"No Poor, Indifferent Place": Is Any Life Too Boring for the Writer?
I have noticed a preference in my reading habits recently for books with slow plot-lines, contemplative narrators, and rural life. It has made me wonder why these books are of interest to me — and to lots of other people, it seems — despite their minimal action, ordinary characters, meandering structure, and temporal remove (narrators writing from the perspective of old age). The novels of Kentucky writer, farmer, and environmentalist Wendell Berry are a perfect examples of this mode, as is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.
How do these writers sustain my attention so completely without the normal tricks of plot and suspense?
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes,
If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.
I think of these words when considering Berry’s characters, ordinary people living in a rather ordinary town in Middle America. The titular narrator of his novel Jayber Crow, for example, is an aging former barber who now lives in a cabin on the bank of a river, where he has, it seems, ample time to contemplate his life. He has never married, and he has no children or any other family. He is not, on the surface, a very interesting man. But his particular voice and a particular way of seeing hold our attention throughout the book.
Jayber Crow, like another of Berry's narrators Hannah Coulter and Gilead's John Ames, has a unique ability to “call forth the riches” of daily life—noticing the types of trees and plants by name, finding pleasure in small barber-shop conversation, reading the motivation behind the actions of men. He is a quiet and keen observer, and without this trait I don’t think the novel would succeed. It moves forward not by consequential action—though there is a bit of that—but through a series of stirring portraitures of people and life, told in slightly jumbled order. The character of Jayber becomes a source of authority on the town and on life. We read on to learn what he thinks of time and God and love and war, not necessarily to find out what happens next. John Ames in Gilead has this authoritative (though ever gentle) first-person voice as well.
Stories do not have to depend on suspenseful rising action or plot twists to hold together, as is evidenced in plenty of books, but if they deviate from traditional plot-based storytelling, having an insightful first-person narrator like Jayber seems to be tremendously helpful. Even if Jayber does not have a particularly active external life, his internal life is in constant motion, and the keenness of his vision gives us perceptive glimpses into the lives of others. Reading Wendell Berry has reminded me that all stories—even sprawling epics—take place in the small, little worlds between individuals, which should be some comfort to my persistent worry that my life has not been strange enough to produce interesting fiction.
Books and stories I love with contemplative first-person narrators:
"A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout