When the Mueller report was released in April 2019, you could buy it in bookstores. A lot of people did: it quickly climbed to the top of the Times Best Seller list. In addition to being explained by journalists, the report was evaluated by literary critics, including Dwight Garner, veteran of the Times book review, and Michiko Kakutani, his former colleague, whose power has turned her name into a verb. Reviewers compared Mueller’s “book” to noir fiction, detective novels, and thrillers — genres not typically given much real estate, or much real respect, by the reading elite. Defined, above all, by their plots — their twists and turns, their nail-biting and finger-pointing — these books sit uneasily on the shelf at the front of the indie bookstore, where so much literary fiction seems intent on flouting, if not entirely flattening, conventional narrative arcs. About those high-brow, low-plot novels, the Amazon reviewer complains: nothing happens.
In the end, of course, the same was true of the Mueller report. The plot went nowhere; Bob himself was a closed book. We couldn’t pin him down as subject or agent, villain or victim, those tidy roles that self-avowedly messy fiction (the richly awarded, poorly selling kind) loves to undermine. The report raises tantalizing questions about its author and its characters, but also about its readers. What sort of story were we expecting? What sort of story do we enjoy? If a bestselling whodunit can leave us scratching our heads about both the who and the it, what can we say about plot in America?
On the one hand, we circulate in a so-called public square where conspiracy theories flourish and bad actors reign — that is, we seem to live amid a glut of plots, with an insatiable appetite for more. These stories are notable both for their complexity (see: QAnon) and for their simplicity (must every enemy be turned into a pedophile?). And yet we have also developed a remarkable tolerance for narratives with unpredictable, unsatisfying arcs, the sort that, at least in theory, encourage nuance. News stories are constantly breaking, rarely repairing. The reports reach no clear conclusions; your news feed seems, actually, more like a loop. (How many January 6ths will be spent replaying the events of that January 6th?) The pandemic, meanwhile, is a story with no end in sight.
When we live in a perpetual suspension of disbelief, with such a meager promise of narrative closure, it seems reasonable to wonder if the goalposts of good storytelling have moved. There is grumbling that suggests we are tired of aimless Ben Lerners and loveless Sally Rooneys, of thinly-veiled memoir, of small interiors and their tiny furniture. And yet, like the perennially dissatisfied protagonists of all those slow-paced books, we seem to have little idea what we want instead. Should we accept — maybe even admire — the anticlimax? Or should we insist, for god’s sake, that all these “writers in Brooklyn” finally make something happen?
The decline of plot is not a new story. In 1969, Elizabeth Hardwick narrated its demise in an essay called “Reflections on Fiction,” arguing that the loose weft of modern life no longer fit on the loom of conventional narrative. This was not, she argued, a matter of changing reality but of evolving credulity. In old-school novels, “plotting is downright bad.” What was most striking to Hardwick was how readers “managed to connect with the awkward stories… The Victorian audience knew as much about human nature as any that came after it, but somehow it was able to go along with contrivances and coincidence, with false identities and sudden rescues.” This required stretches of imagination by readers, and also by authors. Hardwick quoted Ivy Compton-Burnett, who complained, “As regards plot I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots. And as I think a plot desirable and almost necessary, I have this extra grudge against life.” Compton-Burnett conceded that “there are signs that strong things happen” to ordinary people, “though they do not emerge”; the fiction writer’s job was to bring them to the surface.
There are a lot of submerged stories out there these days. Is that a problem, or not? Is the alternative to “strong things” weak stories? Julian Lucas, writing in Bookforum, lamented that “a certain scale of entanglement has gone missing” from contemporary novels, and, in his call for more plot not less, enjoined writers to “break the test tubes of ‘inner life’ and let the world contaminate their experiments.” It’s an exciting invitation, but we might wonder what the best protocols for such experiments would be; as with any contamination, we should probably expect some mess. Perhaps the plottiest book of the year so far, Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise (roughly the same length as the Mueller report), contains the sort of “contrivances and coincidences” that made many readers balk. It’s easy to take Compton-Burnett’s “grudge” against reality too far.
We should do better, but that shouldn’t necessarily mean doing bigger. Some of the finest fiction I have read this year was also the shortest: Cristina Rivera Garza’s New and Selected Stories. In an introduction, Garza writes, “The short story allowed me to approach matters that were unintelligible to me… without betraying their depth and complexity, even their improbability.” Garza’s stories certainly accept the challenge to let the world in: they contain kidnappings, abortions, authoritarian regimes, snippets of anthropological texts, snapshots of dreams. There is even a detective story among them. And yet these narratives hardly satisfy the typical demands of plot. “I never felt compelled, I have to admit, to unveil a secret or deliver a message, essentially because I seldom came out of a short story feeling I had a complete, or even a more thorough, understanding of what just happened,” Garza writes. “Instead, after every ending I was nagged by the uncanny sensation that I had been close to something I could never fully grasp.”
Getting close is, in one sense, the role of the investigator — what the Bob Muellers of the world get paid to do. But this asymptotic “approach” is not only the geometry of discovery but also the language of intimacy. It’s that sort of closeness, not to an answer or an indictment but to the mystery of another mind, that our finest plots can provide.
Clare Sestanovich is a writer and editor whose first book, Objects of Desire, was published by Knopf last year.