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The importance of the plotless novel

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

It made one realise that life still held infinite possibilities for change.

Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym

(Mild Spoiler Alert)

I read Jane and Prudence at the age of 16. It was my first Barbara Pym novel, and from the little I’d heard about her writing, I was expecting a 20th century version of Jane Austen. As a big Austen fan, this was obviously very exciting news.

Only on finishing the book, I was thoroughly confused; here was all the domesticity typical of Austen, and yet the drama was strangely lacking. Was I missing a chapter? Had I somehow skipped over the bit where something actually happens?

It turns out that Pym isn’t particularly interested in the Lizzie Bennets of this world, or the Darcys or Willoughbys. The romances in her novels are generally unfulfilling and unexciting. Characters rarely get dangerously ill, there aren’t any acts of heroism, there’s almost zero tension, and it’s hard to imagine her books ever being adapted into films. I can’t see how you could even make the addition of a lake-diving scene to spice things up a bit…her tea-drinking characters seem unlikely to engage in any such risk-taking behaviours.

Of course, there are other 20th century works that are ‘light on plot’, but they are typically in the stream of consciousness style; Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine, David Markson’s, Wittgenstein’s Mistress to name but a few.

Pym’s writing, on the other hand, is far from experimental in form and would rarely get a mention alongside the work of these ‘highbrow’ writers. As is often the case for the female middlebrow novelist, she tends to be dismissed as an author of ‘library novels’, or as Nicola Humble puts it, the sorts of books to be ‘hidden from those you might want to impress’[1].

Now it’s true that Pym is no Virginia Woolf, and for the contemporary reader, there are moments within Pym’s novels that are uncomfortable. She rarely explores ideas of race and class, but when she does it often feels clumsy. Tackling political issues isn’t something that Pym is known for, nor does she challenge or alter the reader’s view of the universe in any grand, overtly philosophical way.

For this reason, she has often been overlooked as a writer that has anything ‘useful’ to say. However, whilst the approach she takes is gentler, and more apparently frivolous, she nevertheless succeeds in bringing out the muted shades of life’s palette with a unique, unpretentious touch. This ability to capture fragments of ordinary human experience with both comedy and poignancy means that after even a short time immersed within the Pym universe, the reader may start to see the everyday through a new lens.

Reading her work is like learning an eccentric form of mindfulness, in which the minor, and often amusing details of daily living become the subject of our attention, (soap animals in the vicar’s bathroom for example...) Joan Gordon articulates it in this way, “What seems trivial for literature looms into significance” in her novels.[2]*

The art of writing really good books where nothing much happens is a tough one to master, especially since Pym’s version of the ‘plotless’ book doesn’t use exciting or unusual narrative modes and tends to centre upon an underwhelming protagonist. Quartet in Autumn is one of the best examples of Pym’s artistry; it follows the lives of four work colleagues nearing their retirement and is quite possibly the most uneventful book that I’ve ever read, but its compelling depiction of loneliness has stayed with me.

When I came across, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I was expecting it to be a similar sort of novel, and in some ways it is. Honeyman’s witty observations of everyday life often feel quite ‘Pymish’ and her protagonist, Eleanor, seems much like a younger version of Marcia (one of the protagonists in Quartet in Autumn). She’s eccentric and judgemental, and also happens to speak as though she were in her sixties (rather than her actual age of 29).

The lives of these socially inept women provide an insight into modern day loneliness. Eleanor and Marcia share a repetitive routine that revolves around generic office work, food-shopping trips (for plain, samey food), unwanted visits from social workers, and the occasional doctor’s appointment. We get to hear the untold story of the weird next-door neighbour that everyone awkwardly avoids.

‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, with plenty of chuckle-worthy and touching moments, and an element of mystery too. Whilst I’m a sucker for a good mystery, in this case, I felt that the narrative twists and turns actually detracted from the overall coherence of this book’s ‘message’.

There is of course far more to most books than one ‘message or ‘theme’, and to boil a book down to one simple idea usually diminishes it in some way. The issue with Eleanor Oliphant is that it sometimes feels as though we are being bashed over the head with one particular moral. (This may sound a bit rich coming from someone who has dedicated a whole blog to drawing out ‘messages’ of truth and morality from the culture surrounding us, but bear with me…)

In an interview with the Guardian, Honeyman explains that the character of Eleanor was inspired by a newspaper article on the problem of loneliness, and there are moments in the book where the writing does feel a little too much as though it has been lifted straight out of a newspaper or magazine feature:

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

And yet if we look at an earlier passage in the book, we find Honeyman’s writing style is surprisingly poetic: “There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar.” Both of these writing styles are at odds with the character of our narrator, Eleanor, who suffers from a lack of self-awareness and who tends to be far more direct in most of her speech and thought. Unfortunately, this inconsistency in tone is distracting.

Honeyman paints a far more vivid portrait of modern-day loneliness when she gives voice to her character’s musings on the trivialities of her day. Eleanor’s philosophical ponderings upon talking to houseplants (“It's not as though I'm expecting a reply”) or her description of the communal birthday card palaver in the office (“I’d contributed seventy-eight pence to the collection”), and other comical but revealing details provide a far more engaging and interesting glimpse into the world of this lonely young woman.

As in Pym’s novels, the regular references to the minutia of mundane, daily living are essential to the meaning, or dare I say it, the ‘message’ of the book. At the heart of Eleanor Oliphant is a belief that the little things, the small of acts of kindness (or unkindness) can make a huge difference to a person’s existence, and this is where Honeyman’s storytelling is most successful. It is the focus on everyday details and the narrator’s rambling thoughts that draw in the reader, more so than the mystery plotline or the generic descriptions of loneliness. Strange though this may sound, I would be interested to read a plotless version of ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ where there is no big reveal at the end.

Quartet in Autumn provides the sort of ending that could well be reimagined to suit Eleanor’s character. Letty, one of the ‘Quartet’, realises that she has power to make her own choices: “It made one realise that life still held infinite possibilities for change.” And so the book ends with three of the main characters planning a day-trip to the countryside. This is certainly not the grand climax that we might expect to find in other novels, but the minor event signifies an important progression in the characters' lives from isolation towards community, and at the end of Eleanor’s story, we see her on a similar trajectory. Like Letty, she finds hope.

Eleanor Oliphant reminds us that there is joy to be found in the simple, little things and reveals the significance of those mundane minutes of our day, whether that's at the hairdressers or during the lunch break at work. I just wish that the plot and tone inconsistency could be tidied up a bit to allow these ideas space to breathe.

At a time when many of us have been stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we may understandably have an even greater hunger for excitement and escapism than normal. And yet I wonder if the kinds of novels that draw our attention to the mundanities of life are actually more relevant now than ever. Do we sometimes need to have our eyes opened to the significance of the little things that lie before us? And to realise our ability to bring about change in the small everyday moments?

Pym excels in the kind of understated storytelling that encourages us to pay attention. One of my favourite Pym quotes comes from ‘Jane and Prudence’ when Jane suddenly finds herself in wonder at the peculiar beauty of everyday parish life; “all this richness”, she exclaims to herself.

For an author who sets many of her novels in a parish setting, Pym’s books are surprisingly lacking in theology. Cups of tea and church jumble sales abound, but it’s rare to find her characters discussing the meaning of life or theories of transubstantiation, and yet the idea that we can discover ‘richness’ in the tiniest details of our days (an idea that permeates all of Pym’s novels) is a deeply Christian belief.

To quote a fictional priest, Father Baddeley from P.D. James’ novel The Black Tower:

This is the spiritual life; the ordinary things one does from hour to hour.

Maybe it feels easier to see the pivotal or revelatory moments in our life as quite separate from our tired Monday mornings, the weekly shop, the minutes spent at the sink washing up. That is what many of our favourite novels and movies might have us believe, but in reality, the spiritual and the mundane are inextricably linked.

…part of the problem is that modern Western readers in particular are a bit inclined to romanticise struggle and tension…our moral thinking has concentrated on the difficulties of decision-making more than on the character that develops over a lifetime.

Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes

Of course, sometimes we will have to make big, difficult decisions, and we can take part in activism that changes laws, topples statues, and makes history (this activism is undeniably important), but if we remain blind to the smaller everyday opportunities to see transformation in our own lives and the lives of others around us, (yes, even the weird, socially-awkward next-door neighbour that we’d rather avoid), then the greater narrative of justice and love all becomes a bit meaningless.

The kind of art (whether lowbrow, middlebrow or highbrow) that helps us to notice, to appreciate and forgive the eccentricities of our neighbours, and to empathise with the minor griefs and joys of others, may indeed be quite the opposite of ‘trivial’ or ‘frivolous’. As Pym writes in Less than Angels, “The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things.” Or to put it in more theological terms:

“All day long we are doing eternally important things without knowing it.”

Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder


[1] Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, p.39.

[2] Ellen M. Tsagaris, The Subversion of Romance in the Novels of Barbara Pym, p.82

*This love of trivia might in itself be seen as political - I’d argue Pym is making a remarkably feminist point, but maybe another blog post can be reserved for that…

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