes on the bed. I find that hammer blow not only gratuitous but hardly believable in the context. Whatever the symbolic gain …