The Anthologist and the Abandonment of Plot

anthologist

A few months ago, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist came out to a reception of some very generous reviews. This shouldn’t be totally surprising; Baker’s book, about a minor poet struggling to write the introduction to his forthcoming anthology of rhyme, is infectious and endearing. Paul Chowder, the poet in question, spends a lot of time thinking about poetry, meter, rhyme schemes, free verse, as well as his ex-girlfriend Roz, his career, and his financial situation.

But here’s the thing: Chowder doesn’t actually do much of anything for the entire novel. He sits in his attic, he walks his dog, he picks blueberries—but there is no real plot at all. In fact, there aren’t really any other characters: Paul interacts with some people, but nobody for more than a few pages at a time, and nobody who gets more than the most superficial treatment.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. Baker is clearly more concerned with developing Paul than he is with introducing a plot. And spending a few hundred pages in Paul’s mind provides a telling illustration of writer’s block, specifically the kind of a writer so infatuated with and invested in a certain subject; Paul is paralyzed at the thought of saying anything about poetry, for fear of saying something wrong or not expressing himself completely.

The Anthologist’s lack of plot is also acceptable because Paul is so disarming as a narrator—he presents himself as less of an expert in poetry than a fan of poetry. A lot of the narrative reads like a lecture on poetry—particularly on the evils of iambic pentameter and the virtues of the four-beat line—but it is not generally didactic; the prose itself teems with the kind of excitement people get when discussing what they are passionate about.

The problem with this kind of book, one that relies so heavily on one character over any narrative arc or interaction, is that it can seem like all charm and little substance. Or, if you want to be less forgiving (but not entirely unfair), all style and no substance.

Sometimes, for example, Baker’s prose is cloying, such as when he cutely points out that the word “iamb” is not, itself, an iamb, which is kind of like wondering why “abbreviation” is such a long word—we get it, it’s ironic. There are plenty of times when Baker seems so desperate to make Paul idiosyncratic and inoffensive that you want to roll your eyes.

This is the inherent drawback of abandoning plot. When you lean so heavily on one character, you can be forced to make that character likable and relatable. Sometimes, this is fine, but often it ends up detracting from the overall narrative. At a certain point, reading The Anthologist is like reading the memoir of someone who just wants desperately to be liked; there seems to be little other point to the story.

This is why stories, in general, need plot. It can sometimes seem plebeian or vulgar to want stories to have plot—it can make you seem like the kind of person who only reads Stephen King and John Grisham, or only sees movies directed by Michael Bay. This, I suspect, is why The Anthologist received such good reviews: Critics don’t want to sound crass by complaining that not enough happens.

But the traditional elements of story are there for a reason. We don’t just read novels because they are about someone; we read them because they are about something. And for a story to really have an impact, it needs to have conflict.

There is, of course, a type of conflict in The Anthologist. It’s the internal conflict that comes with procrastination and writer’s block. But it’s the kind of self-imposed, trivial conflict that doesn’t make for a very good story. When Paul finally does sit down and write his introduction, there is no real payoff or emotional turning point; we mainly just wonder why he couldn’t have done this earlier. The Anthologist is about a guy who doesn’t do something for a while, and then he does. And while Paul’s love of poetry is relatable and informative and even, at times, compelling, it doesn’t really offer much in terms of meaning. 

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