I stole the title from somewhere, probably one of the 10,000 how-to books I've read, and surely we've posted on this very same topic before. Old subject! But I've been thinking about it again, having just read, back to back, Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist and Lorrie Moore's The Gate at the Stairs. In Baker's novel -- which I really, really liked -- almost nothing happens. But so what? "Stuff happening" is not the point. It's about a character who tells us about his life and pet subjects (poetry, mostly). I love the way Baker sees things, and I love his language and humor. And there is movement: mostly just through a mood.
So yeah, after reading that, I was feeling quite indifferent about the whole plot thing. In fact, I started to think: Feh, stuff happening -- who needs it? Books in which nothing happens are the best!
But then I read the new Lorrie Moore. I love her stories, by the way: I think she creates great characters and situations and I like her punnery. But her use of plot is very strange in this new book.
The novel's about a year in the life of a young midwestern woman who gets a job as a nanny for an older couple to help pay for college. That's pretty much the whole story. Several very dramatic things happen... but, strangely, they aren't connected. For instance, here's one plot element: her boyfriend turns out to be other than what she thought. When this happened, I thought: Oh, so this is what the book's about! But no. After it happened, it all went away, and pretty much never came up again.
Isn't that weird? It's very much like life, actually: you're living your life, and things just happen to you. (Like-Life is the title of one of her earlier collections, actually.) In fact... almost* nothing that happens in The Gate at the Stairs is instigated by the protagonist, other than her getting the job in the first place.
You know the old definition of plot: it's not The king dies, then the queen dies, but The king dies, and the queen dies of grief. In a plot, things don't just happen, but they cause other things to happen.
So I guess I'm saying that The Gate at the Stairs doesn't really have a plot, though some extremely dramatic things happen. In that way it's like The Anthologist. But it is also very much unlike The Anthologist, because it doesn't seem comfortable with nothing happening, so it makes things happen, though they don't really have meaning in the larger context. And even the events that seem integral to the book (the nanny bits) don't have much fallout.
Is that so bad? No. I couldn't put the novel down. (For me there are 3 categories of book: Couldn't Put It Down, Couldn't Read It, and Had to Read It For Book Club.) In spite of my quibbles, I would rather read Lorrie Moore than almost anyone. Still, it made me think that like Alice Munro, Chekhov, and lots of other writers, she really is a short story writer at heart. The novel read like a stretched out short story, with two big unrelated events thrown in to beef it up. If I were editing the book, I'd cut out those unrelated things, then totally implicate the narrator in the main story -- as it is, the nanny just witnesses what happens.
But sheesh, no one ever asks me!
* In one case, something happens because she doesn't read an email!