I came up with a theory during my adolescence that good books were the ones you could open anyplace—beginning, middle, or end—start reading, and they would work their magic. I tested my theory on A Farewell to Arms and it seemed to work: “That my love Catherine. That my sweet love Catherine down might rain.” Well, a 15-year-old boy would love those lines, wouldn’t he, good book or not?
I had grown up reading mysteries, so I’m wondering why I had this epiphany that plot was irrelevant. My mother turned me on to Sherlock Holmes at an early age, and she was behind my love of Edgar Allen Poe, too. Mysteries were the only books that interested her, and she was relentless in her pursuit of them. You were allowed to take out five books at a time from the Oakland Public Library, and every two weeks she would return the last five she’d borrowed and take out the next five in order from the mystery shelves.
It’s not that my mother was indiscriminate. She loved discriminating. She probably enjoyed rating the mysteries on her personal scale from one to ten almost as much as she enjoyed reading them. But she did enjoy them—even the ones and twos, just as she enjoyed watching Perry Mason on TV even though she knew Erle Stanley Gardner was no Agatha Christie. Marlene Dietrich and Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution were pretty much the definition of genius in our house. My parents were divorced when I was a baby so my mother’s tastes didn’t have to compete with my father’s, and in any case, as far as I can remember, my father never read a book of fiction.
It was Barbara, my half-sister fifteen years older than me and six hundred miles away, who converted me from plot to poetry when she sent me The Old Man and the Sea for Christmas when I was twelve. “I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I’m glad we do not have to kill the stars.” I’m sure when I was twelve “I’m glad we do not have to kill the stars” struck me as the pinnacle of wisdom and beauty and coolness. You could imagine Bob Dylan singing that line. Hell, you could imagine the Beach Boys.
The Old Man and the Sea is an interesting example because suspense and plot are so clearly central to the novel. Will the old man catch the fish? Will the sharks destroy the fish? Will the old man survive? And yet they’re so clearly not the point. I don’t know if The Old Man and the Sea is a great book, but it was great to me when I was twelve because it was the first book I’d read that went beyond the Hardy Boys, beyond even Sherlock Holmes.
This seems to be one thing we mean by poetry being song. I must have listened to Blonde on Blonde a few thousand times when I was growing up. We listen over and over to songs we love. Obviously it’s not because we want to find out what happens. Maybe a classic is classic not because it’s better than other books or music, but just because it has the sort of qualities that aren’t exhausted after one reading or listening or after ten. I read The Old Man and the Sea hundreds of times, until I almost knew it by heart.
What’s interesting is after all that, plot is still important to me. It’s not that I want to be surprised by a clever plot twist. The duchess and the chauffeur did it together? I never would have guessed that. No, I could care less if the most obvious person in the world did it. Macbeth did it. I don’t go to see Macbeth to be surprised by the ending. But plot gives a feeling of gravitas to a story, a sense that it matters. If a piece of writing doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end, it feels as if the writer is trying to deny that lives have a beginning, middle and, most importantly, an end.
I keep wondering what it is I want most out of a piece of writing. I’m too greedy to give up either the pleasures of poetry or the pleasures of fiction. I want to read books that have both the relentless narrative of Crime and Punishment, but at the same time have something like the weird poetry of Van Morrison singing “Madame George”: “and as you’re about to leave she jumps up and says Hey love, you forgot your glove, and the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves the glove ….” Morrison said he originally called the song “Madame Joy” but somehow it came out “Madame George,” and that seems exactly right.