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Finding the Plot

December 20, 2011

Joan Didion (Photo by David Shankbone via flickr)

In a previous post I asked the question: are you episodic or narrative? (Link here.) I queried our quest to find patterns in the events of our lives and examined the efforts of memoirists to make their lives tell a meaningful story. I was responding to Lee Siegel’s passionate attack on the narrative viewpoint, and while I agreed that we may fool ourselves by finding patterns where none exist, I also argued that our lives are governed by both random chance and meaningful connections, and that it may be possible to find a narrative that explains something about us.

Inga Clendinnen’s review of Joan Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights, in the November edition of The Monthly (link here), sent me back to that post. Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” but in a context that radiated a profound ambivalence. In The White Album she wrote: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Didion recognises that we may make up stories and impose them on random events, but she needs these stories, and when she doubts them, she feels that she has mislaid her script, lost the plot, and that all she sees are “flash pictures … with no meaning beyond their temporary arrangement.” This is her description of a “kind of breakdown” that lasted five years. In Clendinnen’s words, “the connective tissue holding experiences together had gone.”

Didion needed to tell herself stories in order to live, but does everyone? Lee Siegel and other episodic types would glory in a life as a series of flash pictures with no meaning beyond their temporary arrangement. Both Didion and Siegel make statements about human beings in general, but their statements apply mainly to themselves. For me, each person’s life is a unique mix of random chance and meaningful narrative, and each person reacts to that mix in their own way.

In the earlier post I mentioned Lee Siegel’s list of great writers who wrote picaresque – episodic – novels. In a comment on the post, Claire Wood observed that “within each of their episodic novels lies a deeper narrative structure.” Since then I’ve been noticing this structure in picaresque novels. In Andrew O’Hagan’s tale of Maf the dog and Marilyn Monroe (link here), Maf sees his story as picaresque, in the tradition of such writers as Dickens and Dostoyevsky. But woven through the procession of episodes that he describes is the deeper narrative of Marilyn’s search for meaning, her longing for self-improvement, her quest to find herself.

Donald Friend’s novel Save Me From the Shark is exuberantly picaresque and a breeze to read – he could write as beautifully as he could paint. Initially the episodes seem unrelated, but towards the end connections appear and the reader realises there has been a plot, based around an artist finding the core of his talent as a painter. (I read this book because of my interest in Indonesia, but whether I should have is another question. My rationalisation: if we spurned all artists and writers of bad character, we would have few books to read, little music to listen to, and few works of art to admire. For more on the debate about the artist’s life in Bali, google Kerry Negara, A Loving Friend.)

Randomness and narrative intertwine in life and novels, but in memoirs the random bits are often left out. Some memoirists may wish to make up fanciful stories about their lives, and the result may be a great work of art, but those who honestly want to “find the plot” of their lives need to be aware of how easy it is to impose a narrative line on “the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Historians face a similar problem: they must deal with situations of exquisite complexity involving innumerable actors, causes and effects. Historians have an advantage – there’s more than one of them, and debates can modify interpretations and lead to better understanding. Memoirists are historians of their own lives but often don’t have the benefit of rival versions of their story, so they need to be particularly aware of how we can be deceived by the allure of patterns or the tricks of memory.

As Joan Didion says in Blue Nights: “Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

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