Plot as a Technology of Memory

I don’t find plot passé, as a lot of literary types do. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that she thought of the strictures of genre fiction as akin to the sonnet form: and I agree with her. Her idea precisely expresses how I feel about plot. Challenged, provoked, intrigued by the set of logical operators or mathematical transformations it represents. But today I was thinking about how much I like plot as a technology of memory.

Nothing grants the gestalt flash of understanding that you need to understand complex sets of ideas or events as well as a plot does. I was thinking this today because I was reading Pankaj Mishra’s The Ruins of Empire on the bus. It’s a book about the response of Asian intellectuals to European and American colonialism — a pretty damn big subject. Mishra organized it very effectively through three life narratives. The book is performing the gestalt miracle of narrative for me on huge swathes of history and myriad debates I have never properly understood before.

What is plot: The portrayal of events in a meaningful succession? A character in a setting with a problem? The course of a desire obstructed? The art of creating and then satisfying or frustrating desires in a reader through narration? The expression of character in action? The shape the human situation—of birth, life, and death—forces on our experience of time? None of these? All of these? — Whatever else it is, it’s also a profoundly effective mnemonic strategy.

I think it helps me understand complicated things because it is a powerful memory tool. What is the “gestalt of understanding” but seeing something that can only be communicated in a temporally fragmented way—piece by piece, through a line of words—transformed into a simultaneous spatial form that can be contemplated as a whole? Somehow plot does this. The “plot” of a biography in the middle of a complex history, for example, freezes in relation to each other events which otherwise seem slippery and swarming.

Too often the role of plot in writing is presumed to be about hooking a reader, an entertainment tax the writer must pay before they can get on with their more serious business. But it’s more than that, or it can be.

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