Sunday, March 13, 2011

Plot and its Lack

I'm interested at the moment in the question of plot and what it is, because my book club is reading Regeneration (1991) by Pat Barker this month. This is a novel about shell shock as caused by conditions in the trenches in the First World War. The main story is about Rivers, the fictional psychiatrist engaged in curing the soldiers sent to his hospital. The novel describes his methods in great detail.

To me, 'plot' is a well constructed framework of causes and effects. Reasons why things happen. What things happen as a result. A plot takes you by the hand and leads you through the novel. A plot organises the excitements in the most potent pattern. No plot made me feel bereft, like something was missing. Like the account would continue and continue. It made me feel distant from the characters, not caring all that much about them. I'm astounded that a novel without a plot would make it past the publishing gate.

Novels like Regeneration always make me doubt that I know what the words 'plot' and 'narrative' and 'story' actually mean. In fact, Regeneration reads like a psychiatrist's journal of case notes. I've got another account treating the same subject, The Battle for the Mind (1957) by William Sargant which is the real deal, an actual account of the study of war neuroses and related peacetime conditions, based in part on observations of men returning from the trenches in the Second World War.

Reading Regeneration I suffered a bad case of deja vu and was hard put not to compare the stories. Because that's what they both are. The story of shell shocked men being treated in Regeneration and the story of treating people with peacetime as well as war neuroses in The Battle for the Mind.

There's no plot in either of them that I can discern. The Battle for the Mind is a non fiction discussion of the research into different neurosis, and so doesn't need a plot. Regeneration is a fictional account of one man's treatments of shell shocked men. Where's the need for plot one might say.

Fine. Plot is may not be a necessity in literature. I was interested reading it, but, as I say, I was doing the deja vu thing. I'm looking forward to hearing what my fellow readers think about it.

what have you been reading lately?

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