I don’t think that any novel is really “plotless”. As long as you’ve got a character who moves around and performs actions, then there’s a plot. Normally, the term “plotless” is used in a pejorative sense, to refer to novels or films in which the action doesn’t increase in intensity (you know, the book doesn’t start with little fights and end with big fights....they’re just little fights all the way through).
But I am not using the term in that sense. I’m using it to refer to a number of books I’ve read recently that, while they are novel length, only possess about a tiny dollop of plot (maybe a short story’s worth), with the rest of these books being given over, more or less, to some kind of treatise, or lecture, or bizarre textual performance.
The most recent of these books, for me, was Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, which is about a middle-aged widower who really loves Gustave Flaubert and gets involved in an extremely minor and easily solved mystery. 80% of the novel is given over to the reflections of this guy--George Braithwaite--on Flaubert, and his attempts to build up some kind of composite mental image of what Flaubert was like as a man. These reflections include: a whole chapter on various animal metaphors Flaubert used (called the Flaubert Beastiary); a series of three chronology’s of Flaubert’s life, one triumphant one, one sad one, and one composed of extracts from his letters; an extended fictional monologue by one of Flaubert’s mistresses; a discussion of books that Flaubert wanted to write but didn’t get around to; and a long list of reasons to hate Flaubert (with counterarguments).
Now, all this Flaubertiana has some resonances with Braithwaite’s story (which exists in a sort of nimbus surrounding the death of his wife), but for most of the book, you don’t care about that. You just care about learning all kinds of fun shit about Flaubert.
And, for me, that seems to be the commonality between all the “plotless” novels I’ve read. In each case, there has been some resonance between the non-story material and the main plot, but the joy of the book has primarily come about due to my own engagement with the non-story material.
A perfect example is the four David Markson books I’ve read (Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Reader’s Block, This Is Not A Novel, and The Last Novel). All of these books are primarily composed of various trivia about artists (as described in this blog post). Now...all of these have some kind of through-line, story-wise (particularly Wittgenstein’s Mistress). And people say that the reason they work is because Markson was incredibly skilled at choosing the right piece of trivia to put in the right place and at crafting resonances and themes that spanned across the book. And that is undoubtedly true. But that’s not what I was thinking when I read the book. What I was most often thinking was, “Wow, that is an incredibly nifty fact.”
And the same goes for the oldest plotless novel in my quiver: The Journal Of A Plague Year (which I blogged about last year). Once again, the joys of this novel are primarily the same joys as one gets from non-fiction. They’re the joys of learning something new about something really strange (in this case, plague-wracked London).
So this leaves me wondering...what would a boring plotless (or, rather, plot-sparse) novel look like? I would like to read a novel that is composed of numerous very interesting facts, but which nonetheless fails to cohere for me as a book. I think that would give me a greater appreciation for the artistry of the plot-sparse novels that I’ve read so far, because right now it feels to me like they’re mostly feeding off of the interesting nature of their nonfictional subject matter (and the freedom that the novel form gives them to present that subject matter in interesting and odd ways). And although that is probably not true, I would like to have some intuitive understanding of why it’s not true and of what Julian Barnes, David Markson, and Daniel Defoe are actually doing.
Regarding plot-sparse novels, I’m surprised that I can’t think of any SF novels which fit the bill. Considering how fond science fiction is of explication, I’d think there would be many. Certainly, the old-tyme utopia form (as in Thomas More’s Utopia or B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) is chocked-full of plot-sparse novels. Maybe the closest I can come, for science fiction, is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which is a book whose (somewhat nonsense) plot seems like an excuse to string together some fascinating digressions. However, I am sure there are better examples of plot-sparse SF novels.
In addition to the novels I’ve mentioned above, other novels I’d like to propose for “plot-sparse” status are: the second half of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which is just a long philosophical dialogue; Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction, which is just a description of the eponymous character; and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground, whose first half is a lecture on political and personal philosophy. I suppose Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler also fits, a little bit, but in that case the interpolations are also stories, at least kind of. And Calvino's Invisible Cities might count too, although it feels more like a story collection with a framing device. Oh, and there’s also Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, which is (at least partly) a series of lectures by a fictional professor. I haven’t read it, but I am planning to.
What other ones can you think of?
For Science Fiction would Olaf Stapledon’s future histories like Last and First Men and The Darkness and the Light fit your meaning of plotless? Also maybe The Last Man by Mary Shelley.
Thanks for reminding me about Stapledon! His works are definitely exactly what I’m thinking of. I’ve previously read and enjoyed The Last And First Men, but not the others.