Plot vs. Character


An Atomic Romance
By Bobbie Ann Mason
Random House, 2005, 266 pp.

For the last decade I have been involved in one of those odd arguments that perhaps only novelists have. It developed as I talked to other novelists, particularly those who were adamant that the most important thing about a book was its plot--the story outline that you really ought to be able to render in 25 words or less. Now, I read and enjoy books that originate from such designs--but that is not how I approach writing. I have never been able to summarize anything I put on the page in one sentence or even in one paragraph.
Instead, I write something I call character-driven fiction: stories that originate in the exploration and development of a central character, who catches my imagination and leads me outward to the other people in the story--and eventually to the story itself. That is also what I most enjoy reading. Character and language are what draw me into a story. If, in a stack of pages, I find speech that sings, description that startles, and best of all, some person I almost--but don't quite--recognize from my own experience, then the tight parts of my neck and shoulders relax, and I'll follow that writer anywhere. That is what I love most about reading novels--being seduced by a writer's language to meet new and interesting characters. Occasionally, it's true, the seduction is in the design--a plot in which everything builds to an inevitable climax, a resolution, a transfiguration, or a full stop that brings me to a shout or a sob. I read for stories that will catch me like that and take me out of this world to some heightened place of sensory experience--life as story. I read for those moments where everything is made magical by the way it is told. That kind of achievement is damn hard to manage, but the best books give that payoff, and do so every time you reread them.
Because I'm so interested in character and language, dramatic tension is something I suspect I have not thought enough about. I always assumed that dramatic tension necessarily followed the creation of a fully believable central character. I am not oblivious to the importance of plot, but my own imaginative bent is to focus on the characters. I love how their actions are made understandable by their histories, by their families, where they grew up, what happened to their mama before they were born, or what happened to them when they were fourteen, or 24, or because of the way they fell in love with that son-of-a-bitch who treated them so bad they never trusted love again, or because they met that one person who....Ideas and politics inform story for me; but people are the story.

That may be why I jumped so happily into the first chapter of An Atomic Romance. I have always liked Bobbie Ann Mason's people, and this is her first novel in a decade. And atomic--well, I knew it was one of those anniversaries. Sixty years since Hiroshima, right? That offers all kinds of interesting ideas for her people to confront. In the first chapter, we meet Reed Futrell as he is looking around a campground. He's a good looking, good-old-boy with a motorcycle, a truck, a dog, and a restless nature that carries him off from time to time to sleep under the stars. The landscape is one of billowy clouds and radiant green panoramas. We are inside Reed as he begins to describe squat gray Quonset huts, a shiny lagoon, prefab buildings, a parking lot, scrap heaps, and danger signs that trail warning strips of yellow tape. Right in the middle of Mason's familiar Kentucky landscape of rolling hills and meandering rivers is an atomic energy plant, adjacent to which are rows of metal canisters that "resemble gargantuan Prozac capsules." You just know that in this place, stubborn poverty means that any kind of industry is welcome, even one that looks so scary.
Reed has worked at the plant so long he no longer notices those canisters so close to the woods where he camps and where Boy Scouts hold jamborees. (But of course we, the readers, do.) Reed doesn't want to think too much about his work (even if we do). He thinks about his granddaddy who died of pneumonia after building levees with the Army Corps of Engineers, and his daddy, who died when Reed was only six after an accident at the very same plant where Reed now works. Then he thinks about Julia, a woman he likes a lot, but hasn't seen in six weeks--not since they talked about how dangerous his work at the plant might be, and what poisons he might have in his bloodstream, and the blood tests she wishes he would get. We are going along with him and reading more into his life that he is. Then Reed falls asleep and dreams of a woman who parks her car nearby and plays her radio until the car engine sputters and dies. The dome light goes out. "And the blast of the gun splinters the night calm." Unable to wake himself from this nightmare, Reed dreams himself out of his tent toward the car, where he sees a revolver on the floorboard, and the woman's shattered face. On the dash, she had taped pictures of her children. When Reed finally wakes, he slogs around the site, making sure his vision was just a dream. He comes to a point above the uranium plant and its heap of scrap, where he sees eerie blue flames licking the metal junk with tongues of fire nearly a foot high. Reed has seen those flames before. He knows how dangerous this landscape truly is.
Nice, I told myself. Very nice.

Then Reed started in thinking again, this time about quasars and how Julia won't return his phone calls and the dream and the danger melted away. The tension Mason had built so beautifully went slack. I wiggled in my comfy seat, thought about bills I had to pay, and even found myself wondering if I had made sure our dog had enough water out back--everything that I should not be thinking in the second chapter of a novel. By the time I pushed through to the end of the book, I could see what I had not really anticipated: that character can fail when there is not enough dramatic tension. What is most frustrating is that all the elements in An Atomic Romance should coalesce into a satisfying read. At times, the engine of the novel almost kicks up again. Reed's mother, Margaret Melinda Reed Futrell, is a strong, vibrant character--too in love with her boy, but I forgave her for that, particularly after she had a stroke and became confused and frightened. I even liked Reed better for feeling guilty about moving her into an assisted living center that she hated. Emotional complexity pulled me in, as it always does, so I feared for Margaret, particularly for all the ways she didn't want to become just another old woman dreaming her life away. But liking these people did not make me curious about them, or more important perhaps, specifically fearful or hopeful for them. Reed and Margaret are too easy to look away from, and their interactions too opaque to be fully engaging--painfully awkward exchanges that work neither as humor nor as character development. Short, odd bursts of dialogue recur among all the characters in the novel A novelis's ear is vital, and the evidence of these characters' conversations suggests that the author wasn't letting them loose to talk out loud so she could hear how it sounded, or what followed on those incidental moments of dialogue.
For example, here is Reed: "Talk to me about the good old days, Mom, when toxic waste was what you found in the cat litter pan." And his mother's quick reply: "Ha! Good old days! That's about the biggest fallacy in the kingdom." I expected Margaret to go on, to tell us about other fallacies, or to confront her son about how he has brought up something that has little to do with what is actually taking place between the two of them, both frightened by the stroke she has had. Instead, we are pulled back into Reed's head, where he's thinking about Julia, and then we slip into Margaret's musing abut the other people in the care facility, and neither of them seems to think about the other or what might be coming next. Nothing seems to follow on what any individual character has said. After a while, I began to question the continuity of the novel itself. What was with all this going off to camp or walking about the landscape? Why didn't any of the characters ever talk about what they were most worried about?
Perhaps An Atomic Romance is meant to be a novel, not of people, but of ideas--there certainly enough are enough of them. Mason provides details about the nuclear industry and the history of the atomic bomb, and a whole range of terrifying facts showing just how dangerous it can be to live in or around an atomic dump site, as well as meditations on getting old without ever figuring out what you really want to do with your life. But the information and the notions loom up like boulders in the stream of the action, turning us in one direction or the other, but never propelling us forward. They pop out and startle, and then the book shakes them off and moves on. No, this is not a novel of ideas; it's a novel about people's emotional lives and how far they will go to avoid the very feelings they should engage.
Mason seems to want to address the question of whether people can change the way they behave in their daily lives: whether a man like Reed, who has meandered along in a stream of meaningless sexual conquests and liaisons, can decide by sheer determination to love and commit to one woman. This seems to me a perfectly good question for a novelist to ask. So I wondered as I turned the pages why it was not working for me. Why didn't I care more about whether Reed trusted Julia? Or why he and his mother were not forthright with one another? Reed experiences a series of crisis moments, yet there's no sense of crisis. Everything that happens to him has the same weight and emphasis. Is there a leak at the plant or not? (Probably.) Has he been exposed to poisonous materials? (Again, probably.) Does it matter? (We are not sure, and neither is he.) Finally, Reed takes what for him is a big risk and follows Julia to Chicago to tell her that he loves her. There, Julia tells Reed that she is pregnant with his child.
Now, that should be the climax. I should have been turning pages, worrying about that child and its parents. I should have been wound as tight as the hundreds of pages that preceded that scene could wind me--wondering if Julia had gone to Chicago to have an abortion, or even just what she was wondering: Would her child be born with a disability, the product of all that nuclear nastiness we heard so much about? Is Reed about to turn up with pancreatic cancer? Is his lackadaisical attitude the byproduct of an atomic brain tumor? Or is it just the mindset of a man whose mama has always doted on him and let him get away with way too much disregard of other people's feelings?
Just for a second I worried that I don't give a rat's ass about Reed and Julia because I am a lesbian. If I were heterosexual, would I have found Reed engaging, their romance important? Would I have worried more about how he and Julia would get back together? But the evidence of a lifetime of reading novels is that I can go gender-neutral pretty quickly when you give me a good story. I easily fall in love with boys on the page, and of course with the women they love. And that may be the end point of my struggle: I didn't fall in love with this pair. I didn't come with them to the climax of their relationship. I stood off and watched it all from a distance. In fact, we don't get a climax--we get an ending. Julia and Reed never ask each other what this soon-to-be child means to them. Neither do they seem to be thinking about whether Reed has been poisoned by his job--it doesn't seem to figure in how they look at each other or their future offspring. Mason didn't need that atomic landscape to show us this blighted emotional immaturity. The characters who move through it never relate to its complexity. As a writer, I imagine plot and action building like the image of Jacob's ladder in the King James Bible--a burning lattice that leads all those characters up through the horizon toward some sense of accomplishment or resolution. At its best, the ladder must burn with human concern. At its highest point, I want the fever pitch of transfiguration, some moment of insight that remakes everything that comes before. At the end of An Atomic Romance, Mason gives us the image of Julia's eyelash, with Reed looking at it so closely that he imagines he can see "past the resident microbes and mites on down into the dark, dancing strings that played the cosmic hum, the imaginary music."
Mason is down on the atomic level--and the image of those mites and dancing strings is beautiful. By rights, it should burn. We should burn. We should hear that music, feel Reed and Julia's uncertainty as it resonates back through the landscape and all of atomic history. That it does not, that I found myself putting the book down and wondering about the point of it all, is not due to the impulse we all share to avoid thinking about the scary awful possibilities inherent in nuclear energy plants and atomic bombs. What stalls here is the narrative, not the ideas. What drags this novel down is the slackened pace of a charmed and charming life--one that never takes on any sense of intensity or seriousness. I know Bobbie Ann Mason can do better, because after putting down my copy of An Atomic Romance, I went over to my bookshelf and pulled out In Country and read it again. Maybe Bobbie Ann Mason should have done the same.

Dorothy Allison is the author of the novels Bastard Out of Carolina, Cavedweller, and, She Who, forthcoming from Riverhead in 2006. ©2005 Dorothy Allison

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