Reflection XXX: In which characters behave inexplicably, and the reader and protagonist both contemplate suicide

I realized my last post didn’t really provide much context for the story.  I don’t want to get into the plot much, but I guess if any of this is going to make sense to you, I need to provide something.  So, the McLaughlins of the title are one of a confused network of Scottish families, all of whom are interrelated somehow—a society not unlike Wharton’s New York (in that one respect).  Their eldest son, Wully (whose true first name is either unknown or I missed it), is a soldier for the North who enlisted alongside his younger brother, and who watched that little brother die in battle.  Wully has often been injured or imprisoned–the details are always fuzzy.  A neighbor family, the McNairs, consists of a father (back in Scotland—and has been for years, despite the narrator giving only vague indications as to why), a mother (dies early in the book, having been preceded in death by most of her children), and three or four young ones, of whom the oldest, Chirstie, is perhaps 17 years of age.  Wully falls in love with Chirstie in a single conversation (which I related to you) before returning to the service for a few months more at the end of the war.

The portion I’ve read covers Wully’s return to find that—surprise, surprise—the girl with whom he exchanged almost no words (but lots of “fearless” kisses) behaves coldly to him.  Apparently while he’s spent months dreaming of marrying her, and has arrived home figuring they’re basically engaged, she’s not anxious to speed that along at all.  She, in fact, basically orders him out of her house, after his response to her coldness is to move towards her in pretty physically aggressive fashion.  A real model of chivalry, our Wully.  He cannot go on with life, and contemplates ending it all.  But, lucky him, at church one morning he catches her looking at him during prayer—which is, as anyone knows, an indication of unmistakable romantic interest.  So he sings the final Psalm loudly and happily, and then races to her house, only to discover her sitting on the porch in tears.  Wully is confused.  Poor Wully.

So, what has Wilson taught me about bad writing?  To begin with plot (since I’ve just related most of it, thus far), it’s clear that bad writing involves characters whose behavior is unjustifiable given the circumstances.  Every indication we have of Wully’s character suggests that he is the stable and rational child in the family.  I accept that “stable and rational” types can go overboard…but surely it would take more than a kiss standing by a well to do so?  I know, I know—a lot of movies and novels are built on the premise that every buttoned-down introvert is just a step away from behaving madly and wildly at the sight of a beautiful human being and the thought of romance.  But isn’t that more the way love feels than the way love truly is?  Wully just seems to be irrational when it serves the plot, and calm and composed when that’s convenient.  Bad writing.

And style-wise (don’t worry, I won’t include any excerpts this time, out of consideration for our digestive systems), bad novel writing seems to consist of disjointed moments.  Wilson doesn’t bother to set up emotional moments: she simply announces that they are happening.  Boring or mundane events are narrated in the same casual manner as critical and meaningful events, which leads to either apathy or a sense of frustrated anticipation.  Mostly, though, I am told over and over again “facts” that were blatantly obvious.  When someone sees the woman they are in love with, I hardly need to be told it is exciting for them.  If a mother sees that her son is ill, taking additional sentences to note that she’s concerned and hopes he will feel better soon seems pretty pointless—now, I can envision that a different author could use these sentences to reveal important things about their relationship, or the emotional state of the mother, or any of half-a-dozen other useful topics.  But Wilson seems frightened of writing a sentence with a comma in it, leaving me reading simple declarative sentences that would be useful if I was reading about the economy of Bolivia, but neither engage nor usefully inform me of anything.

Will Wully marry the woman of his dreams? (Uh, yes.)  Will Pa remember all the words to the Psalm after dinner? (Has he ever forgotten?  No.)  Will Chirstie’s father return from Scotland? (At a critical juncture that neatly wraps up the plot, almost as though he’s an actor waiting in the wings for his cue?  No, surely not!)  Reading this novel is like eating bacon that tastes like unseasoned green cabbage: it’s unexciting, it overwhelms me with an absence of taste, and despite its attempts to convince me otherwise, I’m pretty sure it isn’t good for me.  See you next time.

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4 comments on “Reflection XXX: In which characters behave inexplicably, and the reader and protagonist both contemplate suicide

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    “…it’s clear that bad writing involves characters whose behavior is unjustifiable given the circumstances.”

    Roger Ebert calls this the “idiot plot.” His definition: “Any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.”

    Your definition is more erudite, but I may like his better. Either way, it looks like that’s Wilson’s modus operandi.

    I can’t read your other reviews because I may want to read the books at some point. But this one? This one I read.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I agree that Ebert’s pithiness is best here (and given how much of his writing I’ve read over the years, my comments are probably heavily influenced by him, honestly). When you say you can’t read the reviews, does that just mean the final post on the novel, or all my blog posts? I’m a bit confused by that comment, and if I’m giving too much away from these stories, let me know—I’m still working on how to do this blog, and maybe it would be best to be a bit more circumspect about details so people don’t get them spoiled?

  2. Paul Hamann says:

    Well, it depends. Who is your intended audience? For the same reason you don’t read the other Pulitzer blog, I try not to read yours in the event I ever read the book. I’d say that no matter how little detail you give.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Hmmm. I guess your question is a good one: I don’t know who my intended audience is. Presumably people interested in books who are willing to share their opinions?

      And while I can certainly understand and respect your rationale for not reading my blog, in all honesty, I think our reasons are a little different. At least, if I’d decided not to continue this project of mine, I’d be reading Along With A Hammer. The reason I’m dodging them is not so much that I don’t want the book spoiled as that I don’t want my comments to be derivative. But I suppose there’s also the notion that I want my opinions of the book to be mine, and I can understand you wanting the same thing. It’s a shame, though–I really value your comments and ideas. I’ll just hope there are a good number of books on my list that you’ve read already, so that we can get a good conversation going on occasion!

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