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.

Daniyal Mueenuddin and the Drama of Supplication

Nawab the electrician requests his employer, K.K. Harouni, give him a motorcycle. Saleema, a maidservant, looks to Rafik, a valet, for protection from Hassan, a cook. An American university student auditions for the hand of her Pakistani boyfriend before his rich, aristocratic parents. Murad the farmer requests that the party girl Lily set aside her wanton ways and become his faithful wife.

The same dramatic situation can be found somewhere in each of the linked stories in Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Sometimes this dramatic situation is central to the story, sometimes peripheral, but it’s always there, flavoring the collection like a strong spice. Let’s call it the drama of supplication. According to Georges Polti’s odd but interesting theory of the thirty-six dramatic situations, these are the ingredients of the drama of supplication: a persecutor, a victim/suppliant, and an authority to be supplicated, who has the power to deliver the suppliant from their persecutor and whose decision is in doubt.

Because Mueenuddin’s collection paints a portrait of Pakistani society, centering on the retainers and friends of the wealthy Harouni family, he implies that supplication is essential to that society. (A lot of blurbs and reviews speak of “feudalism”—and it’s true that supplication is an especially feudal act.) Supplication is the key, the all-important interaction that determines individual fates. Mueenuddin’s stories suggest that it is a dramatic situation inherent in the social order of the region. I confess I’m more interested in it as a dramatic situation than as a sociological key to Pakistan.

Any given work of literature tends to get me ruminating about one of two things: the limits of language or the existential possibilities of human drama. Before In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, I hadn’t thought very much about supplication.

Some of Mueenuddin’s stories explore how the outcome of supplication can change the power relations of suppliant and authority, reversing the dependency, creating a sense of obligation on the part of the authority.

Mustafa always managed to ask favors in a way that made Jaglani glow, choosing moments when his master felt satisfied, with work or with politics, the moment when the day seemed sweetest.

“That’s fine,” said Jaglani tersely, not wanting to show his pleasure at obliging his driver in this almost personal matter.

Some of the stories explore the instability of the arrangements brought about by supplication, dependent as they are on the whims of authority and its persistence in power.

“Did Uncle say anything about me before… before… [he died]?”

Sarwat broke in. “No,” she replied with finality. “There was and is nothing for you.”

[…]

Now Husna stood. She had reached the bottom, her pride arose, her sense of wanting to be dignified now, to accept the inevitable. For her, dignity and pride and memory would be all and everything from this moment forward.

Virtually all the stories explore the unpredictable outcome of a wish granted. (The fairy tale form in which a wish is granted that leads to the wisher’s downfall probably has its origins in the facts of the drama of supplication, I’ve decided.) Suppose you get what you ask for: it stirs up the envy of your peers, creates new problems all on its own, emboldens you to ask for more and riskier things; above all, it is disappointing. Every supplication feels like an apocalyptic drama that will bring about a final resolution, but there is no resolution, no final supplication:

And what about her epiphany in the hospital room in London, the forgiveness she received, with the snow falling steadily all day? That at least was false, there was no moment of forgiveness, no renewal, just a series of negotiations, none of them final.

This last quotation, with its seeming allusion to James Joyce’s “The Dead” (that much-belabored paramount example of epiphany in the short story), raises the question of how Mueenuddin’s interest in the drama of supplication shapes his stories.

To supplicate is to seek an epiphany, a revelation of where you stand. Most of Mueenuddin’s stories have epiphanic moments, but they also often conclude with Ozymandias-style deflations. If the lightning flash of supplication reveals where you stand, its ultimate instability, the inadequacy of any authority permanently to protect you from loneliness or death, is anti-epiphanic: time washes away any revelation. Most of Mueenuddin’s stories (not all of them) end by showing the erasure of a benefit gained by supplication. What was given is taken away. What was achieved crumbles.

More interesting, to me, is how Mueenuddin begins his stories. Perhaps the most common opening technique for the contemporary short story is the evocative, in media res opening. The minor confusions of the opening action—a succession of vivid images that demand explanation—sustain a reader’s attention far enough into the story that its central problem can take over. By contrast, Mueenuddin’s stories start with what I think of as a swerve. His first lines are usually expository, setting up a character and often narrating their backstory. “Nawabdin, Electrician” sets up Nawabdin’s skill as a tinkerer, shows his supplication of Harouni for a motorcycle and the benefit the motorcycle brings him and his family, and then, bang, the “plot problem” emerges when Nawabdin is held up by a man who wants to steal his motorcycle.

This pattern of openings is characteristic of Mueenuddin’s stories. The events I remember as what a story is “about” only begin to take place about one third of the way into it. That first third (usually, not always) is devoted to the drama of supplication, so that as a reader I found myself naturally identifying a character’s supplication as the story problem, only to have my expectations surprised when the story problem emerged out of the aftermath of the supplication instead.

This in itself suggests to me a comment upon supplication. How often does the suppliant know what they really need, and how often does the epiphany a supplication provides about one’s standing reveal anything truly essential to one’s human situation? Those revelations find us when we are not looking for them. They find us when we are avoiding them.