Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers by Dannye Romine Powell, Doris Betts said that character is more important than plot; that's why we can read a story or a book again, despite knowing how it will turn out. The characters call us back like old friends. To be honest, I don't necessarily forget the way plots unravel, but I can read a book time and time again, anxious lest the ending change. I always have to see if Miss Bennett ends up with Mr. Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice this time.

Once I was listening to a tape of Dr. Zhivago on a long road trip and I came to the point at the end when Zhivago spies Laura from a train or trolley and tries to catch her--or at least catch her attention. Just before he drops dead in the street, the tape broke. In my mind, there was a distinct possibility that in this latest version, he caught her and lived happily ever after into their golden years.

I've been thinking this week about the parts of books I do remember long after I close the book. All too often, I forget the ending of a book. I'd never be able to pass the kind of test kids take on their Accelerated Reader (AR) books (but that's my soapbox for another day.) Most often I remember the plot details that are most unsettling.

Right now I'm listening to Jonathan Safron Foer's second novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on CD in the car. I picked it up the same week that I saw the movie of his first novel Everything Is Illuminated, one of the most intriguing, funny, touching movies I've seen lately. In this new book, Foer's main character Oscar Schell is a young boy whose father died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Oscar is an odd, intelligent, sad child. The book pulls together his search for the lock that fits a key he finds in his late father's closet and the stories of his grandparents (so far, at least. I'm on tape five).

Without having finished the book, though, I know I'll be most haunted by a section in which his grandfather encourages his grandmother to type her life story. She argues that she can't type and that "my eyesight is crummy." He sets her up in their guest room with his old manual typewriter and she writes for months--at least a thousand pages. When she reaches the present, her husband looks through the stack that has accumulated, sees blank pages, and realizes he removed the ribbon years before. Her eyesight is obviously worse than he thought. But he doesn't tell her the truth about her project.

I don't think I'm giving away anything of the plot by revealing this part of the story, but I know that it's one part that will eat at me for years to come. I carry around a similar true story I find equally disturbing: my friend had her father's love letters to her mother he wrote while serving in WWII. They were in his native tongue, which my friend couldn't read, so she threw them away. I asked why she didn't have someone translate them, and she admitted it hadn't occurred to her.

With most of the books I've read easily accessible for a re-read, I don't worry if I forget much of what I read by the time a year has passed. I can always go back. I do like to revisit the parts of stories that seem so true, so real that they never leave me.
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1 comment:

Tony said...

Great article. I agree that character is more important than plot, weak characters will make me stop reading quicker than a weak plot. That said, plot is still very important, a plot needs to draw the reader in, and along with the characters, keep the reader interested throughot the book. I also agree that kid's tests on books are way too hard, we as a adults don't remeber all the details that kids are expected to remember.

Tony Peters
Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping
www.eloquentbooks.com/KidsonaCase.html