In a short piece on novelist James Kelman’s latest work, Giles Harvey reflects on the tension between consciousness and plot in the modern novel. The object of the novelist, Harvey writes, at least since Jane Austen, has been increasingly to capture the human mind—express the odd turns and sometime unexpected destinations of consciousness:
Jane Austen’s free indirect speech, the folding of soliloquy into third-person narration (“She had no hope, nothing to deserve the name of hope, that he could have that sort of affection for herself which was now in question”), marked the first significant breakthrough. Flaubert, James, Tolstoy, and others took this technique and ran with it. In the climactic chapters of “Anna Karenina,” Anna’s mind, overwrought by the crisis of her deteriorating affair with Vronsky, seems to commandeer the narrative altogether (“How proud and happy he’ll be when he gets my note! But I’ll show him… What a terrible smell that paint has”), so that mind and narrative become hard to tell apart.
From Tolstoy to the fractured, telegraphic stream of consciousness in “Ulysses” or the smoother, more overtly stylized variety in “Mrs. Dalloway” is not far. The main difference is one of attention span. Tolstoy gives us only a few pages of full immersion in the spume of Anna’s thoughts, and they come during the book’s most dramatic episode—a time when Anna has a lot to think about. The pages of Joyce and Woolf, on the other hand, abound with brain lint, the stuff of ordinary minds on ordinary days.
But too many pages devoted to mirroring the human mind can make a novel rather tedious. Not all minds are the same, and even great ones still think about the uninteresting essentials of life most of the time. “All novels,” Harvey writes, “need to strike a balance between description of what happens to a character and what a character is thinking about as it happens. In most, for the sake of order, momentum, and intelligibility, the latter tends to be subordinate to the former.”
Kelman inverts this, subordinating plot to consciousness, and the result, Harvey argues, is unsatisfying: “Art is meaningful because it is life-like without incurring the disadvantages of actually being life—that is to say, without being boring and formless. Kelman seems unmindful, or simply uninterested, in this proposition.”
In other words, the thoughts or actions of characters become uninteresting if they are not directed, at some point, towards a purpose. This tells us an important truth about who we are, of course. We were created to live meaningful, purposeful lives.
But I wonder if it also tells us something about goal of certain modern and contemporary novelists. One might say that in the mind of God, plot is subordinated to consciousness. Time and sequence are his thoughts, and the story of humanity is derivate of the free-wheeling, “purposeless” thoughts of our divine creator. In his mind, all thoughts are interesting, engaging on their own, but our thoughts, or the thoughts of characters, like perhaps Leopold Bloom, become uninteresting when they are made to seem self-sustaining (like God’s) when, in fact, they are not. They are subordinate to God’s thought, his plot.
Prufrock, a free daily newsletter on books, art, and ideas, is curated by Micah Mattix.